North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who seemed to hate all things Western, harbored a secret liking of James Bond movies. It was one of the less heinous oddities attributed to the fearsome leader, who looked less like a Bond villain than a bad guy out of an Austin Powers comedy – more Dr. Evil than Dr. No.
There was nothing, of course, funny about Kim’s 17-year reign as a, by most accounts, paranoid, oppressive ruler of 29 million people – and as an international wildcard with a nuclear weapons program. Humor, at times, seemed the best defense against Kim, at least in the popular imagination.
For many Americans, lasting images of Kim, who was reported dead Monday, likely come as much from scenes in “Team America” as from pictures in Time magazine.
Kim offered an easy target for parody – short with big glasses and bigger hair, and a huge penchant for erratic behavior. He showed up on “Family Guy,” frolicking with Fidel Castro, Idi Amin and Moammar Gadhafi, among others, at Peter’s pool party. “The Simpsons” gave us Kim as a boy with dreams of success in musical theater – and world domination. On “Saturday Night Live,” Horatio Sanz portrayed Kim as an admittedly delusional madman – and movie reviewer (he liked “Sweet Home Alabama”). On “Mad TV,” Bobby Lee memorably played Kim an “Arsenio”-like talk show host who would have audience members shot for not laughing at his jokes.
But perhaps the most indelible pop culture image of Kim may be his turn as a puppet in “Team America: World Police,” the 2004 flick from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in which the North Korean despot leads a terror plot. Kim crooned in pigeon English about his loneliness as he bounced around his lavish palace – and got his comeuppance from a team of American super-soldier puppets whose gung-ho theme song is unrepeatable here.
Bad guys, no doubt beginning with cave wall caricatures, have inspired mockery – a way of both fighting and trying to grapple with unspeakable evil. The level of satire often speaks to the seriousness of the threat.
Hitler, perhaps he worst villain of the previous century, was lampooned in everything from political cartoons to Bugs Bunny shorts – though the biggest comedic takedown came more than two decades after his death, courtesy of Mel Brooks in “The Producers.” More recently, Parker and Stone put Saddam Hussein in hell, portraying him as Satan’s manipulative lover in “South Park” in the movies and on TV, long before the Iraqi dictator was hanged.
Kim's death, no doubt, will spur a final round of jokes, from Jon Stewart, et al. The future in unstable North Korea remains unclear – but we can be pretty sure that somewhere, Team America is chuckling. Check out some clips of Kim getting skewered over the years (warning: NSFW in spots) and join in on the last laughs.
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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.