A Comedy of Terror

Can satire bring down ISIS?

Taran-Killam-ISIS-skit-SNLLast weekend Saturday Night Live presented a skit that mocked terrorists – no, not Tea Partiers, the usual butt of Hollywood’s jokes and DHS surveillance, but ISIS itself. The bit got mixed reactions – some found it in offensively bad taste, some appreciated the dark humor. This raises a serious question about comedy: is it ever acceptable to joke about terrorism?

In the sketch, the comedy show spoofed a sentimental Toyota commercial in which a father drops his daughter off at the airport to join the U.S. Army. In SNL’s version, however, the daughter is joining up with a band of, shall we say, less noble fighters.

“You be careful, okay?” says the dad to his teen daughter, just before she climbs aboard a pickup loaded with ISIS militants bearing their black flag and weapons. “Take care of her,” the tearful father tells one of the bearded terrorists. “Death to America,” he replies, and the pickup races off with terrorist guns blazing and tongues ululating. A voiceover concludes: “ISIS. We’ll take it from here, Dad.”

Many viewers expressed their dismay and outrage on social media. What was SNL thinking? How can anyone find a sketch about ISIS funny, particularly when there actually are instances of young Western women traveling to Iraq and Syria to join the bloodthirsty organization?

Terrorism is probably the gravest and most horrific of topics one could choose in which to look for laughs; there’s not an iota of humor to be found in the ruins of the World Trade Center, or the massacres in Mumbai or London or Madrid or Ft. Hood or Beslan or Kenya or Tel Aviv or Paris or anyplace else where murderous Muslim fundamentalists have struck. There is nothing amusing about the reality of ISIS barbarians enslaving women captives, burying children alive, beheading Christians… the list of horrors goes on.

On the other hand, one of our most potent cultural weapons against such fundamentalists (as well as the radical left) is humor – not by playing atrocities for laughs, but by attacking evil in the form of satire and ridicule. Totalitarians cannot bear being mocked; it discredits and emasculates them. Writers through the ages have successfully employed satire and farce to enable their otherwise helpless audiences to confront the ugly realities of power, politics, and war. Handled correctly, comedy can open up an accessible, empowering perspective on this grimmest of contemporary topics.

The problem lies in finding the target’s most vulnerable spot and striking with just the right balance of wit and incisive social commentary. As the saying goes, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” And comedy about terrorism is an even trickier endeavor.

It's been tried before. In 2004 a pair of screenwriters collaborated on a sitcom pilot called The Cell, about a sleeper cell of inept Muslim terrorists sent to America to blend in with the culture and ultimately blow up a power plant. The comic twist is, the jihadists are unable to resist the lure of American capitalist abundance and pop culture – Domino’s pizzas, big-screen TVs, talk shows and bowling leagues – and they have to conceal their unwillingness to carry out violent jihad from a ruthless superior who shows up to check on their progress.

The execution of the script was less inspired than the concept, but it was a good start at ridiculing the ideology behind the terrorism. The screenwriting team wrote it for themselves with absolutely no expectation that any studio would run with it – and indeed, though it was an underground hit with executives throughout Hollywood, none would touch it.

A less successful, but nonetheless produced example: a few years ago a British comedy film Four Lions portrayed a young Muslim Londoner and his ragtag group of fellow jihadists bumbling their way through an attempted terrorist attack: multiple suicide bombings during the heavily attended London Marathon. Sound hilarious? No, and it wasn’t. There were a few theoretically funny moments, such as when the group’s rattletrap car breaks down and they blame it on faulty spark plugs that were part of “a Jewish plot to control global traffic.”

But it was hard to laugh at their complaints about uppity women and un-Islamic music when there are real-world fundamentalists stoning women and bombing CD shops. It was hard to laugh at the loony accusation about Jewish car parts when the Muslim world is rife with just that sort of irrational Jew-hating conspiracy theory, and Jews are killed for it. It was impossible to find it funny when one of the terrorists talked about targeting Jews and “slags” – British slang for sluts, by which he means uncovered women who go to dance clubs – when one remembers the two car bombs, loaded with nails for extra carnage, parked outside a popular London nightclub in 2007, intended to go off on “Ladies Night” to kill as many “slags” as possible. It was impossible to separate the movie’s jokes from their disturbing real-world context.

And therein lay the problem with SNL’s skit: the humor wasn’t sharp enough to overcome the real-world context, and ISIS wasn’t even ridiculed; if anything, the joke was on the American father, representing Western cluelessness, who turned his daughter over to the monsters.

H.A. Goodman at the Huffington Post disagreed, posting an article with the hyperbolic title “‘SNL’s’ Skit Did More to Defeat ISIS Than Any Bombing Campaign. Satire Destroys Extremist Ideology.” Well, he got that half-right: a bombing campaign that atomizes a significant number of Islamic fanatics does go a long way toward reducing the threat, but satire is a withering weapon too.

Unfortunately, the SNL piece wasn’t on the same level as Charlie Hebdo’s slashing ridicule of Islam’s sacred cows like its prophet Muhammad. SNL didn’t make ISIS look bad, much less take on the ideology that inspires ISIS – they wouldn’t dare, lest they end up on the business end of death threats like the ones previously aimed at the creative team behind South Park, or the team at Charlie Hebdo, or more recently, at Twitter founder Jack Dorsey for cracking down on the accounts of ISIS supporters.

Yes, a bombing campaign isn’t enough. Our fight with the savages of ISIS and other Islamic fundamentalists must also be waged on the cultural battlefield, to diminish the reputations they work so hard to bolster through deftly produced recruiting videos. But in the comedy arena, it’s going to take a lot more effective work than one toothless SNL skit to win the propaganda war.


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Tags: Car, Army, ISIS