Humor and the Holocaust: Where the Line’s Drawn

The New York Times article in yesterday’s Sunday Review section titled “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking” uncovers the recent scholarly discoveries that the Holocaust was in fact even more catastrophic than researchers once thought. Such news almost 70 years after the Shoah reaffirms what a horrific, devastating era this was in human history.

The Holocaust researchers, according to the Times article, “have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. The figure is so staggering that even fellow Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard it correctly when the lead researchers previewed their findings at an academic forum in late January at the German Historical Institute in Washington.”

It is evident that while we are several generations removed from the Holocaust there is still new information coming to light about this dark period in European Jewish history. This makes it even more difficult to find humor in comedy from such tragedy and yet there has not been a single tragedy in the world that has been free from the reach of comedy. Comedians crack jokes about 9/11, worldwide natural disasters, the Chernobyl incident, plane crashes, Space Shuttle tragedies, and horrific mass murders. A common refrain following such off-color jokes is “Too soon?” But, when really is it not “too soon” to tell a joke about a catastrophe on par with the Shoah? Where is the line of taste when it comes to humor about the Holocaust and who do we trust to draw such a line?

An Austrian actor plays Hitler during a Berlin production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers (AFP/GETTY)


In the past week alone we have had to make communal judgment as to whether such comedians as Seth MacFarlane and Joan Rivers went too far in their Holocaust humor. Some have pointed to comic Sarah Silverman who has historically gotten a pass on her references to the Holocaust in her humor. Mel Brooks has famously been able to mock Hitler and the Nazis without drawing criticism. And Larry David wrote an entire episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which a Holocaust survivor and a past participant on the TV show “Survivor” argue about who endured the bigger challenge. It’s not about being Jewish and having a free pass to use Holocaust references in comedy, it’s about doing it creatively and not causing people to squirm.

In his debut as host of the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane made a Hitler reference when announcing the nominations for Best Picture, he joked about “Amour,” “The last time Austria and Germany got together and co-produced something it was Hitler, but this is much better.” The day after the broadcast of the Oscars, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), under the leadership of Abraham Foxman, went after MacFarlane more for his jokes about Jews controlling Hollywood than for this Holocaust reference, but the comedian took a lot of flack for this joke too.

Much worse than MacFarlane’s Hitler name drop was Joan Rivers’ Holocaust joke on the red carpet before the Oscars. Rivers, who is Jewish and whose late husband lost most of his family in the Shoah, deadpanned about German supermodel Heidi Klum’s dress at the Oscars, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” Rivers refused to apologize for the joke stating, “My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz, and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humor.”

The ADL sharply criticized Rivers for her joke calling it vulgar and offensive. Abe Foxman said, “Making it worse, not one of her co-hosts made any effort to respond or to condemn this hideous statement, leaving it hanging out there and giving it added legitimacy through their silence.”

The ADL is often the litmus test for when celebrities have gone too far in making light of the Holocaust. Foxman wasted no time in issuing statements after Jesse James and Prince Harry dressed in costumes as Nazis.

Jesse James, the former husband of actress Sandra Bullock received a Nazi hat as a “gag gift” from his Jewish godfather back in 2004 and a photo of him wearing the hat and pretending to be Hitler was released in 2010. Foxman at the time called it  “offensive,” “in bad taste,” “stupid behavior” and “insensitive behavior.” But Foxman clarified stating that the photo “doesn’t make him an anti-Semite.” Foxman continued, “I have more issues with his Jewish godfather who sent him this is a gift. I find that more bizarre. Why would a Jewish godfather send his godson such a gift? That’s outlandish!”

Back in 2005, photos began circulating of the young Prince Harry wearing a Nazi costume to a Halloween party. The ADL’s Foxman released a statement explaining that, “Our reaction to Prince Harry’s choice to wear a German uniform with a Nazi swastika armband was not that it was a Jewish issue. He offended all the victims of the Nazis and all who fought them, especially the British… Prince Harry’s apology should be not to England’s chief rabbi but to the British people, who suffered in the blitz and who fought valiantly against the Nazi onslaught. Prince Harry’s education should begin at home.”

There are ways to use the Holocaust in humor without getting Foxman to issue a press release. It can be done in a very tongue-in-cheek way on film or on Broadway like Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” It can also be done in a very dark yet creative way like Larry David did on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Sarah Silverman has been very successful in making fun of the Holocaust and Nazis in a shocking, yet acceptable fashion.

On stage in her movie “Jesus is Magic,” Silverman calls Nazis cute before they grow up, refers to the Holocaust as “the alleged Holocaust,” and says her grandmother had a vanity death camp tattoo on her arm that said “Bedazzled.” She tells the story of her niece who attends Hebrew School and called her up to discuss what she learned about the Holocaust. The young girl mistakenly explains that the Nazis murdered 60 million Jews during the Holocaust. Silverman corrects her saying it was actually 6 million, not 60 million to which her niece asks what difference it really makes. “Uh, the difference is 60 million is unforgivable.”

It’s a matter of style and substance. Humans need to be able to laugh; even at the incomprehensible tragedies of life. There is a certain waiting time that must occur before we are even able to laugh and no one knows precisely how long that is. When it comes to the Holocaust and humor, it’s a touchy subject. The red carpet of the Oscars wasn’t the right forum for Joan Rivers’ reference to the ovens during the Holocaust. It was both shocking and offensive. And even Seth MacFarlane himself was able to see that he could have used an alternative joke about the movie Amour that didn’t conjure up images of Hitler. Perhaps what makes talented comics like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and Larry David so successful is that they can come up with ways to use references to the horrific and make people laugh without drawing criticism for being insensitive or offensive.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sarah Silverman on Being Jewish

This year I’ve given a handful of presentations on the topic of Jewish Humor. I talk about the Jewish comedians who have been making people laugh over the past sixty plus years. I show video clips of the legends of Jewish comedy from Sid Caesar, Jack Benny and Milton Berle to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman. I also talk about more modern Jewish comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Richard Lewis and Seth Rogen.

There aren’t many female Jewish comedians in my presentation. I mention Sophie Tucker as the first major Jewish comic for her vaudeville performances. Of course I talk about the legendary Gilda Radner, who grew up in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before becoming famous on Saturday Night Live. I also mention that over the years there have been several female Jewish comedians like Joan Rivers, Elaine Boosler, Rita Rudner, Roseanne Barr, Fran Drescher, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, and Sandra Bernhard. None of these female comedians however elicit the response I get when I talk about Sarah Silverman. People love Sarah Silverman (even if they’re uncomfortable when they laugh at her jokes).

With Rita Rudner after a performance in Las Vegas

Last week’s NY Times article by Jason Zinoman hit the nail on the head when it highlighted Sarah Silverman’s comedy as following in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Silverman’s willingness to break the taste-taboo ceiling, as Zinoman put it, has led to her finding stand-up success in ways her female comedian forebears never did. Zinoman writes,

Comics like Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard were trailblazers, but if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” When I saw Sarah Silverman deliver that signature one-liner in a downtown theater almost a decade ago, the audience exploded with laughter followed by groans. Then came the anxious chuckles whose subtext seemed to be: I can’t believe I laughed at that joke. 

Sarah Silverman’s comedy is very Jewish and she pushes the boundaries like no other female comedian today (Whitney Cummings comes close, but she’s been heavily influenced by Silverman). Not since Lenny Bruce’s shtick about the difference between the Jewish God (in a mezuzah on the doorpost) and the Christian God (on a cross and in movies) has a stand-up comic been able to make theology so funny in such a provocative way. Her movie “Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic” riffed on religion in a way that oddly seemed to be both offensive and hilarious at the same time.

Sarah Silverman with ex-boyfriend Jimmy Kimmel and
her sister Rabbi Susan Silverman and brother-in-law Yossi Abramowitz

Sarah Silverman’s influence in the 2008 presidential election with “The Great Schlep” video was nothing short of brilliant when she encouraged young Jewish liberals to travel to Florida to convince their grandparents that it was okay to vote for Barack Obama even though he’s black. She has also promoted social justice work and eradicating worldwide hunger with her contribution to the American Jewish World Service video and her own “Sell the Vatican, Feed the World” video. And of course her famous video with Matt Damon was well… you have to watch that one for yourself.

Sarah Silverman and her sister Rabbi Susan Silverman discuss their Jewish identity

I’ve always wanted to hear Sarah Silverman talk about her Jewish identity, or as she calls it her “Jewy-ness.” A couple weeks ago Sarah and her sister, Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman, were interviewed together at an event at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. Here’s the video of the interview (the first 7 minutes are introduction):

Watch this video on YouTube

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller