The Problem of Parody: Why I’m Not Laughing

I’m not usually political. I can take a joke. And this isn’t personal, not really.

But I have a problem with this.

I’m talking about CollegeHumor’s “Adventures of Kim Jong Un” series. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the digital shorts parody dictator Kim Jong Un using the very exaggeration and propaganda that has made North Korea so infamous to the rest of the world.

I get it. It’s CollegeHumor. It’s meant to be funny, but I’m telling you that it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. 

Kim Jong Un isn’t the first dictator to be ridiculed or parodied. Many of you may be familiar with Hipster Hitler, the online comic that, as its namesake suggests, casts Hitler as a modern-day hipster. The webcomic’s Facebook page currently has over 118,000 likes and the creators have even released a book. The website states on every page: “HipsterHitler.com is strictly a parody, satire and humor site, all content herein should be treated as such. […] Everything on this site is intended to spoof, parody and satirize.”

I think it’s worth understanding what the comic is really spoofing, though. It’s making fun of hipsterdom more than it is Hitler or the Holocaust, and that is clear in the comics. The setting is controversial and potentially upsetting, but causing a bit of a scandal has always been humor’s M.O. It’s so obvious, but it’s also worth mentioning that Hitler is dead, and the Holocaust is over.

So what is CollegeHumor spoofing? North Korean propaganda? The nation’s history of glorifying the Kim clan? Its leaders’ human rights violations?

Hilarious, right?

This isn’t just CollegeHumor’s problem (though they do seem particularly obsessed with North Korean humor). This is a global problem. North Korea is not a joke. The situation there is not a joke. The people living and dying there as the world treats torture, exploitation, and oppression as comical tropes—are not a joke.

The stories about North Korea are often so crazy that we can’t take them seriously. They’re too ridiculous, too crazy. But none of this is fantasy. After almost two years of videos and over 12 million views, nothing in North Korea has changed.

In over eight videos, Kim Jong Un never says a word. His minister is a diminutive robot. To most, the North Korean people are no different—mechanical, brainwashed, silent. This needs to change. But first, we need to change. We laugh, but we do not listen. We sneer, but we do not see. We condemn, but we are not compassionate.

The call to action is unclear, I know. What can we do? We cannot invade North Korea tomorrow and depose Kim Jong Un. We can pay attention. We can spread the word. We can be brave enough to get angry and get passionate. We can help the people of North Korea by supporting humanitarian and rescue missions through a number of human rights and non-profit organizations. We need to do more than laugh.

5 thoughts on “The Problem of Parody: Why I’m Not Laughing

  1. We shouldn’t eliminate this kind of humor, but I think we can agree that it’s a missed opportunity to do more for humanitarian efforts. Wouldn’t it be nice if College Humor linked to a specific news article or pointed to a non-profit at the end of the video? That would definitely increase awareness and support humanitarian efforts. It’s okay to laugh about serious topics. Please criticize political humor for its missed opportunities rather than for its unfunniness.

    • I agree that it’s okay to laugh about serious topics, and I do think you’re right about this being a missed opportunity. At the same time, I still have to stand by my opinion that the crisis in North Korea should not be fodder for comedy until it is approached and resolved in a serious way. I think it would have been inappropriate to joke about exterminating people in 1943, and I think it is inappropriate to joke about North Korean abuses now. (This might also be a matter of personal taste when it comes to humor, I dunno — I also find dead baby jokes to be objectively off-color, but that’s just me.)

      I also worry that uninformed people are not getting both sides (the parody and the real situation) when it comes to North Korea. I worry that the humor is diffusing, not attracting, serious attention. Political comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do a great job of balancing these two approaches. That’s not being done here, and that’s what’s most upsetting.

      • Stephen Colbert raises hundreds of thousands of dollars whenever he mentions specific charities, and when President Obama went on Between Two Ferns, he increased traffic to healthcare.gov by a huge amount (I forget what exactly). Political comedy has a great ability to raise awareness and get people active.

  2. I like your post as it has a very clear message. While I agree that the situation in North Korea is about as dreadful as can be, I doubt if making fun of Kim Jong Un can do much harm. In fact, it may even help the cause, as humor and satire are often great ways to raise awareness on certain issues. I run a weekly segment on my website featuring ‘diary entries by Kim Jong Un’…it’s satire and doesn’t directly do anything to change things for the better in North Korea, but some of my readers did point out it had them looking into North Korea more than they would have otherwise. In other words: if humor/satire has any effect at all, I can’t see it doing any harm.
    Hope you don’t me mind disagreeing with you, cause I do appreciate your concern for human rights.

  3. Pingback: Peeling the Onion | The Kiwi Flies

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