What Scares North Korea Most About 'The Interview'? That It's a Comedy

Pyongyang is not alone. From China to Lebanon, and even Israel too, states fear humor's ability to undermine their power. Censorship then becomes their savior.

"Highbrow or lowbrow, you don't mess with free speech in Hollywood." That's the message behind the outcry over Sony's decision to shelve "The Interview", a satire about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, over threats from hackers. Had the studio pulled a hard-hitting documentary about North Korean labor camps, people would have been up in arms about the affront to the first amendment. But reverberations over such an act would have been much smaller, much more niche. The fact that this film is comic and make-believe is what really caused the issue to catch fire.

For North Korea, who the United States accuses of being behind the threats, comedy is the real enemy. It is not alone. States greatly fear humor, as it pokes fun at their modes of intimidation and in doing so undermines them. China is apparently so concerned with wordplay that it recently banned puns; an ambitious – no doubt impractical – endeavor, but it is alleged that they want to stamp out the growing popularity of a play-on-words that connects Chinese president Xi Jinping to marijuana.

Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin perfectly understood the ability of humor to fight censorship. When the Israeli Film and Censorship Board banned his 1982 play "The Patriot" for damaging Israeli values and Judaism, he penned the short story "Diary of a Censor," which showed a protagonist gradually unpicking Shakespeare’s "Othello" to cut its unsavory themes of sex, jealously and infidelity. In the short story, Levin re-imagines Othello as a "white kosher Jew, converted by the book and with no evil urge."

Twenty-two years on, and 15 years after Levin's death, Index on Censorship magazine has just published the story's first English translation. Sadly, rather than offering a glimpse into days gone by, the theme of this story remains topical and vitally relevant today. Artists around the world continue to have their works banned; they continue to tiptoe, or dance mischievously, around the censors’ absurd demands; and they continue – in extreme cases – to face prison sentences for their artistic expression.

Take the parallels between Levin and contemporary Lebanese playwright Lucien Bourjeily. This time last year, Index on Censorship published the first English-language extract of Bourjeily’s play, "Will It Pass Or Not?" which imagines a farcical encounter between a writer and the national censorship board. In one of the play's most ludicrous moments, a sergeant insists that the writer rework a scene in which characters flee Lebanon to India, and have them take a simple holiday there instead. “Tourists are great, so the whole thing is much nicer than that stuff with the cleric and the corruption and the bribes," the sergeant tells the writer.

Yet Bourjeily’s scenario turned out to be too close to home for Lebanon's actual censorship board. Missing the irony, they banned the play. This sanction was only overturned months later, after much campaigning, and after Bourjeily’s passport was briefly confiscated.

There are many more examples around the world of playful subversion being put under threat: Megumi Igarashi, the Japanese artist who made a kayak modelled on her vagina (arrested); the political artist South Korea, Lee Ha, who draws unflattering pictures of authority figures (repeatedly charged by police); Musa Kart, a Turkish cartoonist who spent 2014 battling against a possible nine-year jail sentence for tongue-in-cheek portraits of the president (after accusations of insult and slander).

North Koreans have, of course, no chance of taking on their leader through comedy.

Earlier this year, a North Korea defector, Kim Young-Il, visited the Index on Censorship office to share stories of what is really going on inside the isolated state. He told of the dangers of listening to pop music; that simply selling foreign DVDs can earn the death penalty.

Is it appropriate to make jokes about such horrors? “Bad taste or not, let audiences decide, not the bullies” is what Hollywood is saying, loudly and clearly. Despotic regimes and image-conscious censorship boards take on comedy because it threatens their illusions of perfection. Comedians take on – and unravel – ideas of perfection because perfection often isn’t truthful or entertaining, and can swing dangerously toward hagiography. Subversive artists – however daft, however inappropriate – are what keep news, truth and freedom in check.

Vicky Baker is deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine. The winter issue – featuring Hanoch Levin’s Diary of a Censor, and other works is out now.