IT’S NO JOKE
THE LAST LAUGH?
IF IT bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.” This satirical definition of comedy, uttered with requisite egotism by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, is actually as good a response as any to the question: Is it acceptable to make jokes about the Holocaust?
This is the question addressed by American film-maker Ferne Pearlstein in her new documentary, The Last Laugh, in which she interviews Holocaust survivors along with American comedy aristocrats from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman, supported by screen extracts ranging from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Jerry Lewis’s never-released but newly discovered Holocaust comedy, The Day the Clown Cried.
It is easy enough to imagine, in Alda’s character’s terms, Holocaust material that would break if manipulated for laughs. But can such a subject be “bent” in the name of humour and, if so, how far before laughter gives way to distaste?
If you find yourself laughing at a Holocaust joke — especially if you are Jewish — you are bound to ponder, in the aftermath, what you were just laughing at, and why.
This is not necessarily to negate the humour, or your laughter. It can be salutary. A few years ago, a couple of friends of mine — both Jewish, both writers — went, for professional reasons, to see the late Bernard Manning in action. Manning, the most determinedly taboo-busting comedian this side of Lenny Bruce, included in his routine a series of vaguely offensive jokes aimed at negative Jewish stereotypes and then, acknowledging the presence of Jews in the audience, said: “I shouldn’t really make fun of Jews. After all, my dad died in Auschwitz… he fell out of a watchtower.” And my friends couldn’t help laughing, in spite of themselves, thereby endorsing the joke’s validity.
While it is appropriate to ban material because it is calculated to incite violence or hatred, or is aimed at a vulnerable audience, it seems to me quite inappropriate to proscribe anything simply on the basis of its subject matter.
Of course, some things are much harder than others to be funny about. It is difficult to imagine a joke about cancer having them rolling in the aisles. But, like world peace, while extremely unlikely, it remains theoretically possible. The problem with the likes of Frankie Boyle and others among today’s bloodless heirs of Bernard Manning who are so concerned to “push back the boundaries” is that, more often than not, they are tasteless without being funny, which nullifies the whole experience.
This is very different from dark or sardonic humour, which can still fulfil the important function of providing perspective. Think of Joseph Heller’s near-legendary comic novel, Catch 22 — which gets laughs out of war, perhaps the unfunniest of all subjects. Or the great Irish writers, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, both of whom highlight “God’s little jokes.” The same, gently blasphemous
Can Jews laugh at these jokes about the Shoah?
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
poked fun at Hitler in 1940