In the early 1940s, Americans were not sure they should join the war in Europe. Some wanted to intervene, but not many people knew about the Nazis and the atrocities that were being committed. They knew they stopped getting letters from loved ones, and they knew that many Jewish families were fleeing persecution.
But a little movie called Casablanca changed that.
The film, which hit the silver screen on Nov. 26, 1942, was released right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We were already fighting on one front and the sentiment was low for the war in Europe. But Casablanca changed the public perception of the fight.
"The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized."
Casablanca was key to these efforts. And it worked. Tides changed, perception shifted, and Americans chipped in to defeat the Nazis and Japanese on both fronts. Casablanca won several Academy Awards. It's one of the greatest films of all time, both dramatic and heartbreaking.
But it is also an extremely effective piece of propaganda cinema.
The question is...
Can a Comedy Topple a Political Regime?
When people think of comedy, it's dismissed for a lack of seriousness. As a class clown, I know what it's like to be relegated to being ignored. But I came to Hollywood to use that skill to talk to people, to convince them of what I had to say and to challenge hearts and minds.
I work primarily in comedy because I think it can change the world.
We know laughter is the best medicine, and we know that cinema is an empathy machine. If you want to change hearts and minds you don't need to be one of the best-written dramas ever.... you just need to make people laugh.
We've seen dramas help make a push for various causes, but I've found the best way to convince people to join your side of an issue is to get them laughing. In history, comedy has been able to help. Movies like The Great Dictator stood aside Casablanca.
You want to topple Hitler? Make fun of that son of a bitch.
The Great Dictator was one of the first in a long line of comedies that took on political regimes and social norms to change the world. The movie came out two years before Casablanca, and as critic Michael Woodnotes, the movie premiered that December, in London, amid German air raids.
Why was Charlie Chaplin dead set on attacking Hitler? At the time, Germany wasn't America's direct enemy. But Chaplin saw the writing on the wall. The 1934 Nazi volume The Jews Are Looking At You referred to Chaplin as "a disgusting Jewish acrobat."
Chaplin wasn’t Jewish, but he was frequently rumored to be. He didn't take the Nazis' words lightly. In 1931, Chaplin visited Berlin, and he was mobbed by German fans. This made government officials worried their hatred of Jewish people wouldn't translate to the people if they loved Chaplin.
As Vanity Fair reported in 2019, "The Great Dictator is a classic for a reason. It's startling in its depictions of violence, which stand out less for their outright brutality than for how memorably they depict the Nazis’ betrayal of everyday humanity."
They go on to laud Chaplin's takedown of the worst person who ever lived, saying, "The Great Dictator understands Hitler as a performer, as an orator wielding language like the unifying, galvanizing power that it is. But it also understands him as a psyche. This of course means it’s full of what feel like sophomoric jokes, gags in which Hitler’s insecurities, his thirst for influence, his ideological inconsistencies (an Aryan revolution led by a brunette?) and zealous dependency on loyalty come under fire. It isn’t a psychological portrait, but nor is it so simple as a funhouse treatment of the coming war, all punchline and distortion."
While this movie didn't win the war, it won support all over the world by making people laugh. It was a light in the darkness and helped pushed global resistance to Hitler and the Nazis.
Still, a movie like The Great Dictator also poses a problem. It was made in a vacuum. We had no idea in 1940 what level of atrocity and death WWII would bring us. The movie lampoons Hitler and the Nazi regime without ever understanding what it was, and where it would go.
It was important to get people talking, but when it comes to talking about the right thing... that would take decades.
It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Really, the comedy that got Hitler right was The Producers.
As Vanity Fair reported in 2004, "When it opened, in 1968, the movie got mixed notices, with such words as 'vile' and 'tasteless' cropping up in the prominent reviews. For one thing, it was considered unthinkable to satirize Hitler only 23 years after the end of World War II."
Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and said when it was released, "The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience's sense of propriety. There is such rapacity in its heroes, such gleeful fraud, such greed, such lust, such a willingness to compromise every principle, that we cave in and go along."
He continued, "How did Mel Brooks, the writer and director, get away with this? By establishing the amoral desperation of both key characters at the outset, and by casting them with actors you couldn't help liking, even so. Like Falstaff, Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock is a man whose hungers are so vast they excuse his appetites. There is a scene where he scrubs his filthy office window with coffee, peers through the murk, sees a white Rolls-Royce, and screams, 'That's it, baby! When you've got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!' You can taste his envy and greed. 'See this?' he says to Bloom, holding up an empty setting. 'This used to hold a pearl as big as your eye. Look at me now! I'm wearing a cardboard belt!' It is typical of this movie that after he says the line, he takes off the belt and rips it to shreds."
But what about other landmark comedies that stood for something?
Well, how about another Mel Brooks masterpiece, Blazing Saddles?
As reported by NPR while speaking with Arizona State Film Professor Michael Green, "Brooks has never been known for his subtlety, and Blazing Saddles is no exception. Gone are the earnest, long-winded speeches about racial harmony that characterized movies like The Defiant Ones; instead, the film, co-written by Richard Pryor, tackles race and racism head-on and with humor. (It's so un-PC that Brooks told Jimmy Kimmel in 2012 he wouldn't be able to make the film today.) No ethnic or racial stereotype goes unmentioned: Mexican bandidos, Chinese laborers in straw cone hats, Arabs of ambiguous origin riding on camels, and yes, a Jewish Native American, all make cameos in Brooks' bizarro world, but they're not the butt of the joke. Blazing Saddles is a satire of racism," Green says. "That's what makes it groundbreaking. [Brooks] satirizes racism; he shows how stupid it is."
Did Blazing Saddles end racism? No. But it got people talking about how stupid it was. And that can change viewpoints. It can pressure a presidency to pass civil rights laws.
And while we're dealing with the counterculture, we should talk about MASH.
War Can Be Funny, Too.
While not being directly about Vietnam, it was about Vietnam. It was so successful as a movie that it became one of the most successful shows of all time. This perennial favorite aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983, an impressive 11-season run with an equally impressive 253 episodes.
MASH, as a film, was a relative success, nominated for five Academy Awards and winning for Best Adapted Screenplay. In an article from Penn State University by Mary Kate Rivera, the writer talks about how MASH dealt with Vietnam and how it influenced the American viewpoint of war in general:
"As the Vietnam War [ended], M*A*S*H continued to struggle with ideas of wartime problems and the aftermath of the casualties of war. A theme throughout the show was that the surgeons, Hawkeye, Trapper, and later BJ, were 'drafted' (an occurrence known all too well in Vietnam) and they did not voluntarily come to war; therefore, there was a constant discord between Hawkeye’s beliefs, the 'regular Army' way, and questions of human nature. The show’s characters further explored what kind of people willingly went to war, who was unwillingly sent, and how it changed their characters. One of the most beloved characters was Radar O’Reilly, a childish young man from Iowa who carried around a stuffed bear for 9 years."
So Where Do We Land Today?
What is comedy doing right now?
Well, I think The Interview is maybe one of the best current examples. Kim Jong Un could be called a modern-day Hitler, reviled by the world. When Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and James Franco set out to make a comedy movie about assassinating him, everyone laughed.
But that was before North Korean hackers took down Sony and released a lot of controversial emails that led to firings, people resigning, and tumult.
As CNN reported at the time, "North Korea issued a statement on its official state news agency on Saturday denouncing Sony Pictures Entertainment's release of the movie The Interview. It called President Barack Obama the 'chief culprit' who forced the production company to 'indiscriminately distribute' the picture."
Still, the movie was picked up by Netflix and became a sort of cult phenomenon. It was a hit that garnered millions of views when it dropped, and now lives on in infamy. Also, I love the quote "they hate us cause they ain't us" and say it all the time.
The Interview didn't topple the right regime. It tore Sony apart and changed the landscape of Hollywood for a while. It also was the first major studio dump that Netflix acquired, a harbinger of what was to come.
Now for Current Events...
Yesterday, news broke that Rudy Giuliani was in the new Borat film, and the Internet exploded.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the brainchild of Sacha Baron Cohen. It's officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
The movie is classified as an American mockumentary comedy film written by and starring Baron Cohen as Kazakhstani television personality Borat Sagdiyev, who was introduced in F2F, and Da Ali G Show.
But aside from the laughs, this was a movie made to change America. It wants people to take a long, hard look at themselves, and it's using subversive comedy to do it.
As critic Matt Zoller Seitz says in his review, "This new installment in the misadventures of Cohen's ignorant yet fearless Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev is filled with risqué (and just plain risky) jokes. Some land. Others explode in the film's own face like a baggy-pants comedian's prop cigar. That's all true to the spirit of Borat, for better and worse. Even gags that leave a troubling afterimage fit the star's wise-ass, id-monster persona. You can't open a comedic Pandora's box and expect the results to be orderly and reassuring."
If you've seen the first Borat, then you know his antics are all about catching people off guard in compromising position where they reveal more of themselves than can be expected.
With the Giuliani clip that's floating around the internet, it seems like he's trying to go to bed with an underage girl, although he claims he was just tucking his shirt in, while lying down, and his hand was not on his genitals.
Seitz's takeaway was this:
"The highlight, or low-light, of the movie finds former New York mayor turned Trump advisor Rudy Guiliani participating in a TV interview in a hotel suite with a woman who represents herself as being 15 years old. Guiliani—whose mouth is ringed by pink-and-purple discolorations that suggest either a makeup disaster or the recent removal of an oxygen mask—fails to practice social distancing; coughs on camera; touches the interviewer's hand and creepily flirts with her after learning she's interested in older men; then follows her into an adjoining bedroom with the singleminded eagerness of a dog expecting a biscuit. The Zapruder deconstruction of what follows will vary, probably along partisan lines. What's beyond dispute is that Giuliani's behavior is the maraschino cherry atop the movie's slime cake of male entitlement. His leer could be the film's logo."
So what is the ultimate aim of Borat? Can a movie like this influence an election, as well as hearts and minds? Americans won't know until Nov. 3, and given the current political climate, we may not even know then.
One thing the Borat sequel has that other films on this list don't, outside of maybe The Great Dictator, is a sense of urgency.
In a review for the BBC, Nicholas Barber writes, "Whereas that one will stand as an evergreen comedy, this one might be as ephemeral as a newspaper’s editorial cartoon or an episode of Spitting Image. But it’s the ripped-from-the-headlines relevance that makes it so fascinating, and it’s the boiling rage at current politics that makes it so bracing. There aren’t many films as urgently satirical as this one. You might not want to re-watch it in a few years’ time, but you should definitely watch it now."
One thing streaming has done to change the climate is that we can release these ideas directly to consumers to show them our points of view. The marketing here is a double-edged sword. Not only do you get to use current headlines in your pursuit, but you also have to withstand immediate scrutiny, like we are seeing with Giuliani.
I think, like any film or piece of art with a purpose, comedy has the opportunity to change the world if the right people see it. Borat 2 is an exploration of that accessibility, and we will definitely have the gift of hindsight to see if hearts and minds were changed by the story presented.
Movies are not made without agenda unless they're posed as documentaries. And even then, a point of view is usually taken.
In an interview with The New York Times, Baron Cohen said he pushed for the movie to come out before Election Day because "we wanted it to be a reminder to women of who they’re voting for—or who they’re not voting for. If you’re a woman and you don’t vote against this guy, then know what you’re doing for your gender."
The Main Point
So where can comedy take us? The answer is pretty much anywhere.
There is no one set genre for creating a revolution. But I think comedy often gets overlooked for its power to change people's perceptions. Whether it's encouraging us to join a war, leave one, grant equal rights, or assess what makes us who we are, comedy carries the introspection other genres only dream of achieving.
Knowing what makes people laugh is akin to knowing what makes people care.
Caring is the first step in changing.
When you're creating something, it's because you have something to say. It does not matter the genre or if there are laughs, it matters that you believe what's going on-screen. Because if you believe it, and others believe it, you can start a movement.
Movements gather power.
And power can topple regimes.
Let us know the powerful movies that have influenced you throughout the years in the comments.