In the early 1990s, writer-director Jim Abrahams was making a big studio comedy about a mission to kill a foreign dictator — and not just any foreign dictator, one the United States had recently gone to war against: Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The idea of targeting a sitting world leader for 1993's "Hot Shots! Part Deux" didn't raise alarms at the studio, 20th Century Fox. For Abrahams — who, with David and Jerry Zucker, had also made the boundary-pushing comedy "Airplane!" — it was just a natural subject for a funny movie.
"Our thinking was that it's more fun to take pot shots at a real bad guy than to create a straw dummy," Abrahams remembers.
If anything, Abrahams says, there was disappointment when the film didn't draw Hussein's ire. "In the back of our minds, we were thinking, 'Wow, that would be cool if Saddam would help publicize the movie!'''
Last week, in a stark illustration of just how much the ground has shifted, another comedy about the killing of a real-world dictator — the Seth Rogen-James Franco film "The Interview" — was pulled from release by Sony Pictures amid an international firestorm without precedent in Hollywood history.
Around the world, everyone from Hustler founder Larry Flynt to President Obama seemed to have an opinion on Sony's action, after a devastating, retaliatory cyber attack on the studio as well as threats to attack movie theaters by hackers from North Korea, according to federal officials. But for one group in particular — the comedy community — the "Interview" debacle hit especially close to home.
Decrying what most seemed to view as a craven act of artistic suppression — and possibly a disturbing portent of things to come — the comedy world took to social media almost en masse.
Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel tweeted, "An un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent."
"We just gave a comfy foothold to censorship & it doesn't get any better from this point on," actor and comedian Patton Oswalt wrote on Twitter.
The story of a TV reporter (Franco) and producer (Rogen) recruited to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, "The Interview" was initially envisioned by co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg as just a silly, over-the-top comedy rather than a hot-button political statement. But now that the film has become the center of a headline-grabbing controversy, many fear the uproar could make it more difficult for anyone trying to do edgy, risky, topical comedy going forward, as studios and television networks fear similar blowback.
"Comedians attack power and corruption and things that feel wrong," says writer-director Judd Apatow, a frequent collaborator of Rogen. "Our community is based on freedom of expression. Are we going to suppress ourselves every time someone posts something online? It's a dark future."
Some wonder whether the "Interview" debacle will result in comedy being steered in a blander direction, away from cutting political satire and toward safer targets. "So Kim Jong Un gets to decide what movies we make?" Jon Stewart said on "The Daily Show."
Not everyone thinks the "Interview" flap will have wide-ranging effect. In comedy clubs, with no studio or television executives looking over their shoulders, stand-up comics may still make biting jokes off the news of the day.
"If I felt that there was an ISIS person in the audience who was gonna behead me after the show, I might not do my ISIS jokes that night," says actor and comedian Andy Kindler. "It could conceivably be frightening to make comments about stuff if you think the comments will make you the target of a terrorist attack. But I just don't think that's gonna happen. People are going to the worst-case scenario."
For the moment, though, North Korea appears to be off the table as a topic for big-screen comedy. After the cancellation of "The Interview," the film company New Regency canceled "Pyongyang," a Steve Carell-starring dark comedy set in North Korea, while Paramount Pictures shut down planned screenings of the 2004 comedy "Team America: World Police," which lampooned former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Hollywood has a long history of tweaking matters of war and global politics, from Charlie Chaplin's 1940 comedy "The Great Dictator," which spoofed Adolf Hitler, to Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Cold War satire "Dr. Strangelove" to Robert Altman's 1970 black comedy "MASH" and beyond.
Abrahams points to 1988's "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!," which he co-wrote. It opens with various leaders hostile to America — Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Moammar Kadafi, Fidel Castro and Idi Amin — plotting a terrorist act against the United States. Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), undercover as a waiter, beats them all up in a flurry of "Three Stooges"-style slapstick and warns, "Don't ever let me catch you guys in America!"
"We just had fun at their expense," Abrahams says. "It was pure fun, and nobody got pissed off."
In Abrahams' mind, comedians have a veritable duty to take on the powerful, a duty that may be undermined if studios and networks, spooked by the prospect of protests or cyber attacks, start backing further away from political satire.
"It would be disappointing if that kind of point of view got shut down before somebody in Hollywood would take a good shot at Vladimir Putin," he says. "He's such a roided-out megalomaniac, he'd be perfect grist for one of those movies. If somebody can't have a laugh at his expense because of all this, that would be sad."
That kind of chilling effect could also extend to late-night talk shows, which routinely feature topical jokes as part of the hosts' opening monologues.
"I doubt there'll be an effect on what's written for late-night monologues — gag writers are an untethered, scattershot bunch — but there may be an effect on what's chosen," says Andrew Nicholls, formerly Johnny Carson's head writer on NBC's "The Tonight Show." "I don't know how the various front offices [of TV networks] will cope with the fear of retaliation. You haven't seen a lot of Mohammed comedies lately."
Back in the clubs, stand-up comic Rick Overton, for one, says he won't allow his own brand of political and social comedy to be stifled.
"Since the North Korean hacking scandal, we are experiencing reverse McCarthyism, because now Commies are calling the shots," he says. "If the [hackers'] purpose is to disrupt one's regular routine, then my individual act of rebellion is to do what I do — to change nothing."
Staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this story.