Ben Pobjie August 10, 2012
Itzik Cohen as Adolf Hitler dancing with others in " The Producers" in Tel Aviv . Photo: GADI DAGON, AP
One can't help but feel a certain amount of trepidation when embarking on the fool's errand of coming to the defence of jokes about the Holocaust. It's not a position likely to gain you the moral high ground in many people's eyes. But still, after reading Dvir Abramovich's attack on Triple J's Tom and Alex, I felt compelled to at least make a few points in defence of my comedic brethren.
Now Dvir Abramovich, of course, is a man for whom this is a very personal issue, and who, rightfully, devotes himself to fighting against any attempts to diminish or trivialise the suffering caused by the Nazis. I could, at this point, go on at length about how I myself have no wish to do so, and how I am vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism and fully cognisant of the horrors of the Holocaust and so forth. But it seems that this should really go without saying. The genuinely lunatic fringe aside, I think there's a default assumption in our society that we're all pretty much on the same page when it comes to Nazis: do I need to explicitly state that I'm not pro-Nazi? And if someone out there thought I was, would my stating otherwise make any difference anyway?
So we're agreed – we all hate the Nazis, and let's move on. But the fact is, Abramovich wasn't attacking Tom and Alex for liking the Nazis, he was attacking them for making jokes about them. And in fact, he goes further: Abramovich wrote: "Maybe Tom and Alex can explain to us what is remotely funny about the gassing of millions of men, women and children and the burning of their bodies?"
And here we come to the crux of the matter, and where I must take issue with Abramovich's analysis. For he has made use of the common misdirection of the offended: the claim that someone who makes a joke about a certain subject is, by definition, making a claim that that subject is itself funny.
It's an easy tactic to fall for, because those who use it are, generally, people standing up for "the right thing", and because on the face of it, it seems obviously true: jokes are funny, a comedian's job is to make jokes about funny things, so clearly, the things a comedian makes jokes about must be funny things.
This is not only a misunderstanding of comedy, it's a misunderstanding which anyone who has actually consumed any comedy in their lives will see through with but a moment's thought. Comedians don't tell us about things that are funny: they take things that aren't funny and try to make them so. As a matter of fact, if the only things we could joke about were things that were already funny, comedy wouldn't even exist – there'd be no point in making jokes if everything we made jokes about was funny to begin with.
It's not difficult to see the truth of this: Abramovich notes that the Holocaust isn't funny, but what subject of the most popular comedy is? Running a hotel isn't funny, but Fawlty Towers was. A paper-goods office isn't funny, but The Office is. A full-grown man caring for his senile mother sure as hell isn't funny, but Mother and Son was known to raise the odd chortle in its time. None of these comedies – or a thousand others that could be names – are about "things that are funny". They are funny because of the way serious subjects are treated, not because they avoided serious subjects entirely.
So, sure, you can say, but the Holocaust is a special case – it's not just a serious subject, it is THE serious subject. The number one, gold-standard, unchallenged champion of Stuff We Do Not Take Lightly. Even, for example, Blackadder's take on World War One, or Carry On making merry with the French Revolution surely can't compare to mocking such horror? OK, so let's look at the idea of Holocaust comedy. Let's look at, for example, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, a movie that poked fun at the Nazis while World War Two was still raging. Let's look at Dad's Army, or Allo Allo, or Hogan's Heroes. In fact, if you want a ban on Nazi humour, you're going to have to crack down on a vast range of comedy, from Mel Brooks to Saturday Night Live to Jerry Seinfeld to Monty Python to The Simpsons to Quentin Tarantino. That's a lot of people for Dvir Abramovich to tell to "grow up". And although the funniness, good taste, and level of offensiveness of all the above will vary, and everyone will have their own opinion on just how worthwhile the humour is, I am entirely confident that nobody involved in the comedy I've mentioned could ever be said to hold a belief that the Holocaust was funny, or insignificant, or not a serious matter.
This is not, I stress, and I stress in the strongest possible terms in the hopes I can make my meaning entirely clear – this is not an attempt to declare comedic open slather, or to say everyone has a free pass to make any joke on any subject without fear of rebuke. Of course not. There are plenty of genuinely offensive jokes, racist jokes, sexist jokes, homophobic jokes, and just plain nasty jokes. They're all around us, and it would be a fool who claims "I'm joking" is a cure-all for any and all offence taken. Whether Alex and Tom's Hitler bit fell into the category of offensive or hurtful is for each individual to judge, and if you are offended by it, so be it. Some comedy really is beyond the pale, and while I'll stand up against it being censored, I won't claim it's all just good clean fun.
But if you want to condemn a comedian, or comedians, for material that you say is unacceptable, to declare an outrage against human decency, you're going to need an argument more sophisticated and convincing than, "some things aren't funny".
Because most things aren't funny, and joking about them has nothing to do with claiming they are. Real life isn't funny. It's boring, and sad, and frustrating, and so often it makes your heart want to break. That's why we have comedians in the first place – not to point out what's funny, but to make the stuff that's not funny at all a little easier to bear.
And sometimes, let's be honest, it doesn't work. But that doesn't mean we have to stop them from trying.
Ben Pobjie is a writer and freelance contributor.
Below are apologies issued in relation to the Triple-J piece:
I'm very sorry that on my breakfast radio program, I offended and upset a lot of people. That's not what I like doing; I like making people laugh and I like making people happy. I never set out to vindictively offend or belittle anyone or any group with my comedy, that’s not what I’m about. I sincerely apologize that’s how I came across in this instance.
On Thursday morning’s breakfast show, some comments were made by a triple j presenter in relation to Hitler that have received a negative reaction. Further to our post yesterday on facebook, triple j takes all complaints seriously. We recognise the concerns regarding the comments are serious. triple j agrees the comments made were inappropriate. The matter has been followed up with the Breakfast team. triple j regrets the matter and apologises unreservedly for any offence caused.