Comedy, they say, is tragedy plus time. But there are some topics that always feel off-limits.
Hitler? Fire away.
Concentration camps? Let’s not.
Anne Frank, the innocent, precocious teenager who hid in an attic for two years to avoid the Nazis, who lived crammed against the rafters with her family and others, is arguably one of those no-go zones. The Franks were eventually found and shipped off to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne died of typhus at age 15. Her persona has become the closest thing to a Semitic saint – a Jewish Joan of Arc, minus the intent.
So last month, when Netflix debuted a six-part comedy show, Historical Roasts, wherein roastmaster Jeff Ross (born Jeffrey Ross Lifschultz) invites comedians and actors to roast historical figures, one name stood out from the rest: they skewered Abraham Lincoln, Cleopatra, Martin Luther King Jr., Freddie Mercury, Muhammad Ali and, of course, Anne Frank.
“We’re all here for you, Anne, the author of the most famous diary of all time – and the inventor of the staycation,” joked Ross. “We’re here tonight because of your amazing story: one that schoolchildren around the world still pretend to read to this day.”
This is indeed a roast, albeit a pretty light one. “I only kid the ones I love, and Anne Frank is close to my heart,” explained Ross, before detailing how the book touched him personally and caused him to reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust and how it affected his own family.
Most people outraged at the concept of an Anne Frank roast likely haven’t watched the episode. If they had, they’d discover that most of it is spent mocking Hitler (played by Gilbert Gottfried; the episode’s entire cast is Jewish), with a few breezy jabs at Frank peppered between.
The logical question lingers: why include the innocent Frank among a list of globally renowned politicians, activists and celebrities? I suspect Ross wanted, in his own way, to promote awareness, both of the Holocaust itself and ongoing genocides around the world.
I’m not sure how many non-Jewish youths know about Anne Frank’s life. Unlike Mercury, Ali and Lincoln, no venerated actors have been nominated or won Oscars for portraying her in the last decade. (Even MLK and Cleopatra enjoyed successful Hollywood biopics.) Some kids may read her diary in school, but her Gen Z pop-culture clout ain’t strong.
Put another way, while we solemnly nod whenever we hear the words “Never forget,” we need to address the ongoing tension of what Holocaust education will look like in a post-survivor world. The roast of Anne Frank is a wonderful example of this. It’s probably less funny than you think – and more educational, too.
Against a backdrop of neo-Nazis crawling out of the woodwork for the first time in decades, Ross joins an impressive roster of creative Holocaust education efforts.
Look at Edek, the hip-hop Holocaust music video, blending a survivor’s story of salvation with a young rapper’s original music and lyrics.
Or consider Eva Heyman, the girl who inspired @eva.stories, a pop-up Instagram account that launched this past February, documenting the gripping story of another real girl – 14 years old in 1944 – who died in the Holocaust and penned her own posthumously published memoir. That book, The Diary of Eva Heyman, never grew as popular as Frank’s – but then again, Frank never had 1.7 million Instagram followers.
This is the language of younger generations. It’s the language of hip hop, Instagram stories and comedy roasts. You may not understand it, you may find it offensive, you may feel outraged at its flippancy – but it’s connecting with millions of young people far more palpably than any textbook. Jews worldwide would do better to embrace it.
Hear Michael chat more about the roast of Anne Frank on The CJN’s podcast,
The Canadian Jewish Shmooze, at cjnews.com/podcasts.