The gravity and horrors of the genocide we call the Holocaust mean that in some ways humor based upon it is always “too soon.” Humor about tragic events is often judged as in poor taste. Moreover, it was Ashkenazi Jews, fleeing oppression and violence in Eastern Europe, who founded the original Hollywood studios, including Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn (Metro-Goldwyn Mayer), William Fox (Twentieth Century Fox), Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor (Paramount Pictures), Harry Cohn (Columbia Pictures) and Marcus Loew (Loews Pictures), Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner (Warner Brothers) and Carl Laemmle (Universal Studios). These men and their successors were slow to make even serious films about the Holocaust. In part, they hesitated to bring up the subject, fearing it might heighten antisemitism rather than quell it. Moreover, they sought above all to assimilate, to be accepted as Americans rather than Jews.
Nonetheless, from the war years to the present, Holocaust humor has been a part of Hollywood film and television, in part because humor is an important coping mechanism for those undergoing hardship, and central to Jewish history and performance in particular. One of the most popular and least controversial forms of infusing comedy into Holocaust-themed texts is ridiculing the Nazis. Almost anything can be done to a Nazi character without fear of offense, as seen in the history of comic books, wherein individual Nazis, SS troupes, or Nazi-like mutants or aliens have often been villains. In comedies and sometimes even in otherwise serious films, mockery of the Nazis is an accepted Hollywood tradition, “safe” territory, as far as Holocaust-related humor is concerned.
Perhaps the most famous example for contemporary audiences is Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967). The film’s plot centers on a failure of Jewish producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel, Nathan Lane), who plots with shy young (Jewish) accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, Matthew Broderick) to make the most tasteless show in Broadway history. By intentionally producing a flop, the pair can be sure that there will be little inspection of their finances, and thus they can sell far more than 100% of film shares and pocket the profits. They end up selecting the play “Springtime for Hitler,” written by former Nazi and pigeon fancier Franz Leibkin (Kenneth Mars, Will Ferrell). The script is a loving homage to Hitler. Bialystock and Bloom turn it into a musical, featuring such elements as a buxom Zigfeld-style chorus and a hippy Hitler (Dick Shawn, replaced in the musical sequel film by playwright Liebkin). That the production is a triumph rather than a failure ruins Bialystock and Bloom, even as it speaks to the subject of Holocaust humor directly: it is indeed never “too soon” to trivialize Nazism and ridicule Hitler.
Such derision did not begin with Brooks, of course. During WWII, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, shows Hitler and the Nazis to be inferior to the wit and wiles of a troupe of Polish actors. (It is not surprising in this context that Mel Brooks remade and starred in a 1983 remake of that film.) Even earlier, Charlie Chaplin lampooned Hitler when he played the dual role of a Jewish barber and of dictator Adenoid Hinkel in The Great Dictator (1940), a film he independently produced, directed, and wrote. Hinkel babbles and snarls excessively, alienating even the microphones he yells into. And the famous scene in which the dictator romantically dances with a giant balloon globe to signify Hitler’s goals of world domination is particularly effective in its subtle physical humor.
We can also consider within this category of Nazi scorn B films like the infamous cult favorite They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968), featuring the unforgettable scene of Hitler’s living head in a jar in the back seat of a convertible, maniacally shouting orders to the drivers.
More recently, Tarrantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) shows how ridicule of Nazis remains a viable film strategy into the 21st century and in non-comedic films. Within this violent war adventure about a group of Jewish soldiers’ plans to assassinate Nazi leaders, there is a scene in which Hitler is blown up while he watches a “documentary,” supposedly glorifying the mass murdering of Jews in a European city by a German sniper. While not the broad humor of Chaplin or Brooks, this gruesomely gratifying moment takes part in a tradition of fantasizing about achieving violent revenge against deserving enemies.
But what of humor that is not based on attacking Hitler or the Nazis? Is it “too soon” to critique other facets of the Holocaust, including denial or commemoration? This is a question that several Jewish comedians have recently taken up, including Sarah Silverman and Larry David.
In Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005), the outspoken comedian tells several Holocaust-themed jokes. She uses her self-effacing, self-absorbed persona to ridicule the current generation’s ignorance and willingness to exploit tragedy. She begins the Holocaust section of the film with a reference to familiar Nazi bashing, but with a twist: “Nazis are a-holes, and I'll be the first one to say it—because I'm edgy.” Here, the butt of the joke is Silverman in her oblivious guise. There is nothing new about attacking Nazis, and the joke thus turns against her, attacking those who are more concerned about being “edgy” than understanding the Holocaust.
She goes on to offer even less familiar humor. “My nana was a survivor of the Holocaust or—I'm sorry—the alleged Holocaust, and she had the tattoo, the number,” she says, “and thank God she was at one of the better concentration camps. She had a vanity number, it said, ‘Bedazzled,’ which is kinda fun.” Here we see the absurdity of Holocaust denial, the joke again critiquing the teller, who prefers what she sees as political correctness to historical correctness in referencing the Holocaust. And the joke concludes with a risky self-mockery of Jewish materialism and nouveau riche taste, placed in a Holocaust context.
Silverman concludes this section of her filmed act with a focus on the ills of racism. She asserts confidently, “I believe that if black people were in Germany during World War II that the Holocaust would have never happened. I do.” After a pause, she adds, “Or…not to Jews.” This joke could be read as comedic judgment of Jews who should, precisely because of the Holocaust, know better than to be racist towards others, but do not.
The final episode of The Sarah Silverman Program (2007-2010) offers perhaps the most perilous of her willingness to use the Holocaust for humor, beginning with its title, “Wowschwitz.” The episode focuses on Sarah’s competitiveness with her sister Laura (Laura Silverman), who dedicates a small plaque of recovered Nazi gold to commemorate Holocaust victims. Ever competitive and clueless, Sarah decides to make a bigger, better memorial, including a clown, a petting zoo, a fountain of a giant golden nose (as a signifier of Jewishness) pouring water as tears (but looking like a runny nose). She makes a commercial advertising the memorial, including the tagline “Auschwitz? You’ll say Wowschwitz!” Finally, she invites her friend Murray (Jewish actor Murray Gershenz), who was at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, as her guest of honor. He turns out not to be a survivor but a former camp officer and is greeted on stage by his former superior, Commandant Von Reichenstein (played by Jewish actor Ed Asner). This leads to chaos, gunfire, and a time-traveling dog that saves the day. The carnivalesque episode critiques those who would use the memorializing of the Holocaust for self-aggrandizement.
Similarly, a fourth season episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (1999-2011), entitled “The Survivor” (2004), uses broad humor and the figure of the survivor in a subplot. Larry David’s father brings his friend, Holocaust survivor Solly (Allan Rich), to dinner to meet a fellow survivor, who turns out to be a cast member from the reality show Survivor (Colby Donaldson). Awkwardness becomes a battle when the two compete for who has suffered more. From starvation to suffering extreme temperatures, each man decries his agonies until the two end up shouting “I’m a survivor!” back and forth across the dinner table in fury. Ultimately, however, Solly is not alienated from the David family by Colby, but by Larry, who waves off the glare of the sun reflected in Solly’s glass eye, leading Solly to think he is being ridiculed. Of course, the ridicule is not ultimately aimed at Solly (despite his broad “old Jewish man” performance) but at Larry, whose general social ineptitude is here focused on trivialization of his heritage, showing his ultimately shallow relationship to even the most profound event in Jewish history.
I would posit that Silverman and David, unlike the eponymous characters they play, illustrate through their comedy not a lack of awareness of the gravity of the Holocaust, but perhaps a response to being forced to recognize the Nazi genocide as central to contemporary Jewish American experience and identity. The complex points the two are making with their comedy and who or what exactly is the subject of the ridicule may be open for debate; the more significant point is that they’re making comedy about the Holocaust at all—comedy that moves beyond superficial Nazi ridicule.