The pop culture legacy of Kim Jong Il

Few will miss the North Korean despot -- except perhaps writers on "30 Rock," "The Daily Show" and "Team America VIDEO

Topics: South Park, Kim Jong-il, The Daily Show, 30 Rock,

The pop culture legacy of Kim Jong IlKim Jong Il in "Team America"

Kim Jong Il was one of the most chilling figures of the modern era, with a harrowing human rights record. But of the tyrannical madmen who have died this year, he was also the one who made the oddest pop culture splash. Moammar Gadhafi’s ability to rock a golden muumuu will never be paralleled. But from “30 Rock” to “The Daily Show,” the departed North Korean leader will be missed. Was it those rock star shades? His fondness for olive green? The way he really knew how to throw a tank-rolling, goose-stepping military parade? In a word, yes.

Sure, Saddam Hussein got to play a role in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 1999 opus “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” But it was Mr. Jong Il who really stole the show in Parker and Stone’s subsequent puppet masterpiece “Team America: World Police.” Kim’s not just a homicidal maniac in a big house — he’s a guy who really, really loves to put on a big show. He’s also a man who can’t quite pronounce “inevitable,” who struggles with the isolation of success, and who, it turns out, is actually a bug from outer space. Now that’s a villain!


What makes the puppet Kim Jong Il such a classic comedic character is that he’s not all that far from the Western perception of the real guy. This, after all, was a man who loved the movies so much he wrote a book on “The Art of Cinema.” He loved them so much he owned thousands of DVDs – “Rambo” and Elizabeth Taylor were allegedly among his faves. He loved them so much that early in his career, he had South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress ex-wife Choi Eun-hee kidnapped to forge the North Korean film industry. The results included the somewhat less subtle than “Triumph of the Will”-rampaging monster masterpiece “Pulgasari.”



Jong Il not only forcibly created entertainment, he inspired it. He became part of a pivotal plotline on “30 Rock” last season, when Jack Donaghy’s wife, Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks), wound up abducted by the internationally fearsome “convenience store owner.” It was a crazy sitcom twist – based on the very real imprisonment (and subsequent release) of Current TV’s Euna Lee and Laura Ling in 2009.

Even as he retreated from the spotlight throughout his later years, Kim Jong Il became all the more dominant a force on the Internet. Is there a more elegantly straightforward, satisfyingly amusing Tumblr than Kim Jong-il Looking at Things? There is not. Have you ever seen photos of Stalin smiling merrily at great wheels of cheese? I rest my case.

He was a complicated man. A man who apparently had a penchant for water slides and could golf a 38-under-par round. Would you tell him he couldn’t take that mulligan? What can you say of a person who has been played by both Margaret Cho and Gilbert Gottfried? A man who’s provided more material for “The Daily Show” than anyone not named Jim Cramer? A guy like that doesn’t come along in too many lifetimes. Now that the leader is dead, his legacy on the evening news will no doubt be harrowing. But as Elizabeth Banks tweeted Monday, we are indeed at a pivotal moment in history” — one that leaves joke writers and Tumblr bloggers just a little “sad and ronery.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>