In the beginning there was “The Producers,” Mel Brooks’ 1967 movie about a pair of avaricious wanna-be Broadway moguls who stage an extravagant dance number with high-kicking SS members in a musical titled “Springtime for Hitler.” Scandalous, said the critics.
Then, in more recent years, came Joan Rivers’ remarks about a German model: “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” And Sarah Silverman’s reproachful line that the “difference” between 60 million Jewish deaths at the hands of the Nazis and the true 6 million figure is that “60 million is unforgivable.” And Judy Gold’s question, “If I was standing on line naked for the gas chambers … would I hold my stomach in?”
All humor generated by Jews, designed to mock the perpetrators of the Final Solution, or in Gold’s case, to poke fun at her own fixation on body image.
Now comes Larry David’s giant step over the once-sacrosanct line between the Shoah and humor. Did it really go too far?
In his monologue as host last week on “Saturday Night Live,” the co-creator of NBC’s “Seinfeld” and star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” acknowledged he was obsessed with women, and speculated that had he grown up “in Poland when Hitler came to power” he would be “checking out women in the camp.” And he proceeded to suggest some pick-up lines. “How’s it going? They treating you OK?” he said. “You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes? What, what’d I say?”
“Offensive, insensitive and unfunny all at the same time,” said the Anti-Defamation League. “At best … bad taste, at worst … sickening and disgraceful,” said the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. More Jewish criticism flowed this week.
David’s monologue renews a debate over the propriety of humor in a Holocaust context, and the battle between artistic freedom and sensitivity for the feelings of survivors.
Was David’s monologue, which also noted that several prominent Jews were caught up in the current accusations of sexual misbehavior, more offensive than what other comics did?
Opinions are divided.
“Larry David did nothing wrong in my book,” said David Kilimnick, a Rochester-born stand-up comic who lives in Jerusalem. “It didn’t hit me as shock humor; probably because the comedians in Israel are always going for Holocaust humor.”
Ferne Pearlstein, director of “The Last Laugh,” a critically acclaimed documentary about the ethics of Holocaust humor, said she couldn’t help but “wonder if this joke had been written into an episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ if it would have been much less incendiary.”
JTA editor Andrew Silow-Carroll wrote this week that “perhaps David could have pulled off his Holocaust pick-up routine in a club, where audiences are ready for raunch and edge” rather than a national TV audience.
Some would argue that David wasn’t mocking concentration camp inmates but his own sexual obsessions. Others see it differently.
Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor and novelist whose writings are replete with dark humor, said he has never “mocked” or “fictionalized” the Holocaust years. “There was a time,” he said, when “the period of the camps themselves was holy ground. You don’t reimagine the unimaginable.”
It is not a coincidence that most of the comedians who have brought the Holocaust into their acts are Jewish. “An implicit pass is given to a Jew,” said Rosenbaum.
They, especially David, are not exempt from criticism, Rosenbaum said, asserting that only the survivors, who employed humor during the Shoah to keep their morale up, are entitled to do it. “If you weren’t there …” Rosenbaum left his sentence unfinished; his intent was clear.
Staff writer Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter In Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust” (1993, Jason Aronson).