I’ve never been a big fan of Larry David’s work. The longtime stand-up comedian and writer has obviously had a successful career, as the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-creator of Seinfeld. But I don’t find him to be particularly funny.
To be perfectly frank, my preferred description of him is “bloody annoying.” Nevertheless, David deserves credit for daring to go where few in his industry would ever consider travelling: Holocaust humour.
During a Nov. 4 appearance on Saturday Night Live, David’s opening monologue was partially inspired by the recent slew of allegations involving rape and sexual harassment in Hollywood. Noting that a fair number of them were Jews, he did a twist and wondered if he would have kept approaching women as a concentration camp prisoner.
“I think I would!” he exclaimed, and proceeded to tell the audience his pick-up line. “How’s it going? They treating you OK? You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes? What? What did I say? Is it me, or is it the whole thing? It’s because I’m bald, isn’t it?”
It was an enormous roll of the dice, one that David hoped wouldn’t come up snake eyes. Unsurprisingly, he crapped out.
Anti-Defamation League national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted: “Watched #LarryDavid #SNLmonologue this AM. He managed to be offensive, insensitive & unfunny all at same time. Quite a feat.” Greenblatt’s politics (Democrat) and organization (which takes irresponsible, left-wing positions) aside, his tweet summed up the general consensus about the bit.
Yet this controversial episode begs an important question: is it possible to tell a successful joke about the Holocaust, or is the topic off-limits for comedy?
My answer would be “yes” to the former, and “no” to the latter.
Several films, including Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967) and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), have explored the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in either a softer, or light-hearted manner. (It should be noted that Brooks, along with Steven Spielberg, was critical of Benigni’s movie.) Even clips of Jerry Lewis’ still-unreleased film, The Day the Clown Cried (1972), included scenes of children in a concentration camp laughing at dark comedic bits performed by the titular character.
The difference here is that David’s SNL monologue was much more pronounced on this particular topic. With the backdrop of the disgusting behaviour of disgraced former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, et al., telling a joke about the Holocaust was a hard sell.
‘Arguing that the Holocaust can’t be joked about is preposterous.’
It’s also challenging to equate Adolf Hitler’s master plan to exterminate the Jews with humour – the topic doesn’t lend itself naturally to comedy. Regardless, arguing that the Holocaust can’t be joked about is preposterous. If you believe in free speech, then all subjects are open to discussion and interpretation. Certain subjects may either please, or irritate, some people, but nothing should be off limits in a free and democratic society.
But whether or not a joke is successful depends, as always, on its presentation.
Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary, The Last Laugh (2017), explored the topic of the Holocaust from the perspective of comedians, writers and concentration camp survivors. In a March 2 interview with radio host Jeremy Hobson, she said, “The thing that made me want to make this film was when I found out that there was some humour in the camps; that in that darkest of dark, people could still find humour there.”
When Pearlstein asked participants, “Do you have a Holocaust joke?” some of them had nothing in their arsenals. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was up to the challenge, and tossed out this remark: “There was a Holocaust?! Nobody told me!”
Gottfried’s Holocaust-themed zinger worked, unlike David’s Holocaust-themed stinker. Why? Because Gottfried is funny, and David isn’t.