Tim Walker: Why is it so easy to laugh at dictators?

We really ought to welcome the demise of the last funny dictator
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The Independent Online

Kim Jong-Il may have been a murderous despot, but he was pretty funny in Team America. His platform shoes were hilarious, as were North Korean claims that he hit 11 holes-in-one on his first round of golf – not to mention his affection for the films of Elizabeth Taylor.

But with Gaddafi gone in the same year, the world is abruptly bereft of amusing autocrats. Since his death in 2006, even the entertaining dictatorship of Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov has been dismantled by his successor, who repealed the law that named months of the year after members of Niyazov family, and removed the rotating gold statue of Niyazov from the centre of Ashgabat.

Which of the world's surviving tyrants will make us chuckle now? Mugabe isn't funny. The Burmese junta? Not exactly a laugh a minute. Even Mahmoud Ahmedinejad isn't funny, though he does wear a funny beige jacket.

The comical dictator is a tradition that goes back at least as far as that angry little chap, Napoleon – but what makes one maniac funny, and another merely a maniac? Simple repression, isolationism and mass murder don't cut it; you need a barmy personality cult, too.

We really ought to welcome the demise of the last funny dictator. Bashar al-Assad's accountant-like banality helps us to see the crimes of his administration clearly, without the distraction of conspicuous craziness. But there was something daft about a tiny fellow in cheap pyjamas which allowed us to think of Kim as a kitsch curiosity.

If we want kitsch curiosities, we have the Eurovision Song Contest. Kim is better remembered as someone who starved and stunted a nation.