From spoofing Hitler to ripping on Kim Jong-un: A pop cultural history of making fun of dictators

Why do dictators make such good subjects for parody? An investigation

Published December 1, 2014 9:15PM (EST)

James Franco and Seth Rogen in "The Interview"            (CTMG, Inc.)
James Franco and Seth Rogen in "The Interview" (CTMG, Inc.)

Dictators have long provided a wealth of material for comedians, as the insular and extreme mentality of a supreme leader makes great fodder for parody (and for drama, too, but that’s for another list). But making fun of dictators can be a particularly fraught endeavor: Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “The Interview” has already come under fire for its portrayal of leader Kim Jong-Un, with Sony currently investigating whether a recent security hack was an act of retaliation from North Korea. We look back on other films that have portrayed dictators, both real and as thinly veiled fictions, in the name of comedy.

"The Great Dictator" (1940)
Perhaps the most famous example of a comedian portraying a dictator, the silent film star's anti-fascist, anti-Nazi tour-de-force stars Chaplin as "Adenoid Hynkel," an obvious parody of Hitler who rules the fictional land of Tomainia (Germany). The film received wide acclaim, with many lauding Chaplin's climactic final speech as one of the most powerful pieces of oratory, real or fictional, ever delivered: “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish." Yet in a 1964 autobiography, Chaplin said he would never have made the film if he had known about the horrors of the Final Solution taking place at the time: "Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made 'The Great Dictator,' I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis."

"Bananas" (1971)
In his slapstick classic “Bananas” Woody Allen plays Fiending Mellish, a neurotic New Yorker who visits the fictional Latin American “Banana Republic” of San Marcos and ends up donning a Fidel Castro-esque beard and becoming the country’s leader (all in order to impress a girl, naturally). The whole film is a biting satire of the U.S. and Castro’s Cuba, but also of the absurdity of the cultural moment in general (Miss America and J. Edgar Hoover are targets), with the opening scene showing real-life sportscaster Howard Cosell on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” giving a play-by-play of San Marcos’ military coup as if it were a boxing announcement.

"The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad" (1988)
The first of Leslie Nielsen’s “Naked Gun” films opens on Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro and Idi Amin (well, outlandish caricature versions of all of them) sitting around a table hatching a terrorist plot, when Police Squad Lt. Frank Drebin (Nielsen) arrives to show them who's boss, throwing a series of roundhouse punches and wiping a birthmark off Gorbachev’s head before leaping out the window with the cry of "don't let me catch you guys in America!” Like the movie itself, watching Drebin kick some world leader butt is utterly ridiculous and entirely delightful.

"Team America" (2004)
Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s irreverent, genre-bendng marionette musical satire takes pot shots at everything from patriotism and Michael Moore to Alec Baldwin and the musical "Cats," but their portrayal of the “ronery” North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il might have been the most memorable (and offensive) part of the film. Noted film buff Kim Jong-Il never commented on the, er, homage, although North Korea did ask the Czech Republic to ban the film.

"Downfall" (2004)
"Downfall," which depicts Hitler’s final days in power in 1945, isn't a comedy. However, the scene in which Hitler goes on a furious rant after realizing the war is lost quickly achieved meme status, spawning thousands of parodies as savvy Internet users laid subtitles over the original German to show Hitler being outraged at everything from Ben Affleck being the new "Batman" to not being able to find Waldo. You can see a playlist of the best "Downfall parodies" on YouTube here.

"Inglourious Basterds" (2009)
Tarantino's raucous, spaghetti western-inspired counter-history about a team of Jewish assassins sent to take down the Nazi leadership is an irreverent piece of cinematic pastiche that lampoons less the horrific events of WW2 themselves than the Hollywood representations of it that followed. Still, not everyone liked the film, with some arguing that it trivializes the Holocaust and World War II -- Jonathan Rosenbaum called it "deeply offensive as well as profoundly stupid … morally akin to Holocaust denial” while other critics were unsure about what message to take away from it. “What’s impossible to know is how Tarantino himself views this story," wrote Michael Wood in the London Review of Books. "Irony is not his thing, but stupidity isn’t either.”

The Dictator (2012)
Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of a zany North African dictator “Supreme leader General Admiral Aladeen" from the fictional republic of “Wadiya” got mixed reviews — while some hailed Cohen’s provocative, gonzo comedy, others found it not funny enough to negate the outright offensiveness of the Arab stereotypes presented, with comic Dean Obeidallah going one step further to label it a "a modern-day minstrel show."

By Anna Silman

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Dictators Movies North Korea Parodies Team America The Dictator The Great Dictator The Interview Video