‘The Death of Stalin’ and the History of Political Comedy

From 'The Great Dictator' to 'In the Loop,' lampooning government hypocrisy no laughing matter.

April 5, 2018 5:00 am

I can’t lie: I may have seen my favorite film of 2018 – and it’s only April. And I’m totally not someone who makes lists. The film, now slowly making its way beyond New York and Los Angeles, is Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political comedy about The Death of Stalin, the madcap murderous story of the rise of Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the fall of Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) in the wake of the dictator’s sudden death of natural causes. With echoes of the Marx Brothers and the dialog of Billy Wilder, Iannucci delivers a story of a government-sanctioned genocide and palace intrigue that’s both gleefully giddy and fundamentally terrifying. It’s enough to make me binge-watch Veep – or the infinitely darker British series The Thick of It propelled by Peter Capaldi’s ferocious yet hilarious obscenity-spewing Scottish antihero Malcolm Tucker, director of Communications for the Government of the United Kingdom.

And, so, as the film creeps slowly into wide release, here are ten other seminal political comedies, starting with Ianucci’s Oscar-nominated…..

In the Loop: Peter (Dr. Who) Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker gets the movie treatment when Iannucci crosses the pond for a cluster-fuck meeting between government actors for the British and the Americans. The late James Gandolfini crushes it as an American general as the fate of the free world hangs in the balance of misunderstanding and overreaching ambition. An Oscar nominee for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, in 2010, it can be watched now on Amazon Video, YouTube, Hulu and elsewhere.


The President’s Analyst: The late James Coburn (The Great Escape) plays shrink Dr. Sidney Schaeffer to the commander in chief, President Lux (Walter Burke). The psychiatrist (“the headman of headmen” treating the head of state) causes havoc when he stresses out and flees the White House in an emotional crisis – and the powers that be have to retrieve this vessel of all the president’s secrets to keep him away from the Russians, Chinese and Cubans. The 1967 satire from Theodore J. Flicker, the creator of TV’s Barney Miller, captures the era’s paranoia and dips into the groovy counterculture where Schaeffer tries to hide. (Now available for rent on Amazon Prime.)


The Great Dictator: Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1940 comedy had the audacity to skewer a tyrant with a funny mustache – while Adolph Hitler was still alive and genocidal in Germany in the midst of World War 2. Nominated for five Oscars in 1941, Chaplin plays the dual role of Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, and a Jewish barber.  “Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people,’ says Chaplin’s dictator in a rousing final speech that marked the first time the silent star had spoken on film. “Chaplin is at his most profound in suggesting that there is much of the Tramp in the Dictator, and much of the Dictator in the Tramp,” wrote MOMA’s Dave Kehr, underscoring the power of comedy in unmasking political tragedy. (Now available on IndieFlix, Amazon and iTunes.)


Duck Soup: In Leo McCarey’s 1933 anti-war Marx Brothers musical, Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly rises to become president/dictator of impoverished Freedonia. Alongside Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, the fast-talking wiseass declares war on neighboring Sylvania over his love for the wealthy Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). Considered by many to be the brothers’ best – with such astute jokes as when the Labor Secretary declares: “The Department of Labor wishes to note that the workers of Freedonia are demanding shorter hours,” and Firefly replies: “Very well, we’ll give them shorter hours. We’ll start by cutting their lunch hour to 20 minutes.” Available on IndieFlix, Amazon, iTunes and more.


Election: The seeds of tyranny begin in every high-school election – or so one can infer from Alexander Payne’s 1999 black comedy based on Tom Perotta’s novel. At its center is the overachieving, scheming Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon post-Pleasantville) who’ll bake cupcakes and stop at nothing to become class president on her inevitable road to the White House – including decimating Mathew Broderick’s ethical milquetoast of a social studies teacher, Jim McAllister. Check it out on Amazon.


Wag the Dog: Taking its title from the 1930’s slang the tail wags the dog, meaning a minor situation distracting from the major, Barry Levinson’s Oscar-nominated 1997 Oscar nominee is cynically delightful. When the President gets caught with his hands on a cookie in the oval office his team wages a war against Albania to distract from the scandal that could potentially torpedo his reelection. Robert DeNiro plays the bow-tied political fixer, Dustin Hoffman the Hollywood macher he recruits to produce the distracting “pageant” of war while folksy Willie Nelson provides the soundtrack to their dissembling. War is hell – and a helluva distraction from peacetime sexual predation. Available on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes and more.


Team America: World Police: Brilliant South Park satirists Trey Parker and Matt Stone deploy a puppet cast to the Middle East to address America’s global “peacekeeping” forces and Bush-era post-9/11 nationalism. The musical numbers are beyond (these are the men behind Broadway’s The Book of Mormon), with the catchy tune — “America!/ Fuck yeah!/ So lick my butt and suck on my balls.” It’s so very Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. While it was made in 2004, it couldn’t be more prescient as, meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Kim Jong Un’s father, an Elmer-Fudd-like Kim Jong-il (voice of Parker) threatens a rain of rockets and apocalypse. The more things change…. Watch on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and more.


Dr. Strangelove: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb: Stanley Kubrick’s genius 1964 Cold War comedy skewered the abject folly of nuclear war proving that humans are capable of laughter while dancing on the rim of the apocalypse. With George C. Scott as a Gen “Buck” Turgidson and peak Peter Sellers in a triple role as President Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove/Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, the movie follows a rogue General intent on letting loose a hydrogen bomb while the gang of politicians and military officers back at the war room bicker as they scramble to protect the scrap heap of Earth from man’s death wish. As fresh today as the day it was released – and just as horrifying. Watchable on Amazon, iTunes and FandangoNow.


Idiocracy: Dismissed by many critics upon its 2006 release, Mike (Office Space) Judge’s prescient and hilarious comedy about the pervasiveness of branding and the dumbing down of the electorate and its leaders only gains in power over time. It stars Luke Wilson as an average Joe and army guinea pig whose mistaken five-century hibernation lands him in the tackiest, dumbest future imaginable. Beware the dangers of Capitalism – oops, they’ve arrived! To quote The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday, “If the world is going to hell in any number of handbaskets — as Judge so acutely demonstrates that it is — you might as well hitch a ride in his.” Available on Amazon, iTunes and FandangoNow.


The Great McGinty: Preston Sturges won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his directorial debut in 1940, a twisted tale of crooked politician Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy). His rise from hobo huckster to corrupt governor takes a downward turn when he succumbs to a moment of honesty. Cynical and biting with snapping Sturges dialog, the prolog announces: “This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.” Catch it on xfinity.


Want more? Consider:  The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; Dick; Being There; The Mouse That Roared; Dave; and Bulworth.


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