“Who won the bloody war anyway?”
“It’s springtime for Hitler and Germany…”
“If he opens his big mouth again…it’s lampshade time!”
Comedy about Nazis has a long and proud tradition, going back to when the war was still raging. From Jack Benny to Mel Brooks to Monty Python to Basil Fawlty to Jerry Seinfeld, it’s been a popular topic for jokesters. Each one of those went “too far” for someone or other. But Netflix’s Historical Roasts has, to some, left “too far” in its dust.
To be fair, if you’re making a show called Historical Roasts, in which comedians dress up as historical figures and hurl comedic insults at each other, and you make an episode featuring the characters of Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank…well, you knew you were going to piss some people off. It’s so obvious, you have to assume the makers wanted to piss people off and are quite enjoying the predictable reaction.
The episode of Historical Roasts, which features jokes such as Hitler saying to Frank, “Everyone knows you as a hero and best-selling author, but to me, you'll always be little number 825060”, has caused outrage that is both understandable and pretty easy to sympathise with: the Anti-Defamation Commission’s Dvir Abramovich, in conjunction with several Holocaust survivors, called on Netflix to take the episode down, saying that “there is nothing funny or amusing about a bestial dictator responsible for the extermination of six million Jews”.
Which is hard to argue with. I mean, the Holocaust isn’t funny. And when those who lived through it are making the call, who wants to disagree with them? Nobody – however committed to getting a laugh – wants to cause Holocaust survivors pain.
Yet here I am, condemning my soul to Hell by siding against the Holocaust survivors, and with the comedy roasters. And it pains me to say that because I don’t even like comedy roasts. But God help me, I happen to believe it’s OK to joke about Hitler and Anne Frank.
One relevant element here is that the episode in question was written and performed entirely by Jewish people. Of course, even Jewish people can make horrible art, and I think that even non-Jewish people can joke about the subject. But we have to admit that being created by Jews makes it a little easier to swallow.
More relevant, I believe, is the fact that while there is “nothing funny” about the Holocaust, that doesn’t mean jokes about the Holocaust can’t be funny. There is nothing funny about World War One, but Blackadder Goes Forth was hilarious. There’s nothing funny about depression, but Bojack Horseman is comic genius. The whole point of comedy is to take an unfunny subject, turn it into a funny performance. Whether that unfunny subject is a mundane one like hotel management or an inflammatory one like the Nazis.
Obviously, people will get offended. And I’d never tell them not to. But I would tell them to simply avert their eyes. Don’t watch the show: that’s easy enough. But don’t demand its erasure, because you don’t have that right. Comedy doesn’t have to be offensive, but it does need the freedom to be offensive if it chooses to be: otherwise you neuter the whole artform. Let them make their jokes. And they’ll let you hate their jokes. And through the magic of tolerance, we can all be happy.
Follow Ben on Twitter.