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.”

You Might Also Like

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 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • 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>