We aren’t used to laughing at our political movies. And who would blame us? With the police state we live in and the Great Depression of 2009 looming over our heads, the cost of buying a permit to laugh is getting more and more expensive. So it’s easy to see why most movies involving politicians are dramas or, of course, horror films.
In fact, most politically charged movies don’t focus on politicians themselves. They focus on broad topics like crumbling diplomatic relations, zombie invasions or crumbling diplomatic relations with zombies.
So, in honor of Charlie Wilson’s War coming out on DVD today, we’re celebrating the rare beast that is the successful political comedy and the essentials that make them work.
If you happen to be making a movie about politicians, here are a few things to remember:
1. Politicians Love Talking.
If Frank Capra’s brilliant Mr. Smith Goes to Washington teaches us anything, it’s that every major problem can be solved forever by talking for a long period of time. Classic everyman Jimmy Stewart provides a heart and soul for Jefferson Smith, and we get to laugh at his naive blunders in politicking right up until we realize he’s serious about fixing the system. And how does he propose to fix the world? By reading the Constitution to the Senate One-hundred and eighteen times, followed by his grandmother’s fried chicken recipe and the Magna Carta. This film is a classic because the jokes are still fresh. It appears as if we’re actually watching a non-politician when, in fact, Smith turns out to be the most verbose politico of them all, beating the establishment at its own narcissistic game.
2. Politicians are Egomaniacs.
Representative Charlie Wilson is delightfully unethical. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Tom Hanks provides this character with enough charm to be disarming, but you get the idea that after everyone else leaves a room, Wilson is probably still flirting with himself and pretending to be interviewed. His involvement with ending the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan is more about his own ego than saving countless lives. That’s why we love him. Because the only realistic way he would have gotten interested in Afghanistan is if it had been wearing a miniskirt and sported C-cups. He’s hilarious because he quips about not wanting to join the ethics committee since he’s against the issue, but likable because he seems, underneath it all, to still have some form of a human heart. Like most politicians, he stumbles into an important issue like a child wandering into an ammunitions bunker and somehow avoids being blown up. Of course, Charlie Wilson, like the best of them, mugs for the camera the entire time. Who wouldn’t vote for this guy?
3. Politicians are Fake.
As mentioned before, most political comedies don’t focus on politicians since politicians are not funny. They’re old, stuffy white oppressors who we allow to kiss our babies and give themselves raises. They aren’t fun to talk to because they always want to bring up the Stamp Act or Vietnam or some other depressingly unfunny thing from the past. Their hearts are also made of used mud. To sidestep this problem, the movie Dave focuses on a small town politician who happens to look and sound exactly like the current president. When the panderingly fake President is incapacitated by a heart attack, his cabinet calls on Kevin Kline’s Dave to be a fake, replacement President, and the fake-fake-President turns out to be very real. Dave is funny in the standard fish-out-of-water way, but the stakes are much higher because the water happens to be the White House. We also get an entire movie of what would happen if the President actually, deeply cared about his citizenry. Thus, by avoiding realism, this movie rises to the top as a successful comedy.
4. Politicians are Just Like You and Me.
In Dr. Strangelove or The Curse of the Incredibly Long Film Title, the politicians and war hawks are all fairly average people. It’s the situation that is unique. Placed around the table in the War Room (where there is no fighting), the men of state discuss the impending mutually assured destruction of the US and Russia with the calm detachment that you and I might use to debate where to have dinner tonight (correct answer: not Applebee’s). The incomparable Peter Sellers plays seventeen or eighteen characters as well as acted as gaffer and Best Boy for the film. Perhaps one of the funniest political comedies that focuses on politicians, Stanley Kubrick gives us situation after situation where insane human beings try to speak calmly and rationally about an issue that could mean the destruction of the entire planet. One imagines that any average idiot could be sitting in the decision-making chair, smoking a pipe and trying not to avoid a much-needed pie fight with his four star generals.
5. Politicians are Ballet-Dancing Hitlers
Even without including it in campaign pamphlets, we all know that every serious political candidate is a classically trained, professional dancer and Hitler look-a-like. And rightfully so. Who would want a stodgy creature with no rhythm representing their civic needs on the national scale? Despite the truism of Rule #1 on this list, the funniest moment in The Great Dictator comes when Charlie Chaplin silently dances his way into our hearts, playing with a giant balloon shaped like the planet. Certain spoil-sports will claim that it’s a metaphor for how dictator’s use the world as their play thing, but do not be fooled. The real message of this movie is that portraying politicians as they truly are behind their sound bytes and teleprompters – as brownshirt-wearing, Hitler-clones dancing daintily to choral music – is the only real key to comedic success.
If you’re one of the lucky few who are wealthy enough to afford a permit to laugh, these movies are the best examples out there. If you’re looking for inspiration for making your own political comedy, you’d do well to remember all of these rules, especially #5. We love seeing politicians fall from their ivory towers, bumble through incoherently, and fail us at the most important hour. Basically, the humor of politicians comes from proving that they’re human when, in fact, they are all robots. Or Hitler. Or Hitler-bots.
Politics is confusing.
Charlie Wilson’s War is out on DVD now.