Why Hollywood comedies have no bite

Matthew Alford on film satire

Of all entertainment genres, perhaps comedy has the greatest potential for subversion. There are widespread assumptions that comics have ‘the right to offend’, that the stage is a zone for exercising the freedom of speech and that all forms of authority are up for ridicule.

One of the greatest influences on the modern scene, Bill Hicks, graduated from stand-up to shaman with the epitaph ‘[Noam] Chomsky with dick jokes’, in a reference to the Western world’s most celebrated dissident scholar.

In cinema, low budget British films like Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop and Chris Morris’s Four Lions undermine the simplistic characterisations preferred by governments at war with absurdist visions of world-shaping political forces.

Alas, Hollywood itself is very different. Here, far from being a part of a free-thinking tradition, films are blunt satirical tools. Several have been made with extensive production assistance from the Department of Defense, which routinely requests script changes to enhance its image in exchange for men, equipment and expertise.

This is why, when Arnold Schwarzenegger attaches an Islamist terrorist to a jet fighter and blasts him through a building in True Lies, the hilarious on-screen homicide is courtesy of the Pentagon. It is also why the 1994 Pauly Shore film In The Army Now was made, complete with its retarded black soldier and chemical weapons-crazed Libyans. It is even why a joke about the US ‘losing Vietnam’ was excised from the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

The Pentagon also gives full cooperation to the ongoing Iron Man comic franchise because, in their words, it makes the Air Force look ‘like rock stars’. Iron Man rests on the curious conceit that Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark, has changed his carefree attitude to arms manufacture. This ignores the blatant fact that the ‘anti-weapons activist’ Stark actually continues to build weapons, only they are now more hi-tech and produced covertly as part of his own attack-armour. Beyond a desire to avoid killing his own countrymen any more, Stark’s road to Damascus has been short indeed as he continues to blast away Afghan and other Third World villains with impunity. No wonder the 2010 sequel included pointed references to US enemies Iran and North Korea.

In the case of the comedy drama Charlie Wilson’s War, which noblised US efforts to arm the forerunners to Al Qaeda in Eighties Afghanistan, an earlier draft of Aaron Sorkin’s script suggests he had more radical intentions. However, the film itself removed any mention of Al Qaeda, Israel or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the man who, in reality, received the lion’s share of US/Pakistani aid and was subsequently ‘specially designated’ by the US as a ‘global terrorist’ intimately allied with Osama Bin Laden.

The original Strangelovian screenplay also ended with Congressman Charlie Wilson hearing a ‘teeth-jarring explosion’ at the Pentagon on 9/11, a chilling scene in which the link is firmly established between US policy and its consequences. The on-set CIA adviser admitted he had ensured this connection was eradicated.

Adam Sandler’s comedy You Don’t Mess With The Zohan presented a pretty warped vision of the chronic Israeli-Palestinian dispute, even while its makers desperately tried to assure audiences that the film was not ‘mean-spirited’. At one point, Palestinian children throw rocks at Zohan, explicitly echoing the famous images of the intifada that demonstrated the seemingly futile responses of a community to occupation.

In response, Zohan catches the rocks, turns them into the equivalent of a balloon animal and throws it back to the delighted children. An earlier version of the script had an Israeli enthusing about Zohan making a terrorist ‘eat his own shit’. Elsewhere in the final cut, Zohan kicks a sword-wielding Arab off a balcony, who protests ‘we settled here for hundreds of years!’ Zohan gets the last word, shouting with sarcastic venom over the corpse, ’Good point. None of my ancestors ever stepped foot in this land. No, you’re right’.

Michael MacIntyre may be a bit bland but you’ve got to admit at least he’s not using flabby comic asides to promote a Greater Israel.

These are just a few examples but the same basic assumption informs almost every major Hollywood production across all genres: the US is a harmless entity, if not a saintly one.

The reasons behind Hollywood’s declawing are many and varied. The industry is heavily centralised – one analyst observes that its ultimate owners could fit into a generous phone booth – and awash with commercial deals, making barren ground for dissenting views.

Four decades on from the demise of overt censorship through the Production Code, the government retains important but less formal means by which it controls the industry. More broadly, as the hub of entertainment culture, Los Angeles is not exactly renowned for its day-to-day decency. As such, the world’s dominant cinema’s sense of humour remains in step with the regiments of the state.

  • Matthew Alford, once half of the double-act Bullett & Gunn is the author of Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema And American Supremacy, to be published by Pluto Press now and available here.

Published: 3 Aug 2010

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