In 1942, Ernst Lubitsch, a Jewish filmmaker of German descent, set out to produce one of Hollywood’s most celebrated comedies, “To Be or Not to Be.” The film tells the story of a Polish acting company that comes together in order to deceive the German forces occupying Poland.
While it is presently regarded as a silver-screen classic, the film was originally rejected by audiences, who viewed it as an insult given Lubitsch’s attempt to ridicule the Nazis — at the time, America’s arch-enemy. Hollywood myth has it that Jack Benny’s father was so disgusted by his son’s appearance as a Nazi that he stormed out of the premiere, threatening never to set foot in a film theater again.
One might argue that Lubitsch had made the mistake of ignoring comedy’s cardinal rule: timing is everything. The decision to mock the Nazis while American soldiers were still dying on European soil would cost Lubitsch his reputation as well as the esteem of his colleagues.
As is the case in criminal law, comedians are also bound by a statute of limitations. In “Crimes and Misdemeanors” Woody Allen explains that comedy equals tragedy plus time. As historic events move from the present to the past, they become fair play. Perhaps the passage of time allows audiences to ditch the emotional baggage associated with an immense event, thus paving the way for comedians to shed their light on the absurdity of reality.
Nowadays, even the most horrific event experienced by the Jewish people, the Holocaust, has become a legitimate punch-line.
The process of desensitizing Israeli audiences to the Holocaust was expedited in the ’90s by the Israeli comedy group Hahamishiya Hakamerit (“Chamber Quintet” in Hebrew), which was the first to perform comedy sketches that dealt with the Holocaust and its impact on Israeli society. These skits, now considered cultural milestones in Israel, were aired in prime time on both commercial and public channels.
In one sketch, Israeli delegates to the Olympic Games demand that the German starter allow the diminutive Israeli runner to begin the race a few seconds before his competitors. “Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough?” one of the delegates asks the starter:
Since then, Holocaust jokes have been becoming increasingly more popular. Currently, there are dozens of videos on YouTube portraying an enraged Adolf Hitler screaming at his officers for failing, among other things, to reserve a seat for him in a crowded lecture hall at Ben Gurion University or to find a parking place in the hectic metropolis of Tel Aviv:
In addition to the passage of time, two other factors may have contributed to the acceptance of Holocaust humor in Israel. The first is the death of many of the survivors. With each passing year, the list of living Holocaust survivors grows shorter, and their impact on society is dramatically reduced. The second factor is the coming of age of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. These are young men and women who, unlike their parents, did not grow up in the shadow of Auschwitz.
To this day, Israeli Holocaust jokes are intended solely for local audiences. On an international level, Israelis still view the Holocaust as the ultimate taboo. Similarly, in America, Jewish comedians have long been the only ones able to get away with Holocaust humor. That’s why Jerry Seinfeld is the only comedian in America who can make out with his girlfriend during “Schindler’s List.”
However, this may be changing.
In a recent episode of “Awkward,” a new teen drama produced by MTV, the heroine of the show, Jenna, is told by a friend that her love interest plans to keep their affair a secret. “He’s Anne Frank-ing you,” says Jenna’s friend, implying that the boy in question wants to hide Jenna as he is afraid of losing his status as the most popular kid in the school.
“Awkward” is not a Jewish comedy. It is also not aimed specifically at a Jewish audience, but rather at all young people going through the growing pains associated with adolescence and high school.
Is the show’s willingness to venture into the uncharted territory of Holocaust humor a sign that there is more to come? Not necessarily. But it might indicate that Jewish comedians’ exclusivity over the Holocaust as subject matter is over. It could also signal that Holocaust humor has become a legitimate form of entertainment.