Chris Christie, ‘The Interview,’ and the Difference Between Political Satire and Savvy PR


Last week, disgraced New Jersey governor Chris Christie set out on one of politics’ most time-honored and reliable paths to redemption: poking fun at himself. He made an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, pulling out his best “dad dance” moves and generally portraying himself as a lovable goof. “Look,” his performance seemed to say, “I’m a bit dorky, a bit cuddly, a bit funny — now can we forget that I’m responsible for the most jaw-droppingly petty and childish political self-destructions of our time?” I doubt it’ll succeed in redeeming him, but the whole spectacle is a reminder of how humor can be a double-edged sword when it comes to politics.

As I’ve observed here before, plenty of the world’s most unpleasant politicians love nothing more than to portray themselves as lovable eccentrics. Clearly, for all his failings, Christie isn’t in the same class as the Vladimir Putins and Muammar Gaddafis of this world, but the point remains the same: these are deeply corrupt politicians who attempt to sell the public on the image of themselves as consummate individuals, as men who aren’t afraid to be themselves, who aren’t really so different from the man on the street except for, y’know, their greatness at leading the glorious nation of [insert country here].

It’s an act, clearly, and one that’s as old as politics itself. The most recent and egregious example of it comes from my home country, where recently elected Prime Minister and certified lizard person Tony Abbott was only too happy to let the media latch on to his daughter’s description of him as a “daggy dad” — better a lovably out-of-touch father figure than a possibly sociopathic right-wing lunatic, eh?

And equally, one of the most effective methods of redemption for any sort of disgraced public figure is to poke fun at themselves. Bill Clinton did it circa Lewinskygate, Anthony Weiner did it (or tried to, anyway). Even Rob Ford’s been doing it, albeit unintentionally. It works. Again, it’s a matter of convincing the public that hey, you’re just like them — and who hasn’t done something stupid that they’ve regretted now and again? Let’s all just have a chuckle about it and then quickly forget it!

Of course, there’s redemptive power in laughing at people like Tony Abbott and Chris Christie. Political satire has been a potent weapon against the pompous and the powerful for millennia, one that can puncture their sense of self-importance and short-circuit their spin campaigns. At its best, satire can provide a defining image — think of Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s memorable depictions of Tony Blair as a bug-eyed zealot, or Tina Fey’s note-perfect dissection of Sarah Palin. And, just as potently, it can provide a defining narrative.

What to make of this, then? On both sides of the political fence, you have people who don’t want you to take politicians especially seriously. But politics is a serious business — sure, faceless men you never get to vote for largely run the show anyway, but as far as effecting actual political change goes, an election is still our most powerful weapon short of tearing up flagstones and taking to the streets. The public gets nothing out of treating it as a big joke, no matter how much it may resemble one.

The answer, I think, is this: satire requires an informed audience. If a politician wants you to stop taking him seriously, it’s because he’s trying to disguise his true nature. If a satirist wants you to stop taking a politician seriously, it’s because the satirist is trying to get beneath this disguise. You only understand the latter if you understand the former. This is obvious, perhaps, but it’s worth remembering when you evaluate the effectiveness of any piece of satirical art. As Doonesbury author Gary Trudeau says, “Our reward for enduring the foolishness and hypocrisy and meanness and cruelty of everyday life is that there are endless opportunities to see it mocked.” Indeed — so long as we don’t lose sight of the foolishness and hypocrisy and cruelty in the process.

Which brings me to the other thing that’s made me think about politics and humor of late: Seth Rogen and James Franco taking on Kim Jong-Un. Clearly, I haven’t seen The Interview, because no one has. My fear for it, though, is that it’ll place one of the world’s most truly awful dictators into the same frame as Kanye West and every other recipient of the Rogen/Franco treatment: a kinda funny guy who provides a backdrop to a bunch of vaguely homoerotic banter and goofy antics. This, I submit, would be totally fine with Kim Jong-Un (or, at least, it would be if he were smart enough to realize the benefits of it, which remains very much open to question).

What the dictator in question actually thinks is kinda beside the point, though. Whether or not he’d want to impale Franco and Rogen if he saw the film, this is satire that works for Kim Jong-Un. See him as a goofy figure of fun, and you might forget that there are prisoners in his gulags who will never be released, who will starve to death if they’re lucky, who may just as easily be beaten to death or buried alive or tortured in all sorts of ghastly ways. That he presides over a country so dysfunctional that the very idea of family love and loyalty is gone, where children denounce parents and siblings, and do so without any understanding that things could and should be different. That women are raped and their children forcibly aborted. That over the life of the Kim dynasty, some 400,000 people have died in conditions that are genuinely unimaginable to you and me.

If you can find some sort of comedy in all this, you’ve got a better sense of humor than me. Sure, Kim is a ridiculous figure in the most literal sense of the world, a man as worthy of ridicule as his father and grandfather, a tinpot dictator ruling over a country and a society that is slowly disintegrating, a man who’s best friends with Dennis Rodman and is building a private ski resort as his people starve to death. So sure, laugh at Kim Jong-Un. But make sure you know what you’re laughing at: not Seth Rogen and James Franco’s latest slapstick sidekick, but a tyrant, a despot, the spoiled scion of the world’s last and most vicious Stalinist regime. Laugh at the devil and he will run from thee, perhaps. Just don’t forget that he’s the devil.