At a time when mainstream politicians across the world are openly lobbing racist grenades into the debating chambers of cable news and social media, why do famous comedians still tell Holocaust jokes and can this subject ever morally be the target for comedy? Sometimes yes, mostly no.
Coming from a Jewish refugee family (my mother is a Holocaust survivor and many other family members were murdered), I am naturally acutely sensitive to jokes made about this subject. My family is divided on the question of Holocaust humour. In my work as the founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland, I occasionally use humour myself. It helps to break the tension with the audience. Without it, the pitch-black intensity of the Holocaust can make the facts hard to absorb, leaving the audience numb.
Holocaust comedy is a high-wire act given the golden rule of comedy: it has to be funny. Empathy is the key
But jokes about the Holocaust are among the hardest for any comedian to pull off. Except for neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers you are likely to offend everyone else in the audience. Gratuitous, indescribable cruelty inflicted on millions of civilians and the murder of six million Jews, half a million Roma and Sinti, and tens of thousands of homosexuals, the disabled and political prisoners is not an obvious subject for comedy. Especially as it’s still in living memory.
Holocaust comedy is a high-wire act given the golden rule of comedy: it has to be funny. Empathy is the key. Jokes at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves only really work when the observation exposes our own vulnerabilities.
Every so often, the question raises its head as another comedian uses the Holocaust to get a laugh. Failure will bring opprobrium and censure, as well as a blaze of publicity; the latter perhaps never wholly unwelcome. This time, the English comedian, Jimmy Carr, has stepped on the proverbial land mine, receiving a widespread backlash. In a recent show on Netflix he tells us that "thousands of gypsies died in the Holocaust . . . no one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives".
Beyond tasteless, Carr succeeds in further demeaning the Traveller and Romany communities, the implication being that they are a marginalised section of society whom no one values, so genocide in their case is a good thing. In an attempt to defend himself, Carr digs a deeper hole for himself by explaining that it was "educational and that it's a joke about the worst thing that's ever happened in human history, and people say 'never forget', well this is how I remember".
Except that Carr has shown no empathy for the victims, whose only crime was to be singled out for their ethnicity, just like the Jews. By degrading them today, he questions their right to mourn their unimaginable loss. Humiliating Holocaust victims and their families is an especially despicable act with consequences for them that are more complex than Carr foresees.
If Carr is interested in how to tackle the Holocaust as a stand-up comedian, he should turn to Ricky Gervais. In a double episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s series of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee in 2019, Gervais tells two Holocaust jokes. The first is a version of a well-worn gag where a Holocaust survivor goes to God and tells him a Holocaust joke. God replies that it isn’t funny whereupon the Holocaust survivor counters, “You’d have to have been there.”
The second joke has the commandant of Auschwitz allowing a group of Jewish prisoners their freedom for Christmas. As they are filing out the last one says to his captor, “But we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Gervais’ comedic instincts around the Holocaust are humane. His first joke is sophisticated and works at many levels, especially as Gervais is well known as an atheist. His second turns the butt of the joke into a hero; someone not prepared to accept freedom at any cost, especially if the price is giving up that part of him that led to his incarceration.
Both jokes show great sympathy for the survivors. They also work by depicting the absurdity of the Holocaust. This was a structure that Roberto Benigni deployed in his 1997 double Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful; a fable that has a father and son incarcerated in a concentration camp, Benigni plays the part of the father. He tries to convince his young son that the Nazis are playing a game in order to shield him from the horror of their circumstances. Benigni commented that this contrived scenario was no more absurd than the realities of life for the victims.
The Holocaust is the Everest of comedy topics. It needs years of training to conquer
Absurdity and farce were the devices used by Mel Brooks in his classic 1967 film The Producers with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, and later in 1983 with To Be or Not to Be in which he starred next to his wife, Anne Bancroft. Interestingly, Chaplin’s masterful parody of the Nazi regime,The Great Dictator, came out in 1940 before the Holocaust had fully swung into operation.
Perhaps knowledge of the full extent of the horror now precludes satire as a comedy genre in this arena. The events are so extreme that farce seems to connect more viscerally with the audience than satire. This was the heart of the success of the British comedy series ‘Allo ‘Allo!, which ran for 10 years from 1982, itself a parody of a fictional series about the Belgian Resistance, called Secret Army which ran for two years from 1977.
In part two of the Seinfeld episode, Gervais shocks Seinfeld by showing him a black and white picture of a baby boy and asks Seinfeld to guess who it is. At the third attempt Seinfeld guesses correctly: Adolf Hitler. Gervais asks Seinfeld the classic moral teaser: if he could go back in time would he kill him? “Look, he says, he’s only one. He’s done nothing wrong yet. He’s adorable.” The same photograph inspired the great Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska’s, Hitler’s First Photograph, a poem that could be about any infant’s first portrait. Except, of course, we know how this story ends.
The Holocaust is the Everest of comedy topics. It needs years of training to conquer. I am prepared to be made to feel deeply uncomfortable if the joke is clever, tender and empathetic. Most of all, if I can laugh at this inherited trauma, it might mean that it is possible to live a just life in a world where the Holocaust made justice an impossibility for its victims.
Oliver Sears is founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland