The Hilarious, Terrifying, British “Death of Stalin” Shows How American Comedy’s Gone Wrong

Armando Iannucci's new movie points out what U.S. comedy rarely does: Our problems aren't the fault of bad people, but bad systems.

Photo from the movie "The Death of Stalin" directed by Armando Iannucci. Photo: Nicola Dove/ IFC Films

There’s a scene in “The Death of Stalin” — the latest feature film from British political satirist Armando Iannucci, adapted from a graphic novel of the same name — in which prisoners at one of the Soviet Union’s myriad of prison camps are being lined up and killed. A guard walks from person to person, executing them with a gunshot to the head. Suddenly, a Soviet soldier runs up to the executioner and tells him that the killings have suddenly been called off — orders that came straight from the top.

The prisoner who was next in line to die looks to his left, pondering the bodies he’s been spared from joining by inexplicable good luck. It’s both horrifying and comical, and reveals the utterly arbitrary way in which the Soviet Union moved people in and out of an out-group worthy of being murdered.

Like “Veep” and “The Thick of It,” two of Iannucci’s TV productions that satirize the banal yet pathological problems of American and British political hacks, “The Death of Stalin” isn’t so much about specific officials. No one was cast because they look like the real human beings they play. And the humor is largely geared toward British and American audiences; for instance, there’s a sequence in which the de facto leaders of the Soviet Union all joust to determine who will be the first car out of a driveway — pure Anglo-American sketch comedy.

Rather, the movie is about the overall Soviet system in particular and human beings in general. As we watch the bumbling Soviet Presidium scramble to take control of the Soviet Union following Stalin’s collapse, what stands out above all else is that the supposed elites in charge of this sprawling prison-state-with-nuclear-weapons are actually not very different from anyone else.

They gossip and backbite. They get into petty disputes. They even argue over who gets invited to state funerals. But because they are high-ranking government elites, their idiosyncrasies have lethal consequences. Whether one is on the good or bad side of a government bureaucrat on any particular day can mean the difference between a promotion and a summary execution, or between owning a princely estate and spending the rest of your life in the Gulag.

This raises the central question of the movie: Given the foibles and gross flaws of every human being, is it ever a good idea to centralize so much power in the hands of so few people?

In a post-Soviet world, this question may seem less relevant. But remember that four times as many people are governed by the rising Chinese government than live in the United States. And of all the countries in the world, China may be second only to North Korea in embodying Stalin’s vision of an all-powerful state governed by an all-powerful few.

It’s true that to some outside observers, China’s rapid economic growth and increasingly impressive infrastructure makes the country a success story. And few can dispute the fact that the country has, more than any other modern state, rapidly reduced the presence of abject poverty over the past three decades.

But as “The Death of Stalin” and the rest of Iannucci’s works illustrate, when power is centralized into the hands of particular individuals, whether it be in the old USSR or 21st-century China, the anxieties of those few officials become state policy.

Just ask Winnie the Pooh.

After Chinese social media users used an image of President Xi Jinping to liken him to the lovable cartoon bear, China’s powerful censorship officials sprung into action. They started banning references to Winnie the Pooh from China’s internet.

And when the Communist Party moved to extend Xi’s tenure, China quickly cracked down on phrases across social media that users might use to imply dissent. Phrases such as “I don’t agree” were quickly blocked on the popular social media website Weibo. (Most American social media websites are banned from China, and Weibo serves as a Twitter-like service — but it has 340 million users, even more than Twitter.)

But you don’t have to live under an actual dictatorship like in China to appreciate the lessons of “The Death of Stalin.”

In the movie’s first scene, we see a premier Moscow orchestra perform for a live radio broadcast. As it’s ending, an official receives a request from former Premier Joseph Stalin for a recording. But no recording had been made. The conductor melts down in terror, trips, and knocks himself out. The entire production is hastily reassembled, with a new conductor dragged out of his home in his pajamas. He can hardly refuse: His life and the lives of others are literally on the line.

Most Americans, of course, won’t find themselves in a life-or-death situation based on something so trivial. But we live in a society with a unionization rate of around 10 percent, and most workers have next to no due process for retaining employment at their jobs. People are regularly fired for social media postings and, unlike in the European Union, employees have virtually no right to be protected from termination that results when they hold political views that differ from their employer’s. In most states in America, you can legally be fired if your boss doesn’t like the color of your T-shirt.

Thus for many, many Americans, the workplace is close to an absolute dictatorship, with essentially no democratic representation in the face of their boss. The problem, however, is not your individual boss, but rather a system that gives them power over you.

American satire is, to say the least, less than helpful in comprehending this structural relationship. It generally embraces America’s individualistic ideals about how power works, misdiagnosing political problems as the result of one very bad person rather than the result of corrosive powerful interests, retrograde systems of governance, and widely held social mythologies. For instance, Warner Bros. released the hit movie “Horrible Bosses,” but it’s unlikely they would ever put out a film called “Bosses Are Horrible.”

“Saturday Night Live” is particularly misleading. The long-running weekend sketch show is known for its satirical portrayals of political figures, ranging from Tina Fey’s impression of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to Alec Baldwin’s impression of President Donald Trump.

These performances make us laugh — Palin thinks she’s a Russia expert because she can see it from her house! — and to the credit of the actors, they’re often spot-on exaggerations of quite real personality quirks and flaws of our leading government officials.

The problem is that these portrayals don’t strike at the root of the dysfunctions in American political life. When it comes down to actual policies the government pursues and the biggest social problems the U.S. faces, you can’t pin all the blame on mere personalities.

In the case of Palin, liberals will always remember her for her less-than-erudite answers to Katie Couric’s basic questions, but conservatives view many of those same answers as part of her folksy charm and appeal.

Making political satire a referendum on personalities is naturally polarizing and fundamentally unserious. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that not long after Tina Fey’s Palin impression debuted on SNL, the candidate herself appeared to join in on the fun.

But what if instead of skewering Palin as a person, SNL had skewered the underlying beliefs and systems that almost any GOP vice presidential candidate would have adopted? “Drill, baby, drill” — the famous mantra Palin repeated at campaign stops across America in 2008 — was, to many, the perfect bumper sticker encapsulation of their worldview that oil drilling produces jobs, and jobs are what America needs. This gets us to the underlying ideology behind Palin’s iconic catchphrase: the all-consuming American fixation on fossil fuels as a driver of the economy.

Attacking that ideology would have been far more subversive than making fun of how Palin talks. SNL could have instead targeted the propaganda put forth by the country’s big polluters. And they could have accurately made that mockery bipartisan — recall former President Barack Obama’s embrace of the laughable phrase “clean coal,” something that even made its way into industry propaganda.

This tension is even clearer when it comes the current occupant of the White House. Endless fixation on Trump’s ego or his addiction to Twitter achieve about as much as SNL’s Palin bits; these aspects of Trump’s personality are already self-evidently a turnoff or wildly entertaining, depending on how you feel about the 45th president. The same applies to “The Daily Show”: When it makes fun of something Trump said at a campaign rally, an audience member has probably already heard it and decided how they feel about it before the segment even airs.

The Intercept’s Lee Fang highlighted this phenomenon in a recent tweet:

Comedy that focuses on underlying ideologies and systems, rather than people, is harder, but it can be done, as demonstrated by the brilliant Israeli satirists on “Eretz Nehederet,” or “A Wonderful Country.” The show, which was highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast last year, is resolutely opposed to Israel’s 50-year-long occupation of the Palestinian people. But to make its case against the occupation, the show doesn’t just mock gaffes by individual politicians or skewer the mannerisms of the Israeli right. Instead, it forces viewers to think about the foundational myths that sustain the entire system of military occupation.

In a segment that aired in 2011, for example, a group of Israeli kindergarten children are prompted by their teacher to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. One after another, the children repeat government mantras about why the bloody status quo must stay in place. “The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is a moral army!” says one little girl. “Our problem is PR,” a cute little boy offers. “It’s proven — removing settlements doesn’t bring peace,” another girl proclaims. The teacher asks, “What do we call the rest of the world?” The children respond in unison: “Anti-Semitic!”

The picture isn’t entirely bleak for American satirists, however.

Earlier this month, comic genius Jordan Peele won a well-deserved Oscar for his screenplay for the dark comedy “Get Out.” Peele’s approach cuts deeply because he generally shies away from satirizing politics directly and instead, emphasizes root structures and ideologies.

Moreover, “Get Out” doesn’t pick on the stereotype of a Southern racist — as is common throughout American liberal satire — but rather targets a certain kind of liberal ideology that fetishizes African-American culture.

At one point in the film, an upper-middle-class, white-collar, white professional proclaims that he wishes he could have voted for Obama a third time, in order to impress his white daughter’s black boyfriend. The line not only produces a lot of laughs, but uncovers a bigger truth about liberalism in 21st century America: that it often revolves around embracing certain forms of cultural chauvinism in order to project virtue.

In the film, it just so happens that the same people who do so also engage in a modern form of slavery that involves literally inserting one’s brain into psychologically ensnared African-American bodies. Of course, liberals who go to pains to embrace “ethnic” culture don’t literally do this. But if you extend their logic far enough, you might just get there!

A tweet from Brookings Institute scholar Shadi Hamid on Oscar night summarized this framework:

Peele has used a similar approach in his earlier work. Take the following sketch from “Key & Peele,” his Comedy Central show with collaborator Keegan-Michael Key:

In this 2014 sketch, a gay man, played by Key, is invited to explain gay marriage to a large African-American family assembled in a living room. It’s obvious from the get-go that the family is uncomfortable with the situation. (Recall that opposition to same-sex marriage has historically been more common among African-Americans than whites or Hispanics.)

But rather than simply skewering them as homophobes and berating them for lack of political correctness, Key and Peele lean into that skepticism. Key’s character fields all manner of comical questions from the family.

“So then, do the men wear dresses and the women would wear suits?” asks one relative. “Now, none of us are gay, so I assume that we would all sit in the straight section,” another conjectures. “When in the ceremony do we sing ‘Over The Rainbow’?” asks a third.

Throughout the questioning, Key’s character keeps his cool and calmly reminds the family, again and again, that a gay wedding is actually quite similar to a straight wedding. It’s an empathetic way to address the underlying doubts that the community has about gay marriage without making anyone individually feel like they are under attack or the root of the problem.

The critical success of “Get Out” — as well as “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which satirizes police violence and the desire for revenge — shows that there is a real desire among Americans for smart satire that takes aim at social systems and attitudes, instead of mocking individuals.

And Americans are in luck. After the success of “Get Out,” Peele has announced he will be directing another socially aware thriller.

“You know, I think it’s important to focus on stories that are true to me,” he said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “My next film, I am currently writing it and I’ll direct for Universal this year. I’m just trying to entertain myself again. One thing I know is that this is genre, and playing around with the thriller, horror, action, fun, genre of intrigue is my favorite. That’s my sweet spot. So I think tonally it should resemble ‘Get Out.’ That said, I want to make a completely different movie. I want to address something different than race in the next one.”

All of this matters because satire, in the right hands, can be a powerful tool to change people’s minds. I know this for sure: Last year, after watching Korean director Bong Joon-ho‘s “Okja,” a Netflix-released satire aimed at a Monsanto-like corporation that raises genetically engineered pigs, I gave up eating almost every type of meat.

The film does not demonize meat-eaters or attack a real-life personality; instead, it highlights the wider cruelty of factory farms and genetic engineering. By the end of the film, the viewer realizes that the problem isn’t so much that meat-eaters individually lack good morals, but that as a society we haven’t faced up to the level of pain inflicted on animals that are raised to be slaughtered.

I don’t believe a “Daily Show” segment or a viral tweet making fun of my former cheeseburger habits would have accomplished the same thing — just as I don’t think a movie focused on the specific flaws of Nikita Khrushchev would educate people about the true roots of totalitarianism. But great political comedy, definitely including “The Death of Stalin,” does show us where our problems lie: not in the frailties of individuals, but in the dangerous interaction of our systems and universal human nature.

Top photo: Still from “The Death of Stalin,” directed by Armando Iannucci.

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