Seth Rogen and James Franco Drum up North Korean Controversy in “The Interview”
Part of creating a successful comedy is pushing boundaries. Comedians tread on the line of appropriateness – a single step in one direction can cross the line of funny into the realm of inappropriate and uncomfortable, while a step in the opposite direction can make for mediocre content and delivery. So far, James Franco and Seth Rogen have mastered this balancing act, but their skill will soon be put to the test upon the release of their incredibly controversial film, The Interview.
The Franco-Rogen Debacle
James Franco and Seth Rogen have together become the face of modern comedy. Pushing the bounds of decency and depending heavily on shock value, they consistently produce hysterical (and sometimes offensive) displays of can’t-stop-laughing, stomach-aching comedy. With films developing cult-followings such as the duo’s Pineapple Express and This Is The End, it is no wonder Franco and Rogen continue to press the boundaries of comedy and test how far the confines of humor can be stretched.
As many know by now, the Franco-Rogen dream team has derived quite a bit of conflict surrounding their new film, The Interview, set to release on October 10, 2014. Franco and Rogen play a celebrity tabloid TV host and his producer attempting to validate their journalist careers. After landing an interview with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, the CIA interjects, recruiting Franco and Rogen to assassinate the dictator.
According to Franco and Rogen, the film was originally based on Kim Jong-il but the script was revised following his death in 2011 to include his son and successor. Rogen stated that the bulk of the concept came from the thought that, “people have the hypothetical discussion about how journalists have access to the world’s most dangerous people, and they hypothetically would be in a good situation to assassinate them.” Although Columbia pictures was hesitant to approve the film, it decided to green light the picture and jump on the Rogen-Franco bandwagon to success. Not surprisingly, following the movie’s initial screenings, Kim Jong-un voiced his dismay regarding the film and his particular role in it.
CNN reported that a North Korean ministry spokesman condemned the The Interview stating “the enemies have gone beyond the tolerance limit in their despicable moves to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership.” Although the sensitive subject matter perhaps validates the unsettled feelings of North Korean nationals, the subject is free-to-grab content in the U.S. Luckily for Franco and Rogen, even if the U.S. government wanted to do something to restrict the content of the film, it couldn’t. Rogen and Franco are merely exercising their freedom of speech, a long-settled and long-protected liberty and right.
First Amendment Rights in the Entertainment Industry
As early as the 1950s, the United States has protected freedom of speech in the context of the film and the entertainment industry. Opposers have attempted to restrict freedom of speech in movies and television for years, arguing among other things that the entertainment industry is simply entertainment and not a source of information; that film and television could influence behavior and should therefore be restricted; and that film and television are merely for-profit ventures that are deserving of less than full First Amendment protection.
Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson paved the way for establishing First Amendment rights in the entertainment market. In this case, appellant was in the business of distributing motion pictures and owned the exclusive right to distribute the Italian film, The Miracle, throughout the U.S. market. By November 1950, the motion picture division of the New York education department issued a license to appellant authorizing the exhibition of The Miracle with English subtitle as part of the trilogy, Ways of Love. However, during this time, the department received a slew of resistance, with protesters claiming that the film was sacrilegious among other things. The department demanded that appellant demonstrate good cause for why his license should not be rescinded, but nonetheless, eventually rescinding the license.
In that case, a New York statute made it unlawful to exhibit, sell, lease or lend for exhibition a film for pay or in connection with any business in the state of New York, or any motion picture film or reel, unless the education department issued a valid license. Depending on Gitlow, the court held that liberty of speech and of the press protected by the First Amendment is within the liberty safeguarded by the due process clause of the 14th amendment from invasion by state action. The court reasoned that films are just like other media platforms including books, newspapers and magazines that are published for profit and still entitled to First Amendment protection.
Even after Burstyn, however, arguments circulated as to whether film even constitutes free speech. Case law eventually settled that film is a significant medium for communicating ideas, custom and tradition. Speech is not limited to political speech and information. It is a larger communicator of ideas in that it affects public attitudes even where the sole purpose is to entertain its audience. Although film could not be regulated under the theory that film is not speech, the Supreme Court held that in one particular circumstance, speech in film can be regulated. In Miller v. California, the court held that obscenity is speech that depicts sexual organs or conduct in a particularly offensive manner by community standards where there is no significant religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic literary value. In this context, speech may be regulated.
Where Does This Leave The Interview?
Luckily for Rogen and Franco, a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un is neither sexually obscene nor offensive. It is therefore perfectly entitled to First Amendment protection. So where does this leave The Interview now? Well, in the same exact position as it was to begin with.
Playing devils advocate, U.S. citizens would doubtfully condone a film about the assassination of Barack Obama. However, free speech was established in the U.S. for this purpose; to protect the creative thoughts of authors like Rogen despite the social faux pas they may create. Although Rogen may re-assess his script as an “oopsy daisies” lapse in judgment, he is perfectly entitled to carry on with the project and exploit the controversial yet sure-to-be hilarious film. Despite all the hullabaloo and fuss surrounding The Interview, I fully intend on purchasing a ticket to view the film and enjoy the potentially classless but surely classic humor of the Rogen-Franco duo.
To view the trailer for The Interview, see below.
 Elana Goodwin, The Controversy Surrounding “The Interview”, ULoop Entertainment News, (July 6, 2014), available at http://www.uloop.com/news/view.php/126644/The-Controversy-Surrounding-quotThe-Intervi.
 Scott Neuman, North Korea Threatens War Over New Seth Rogen Comedy, The Two Way: Breaking News From NPR, (June 25, 2014), available at http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/06/25/325646474/north-korea-threatens-war-over-new-seth-rogen-comedy.
 Elana Goodwin.
 Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952).
 Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).
 Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).