WASHINGTON, D.C. – The murder of 12 people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had a resounding effect on many, but perhaps none felt the blow quite like the satirical writers, performers and producers who make their livelihood walking the line between journalism and satire every day.
Tributes to the victims of the shooting on late shows last night were notably somber. John Stewart addressed the events on The Daily Show with a jokeless monologue addressing the need for continued open dialog and political commentary and conversation:
“I know very few people go into comedy, you know, as an act of courage. Mainly because it shouldn’t have to be that. It shouldn’t be an act of courage. It should be taken as established law.
But those guys at Hebdo had it, and they were killed for their … cartoons.”
Conan O’Brien spoke about how the events hit so close to home:
“This story really hits home for anyone who, day in and day out, mocks political, social and religious figures. In this country, we just take if for granted that it’s our right to poke fun at the untouchable, or the sacred.
But today’s tragedy in Paris reminds us, very viscerally, that it’s a right some people are inexplicably forced to die for.”
Comedian Tina Fey, known for her work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, drew comparisons between the backlash to the movie The Interview, and the shooting in Paris.
“You look at [the Charlie Hebdo attack] and you look at the controversy surrounding The Interview, it makes you think about how important free speech is and how it absolutely must be defended. [We] cannot back down on free speech in any way. We all have to stand firm on the issue of free speech..
We’re Americans, and even if it’s dumb jokes in The Interview, we have the right to make them.”
American satirical magazine The Onion made a statement by publishing a cartoon of its own: a very graphic caricature of Moses, Jesus, the Hindu god Ganesha and Buddha engaging in a lascivious act with the headline: “No One Murdered Because of this Image”
It’s for similar imagery that Charlie Hebdo became not only well known but also a target of extremists. When the magazine published a caricature of the Muslim profit Mohammed in 2011—drawings which the Islamic faith forbids—its offices were fire bombed. No one was hurt.
But Charlie Hebdo is not the first satirical publication to poke fun at Islamic extremism through cartoons. Perhaps one of the most well-known controversies surrounding a caricature of Mohammed stems from South Park.
In 2006 Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed a depiction of Muhammad in multiple photos—one including a caricature of him wearing a bomb in his turban. The images lead to riots across the Middle East and an attack on the cartoonist, Lars Vilks. At the time, many U.S. publications chose not to publish the photos—fearing similar outbursts.
The producers at South Park took a different approach. Responding to the riots against the Danish cartoon, they chose to air their own depiction of the prophet. Their idea was to feature Mohammed in the second episode of a two part series on the show entitled Cartoon Wars
But during production of the episode, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone met resistance from Comedy Central. Eventually the show aired, but with a placard running before it that read “Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their network.” During the cartoon, the image of Mohammed was covered by a black box that read “Censored.”
The show did depict the Islamic prophet in its sixth season in 2010. The episode portrayed Mohammed in a trailer where he is heard speaking and later he is depicted dressed in a bear costume. After the show aired, producers received threats from the Revolution Muslim group that posted on its website, “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh [A satirist who was killed on the streets of Amsterdam in retaliation for a film he made] for airing this show.” Producers ultimately altered the episode.
Despite the shooting in Paris, there are no signs that satire as political commentary is going away. Political cartoons over the internet Wednesday were plentiful and strong in their assertions that free speech doesn’t warrant violence, and that the work of pencils won’t be silenced.