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There's Nothing Funny About Comedy's Censorship

by on December 22, 2014 6:15 AM

Oh, how times have changed.

In the 1940s, Columbia Pictures released two short films by the infamous Three Stooges, one called "You Natzy Spy" and one entitled "I'll Never Heil Again."

In both, lead Stooge Moe depicted a dictator with a very distinctive black mustache. The other Stooges, Larry and Curly, played assistants to the dictator and their characters had names that were clearly satirical references to Adolf Hitler's top advisors.

The short films, which pre-dated Charlie Chaplin's "The Dictator" were somewhat controversial because of early censorship regulations set up by an industry still in its infancy. Audiences laughed at the typical slapstick humor of the 1940s with a political bent.

In 2014, Sony Pictures makes a silly film featuring comedian Seth Rogen as a journalist sent into North Korea to kill dictator Kim Jong Un. Rogen is a Canadian actor who has starred in films such as Knocked Up, Forty Year Old Virgin and Superbad and in TV in shows like Freaks and Geeks.

In response to this political satire, Sony computers are hacked, private emails and other information about the Sony team executive team is illegally accessed, and there are terroristic threats of harm to people who plan to attend the movie premieres. As a result, distributors pull the movie from theatres.

Assuming that this is all not a ruse, it appears that someone in North Korea didn't see the humor that we saw with Moe and Larry and Curly.

Does anyone else see the problem with letting a communist dictator censor what we do and say in these United States?

The globalization of our interactions and communication may have some downsides.

In 1941, when Columbia released "I'll Never Heil Again" it probably took a while for the news to reach Berlin that American actors and movie goers were thumbing their nose at the lunatic mastermind behind what we have come to know as the Holocaust. By that time, the "damage" had already been done. (Ironically, at the time there was a small group of U.S. Senators who believed the short films were being used to enflame support for the war).

In 2014, a comedy about the actions of journalists in search of a dictator whom the United Nations has accused of human rights violations and atrocities, said to parallel if not exceed the Nazi regime, probably took a just couple of clicks of the mouse and a little computer savvy to first find information about the movie and then to hack into the production company's system. Before it is even released, the movie becomes an international crisis.

It's un-American. Satire and turning political issues into comedy is what we do.

Think Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart, the late night talk show hosts and other comedic outlets. Like the jesters of old, we open the window of tolerance in comedy and humor as an expression of free speech and to point out the ridiculous things that we as humans do and say, even if it's not always in good taste. To quote Oscar Wilde, "I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself."

Humor is a way that we process what happens to us and as a coping mechanism for things that we believe are wrong or that don't make sense.

In this writer's opinion, censorship of any kind is dangerous in this time of social unrest and with a growing lack of trust in our government. As much as we sometimes turn up our noses at the opinions or comedic interpretation of our political or religious opponents, we understand and embrace their right to say it.

Allowing other countries and their dictators to silence the voices of Americans (and Canadian actors) is incomprehensible.

What will be next?

It wasn't all that long ago that humor and comedy as a form of political expression and as a coping mechanism was the focus of a dictator. In Nazi Germany, jokes against the Nazi regime were illegal and those who told the jokes were at risk of being identified as anti-government and the crime of humor was punishable by death. It seems the Nazis understood the impact that comedy could have on creating unrest by pointing out the injustices and wrongs in the deliberate extermination of six million people. I'm guessing there are similar guidelines to how far a comedian can go in Syria or Iraq or in Putin-era Russia.

As Americans are we going to let that happen here? More important, are we going to let someone else dictate what we as Americans can and cannot do on our soil?

The release of the Three Stooges Nazi humor short films pre-dated Charlie Chaplin's The Dictator and pushed the early limits on regulations for what was acceptable for American movie audiences. Since that time, our culture has evolved to television, cable, the internet, social media and YouTube. What we find is acceptable has evolved as well. Still, our "jesters" on Late Night or in the movies use humor to point out how silly – or dangerous – we as humans can be.

My movie preferences don't usually include films in which people – even a fascist dictator – are killed on screen (unless it is a historical perspective of some kind). On the other hand, as a writer who understands the dangers of censorship, I may now pay the $12 to see The Interview just because someone tried to tell me I couldn't.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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