Harry’s Biggest Crime? His Nazi Joke Wasn’t Funny

By Gabriel Sanders

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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In the torrent of news coverage that lifted the day’s true tragedy off the front page, nearly everyone with a stake in the matter (and hundreds without one) has weighed in on the subject of Prince Harry’s “royal gaffe,” as his brief stint in the uniform of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps has come to be known.

But while commentators from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Marvin Hier to Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson have had differing opinions on the precise nature of the prince’s crime and the question of what a just punishment for it would be, there is one point on which there has been absolute unanimity: As comedy, which presumably is what the prince was striving for, his flirtation with Nazidom was an unqualified disaster.

Requiring at once a knack for the outrageous and impeccable comedic instincts, Nazi-based humor is not easy to pull off, but it certainly can be done. Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” perhaps the Nazi comedy par excellence, is a hit not only on Broadway, but on London’s West End, too. (In a nice twist, Prince Charles was just at a December performance of the musical.) And it’s not as though England is without a homegrown brand of Nazi parody. John Cleese, as both a member of Monty Python and the star of the series “Fawlty Towers,” has been goose-stepping to great comic effect since the 1970s.

But why is it that Nazi humor in some cases succeeds and in cases like Harry’s simply falls flat? Where was it that the newly crowned “heir aberrant” went wrong?

For Lawrence J. Epstein, the author of “The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America,” Harry’s misstep springs from a seeming ignorance of humor’s relationship to the social hierarchy.

“When the weak make fun of the strong, it’s funny,” he said. “When the powerful make fun of the weak, it’s not. Harry is the third in line to the throne, an extraordinarily powerful figure. When he, intentionally or unintentionally, mocks Holocaust victims and soldiers who fought the Nazis, it’s not funny.”

Those appropriating Nazi imagery must be ever mindful of the proper comic context, said comedy historian Eddy Friedfeld, who pointed to a scene from Barry Levinson’s 1999 “Liberty Heights” to illustrate his point. In the film, which, like a number of Levinson’s semi-autobiographical efforts, revolves around a Jewish family in 1950s Baltimore, the teenage hero/narrator comes down the stairs on Halloween dressed as Hitler. He’s immediately sent back to his room and punished. What the teenager can’t grasp is how his get-up is any different from Sid Caesar’s classic “German General” sketch, which plays on television in the scene’s background.

“What the kid is missing is that Caesar and company went to great pains to establish the parody and distill the image of the German into something farcical,” said Friedfeld. “The gap in comprehension is much like Harry’s own.”

If film history is any guide, Nazi parody must be broad in order to succeed. One need think only of Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” (1940), perhaps the first of the great Nazi-themed comedies and the inspiration for many others, including Roberto Benigni’s 1997 “Life Is Beautiful.” Chaplin’s every move and utterance is larger than life.

Indeed, some, like psychologist Ros Taylor writing in London’s Guardian, have argued that Harry’s crime was not that he went too far, but that he didn’t go far enough. “He wore a costume,” Taylor wrote, “but he didn’t dress up.”

Harry, in a sense, replayed the actor’s nightmare. He had his costume on, but didn’t know the part.

“You can’t make a joke about anything — let alone the Nazis — if you don’t get the joke yourself,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich in an e-mail to the Forward. “There was nothing in Harry’s demeanor or costume or even his subsequent apology to suggest that he knew who the Nazis were or that he regarded their uniform as anything other than a chic fashion statement. The louche setting — a fancy-dress party for jaded, well-to-do British twits — had the additional sobering effect of reminding us that some members of England’s ruling class, including in the prince’s family, were actual fans of Hitler. That wasn’t funny then, and it’s still not.”

It’s a truism, but Harry’s sartorial faux pas only has proved it anew: Humor, to say nothing of Nazi humor, is no laughing matter.

IT’S NOT GOOD TO BE THE PRINCE: Nazi gags have paid off for Mel Brooks. So why was the world so quick to slam Prince Harry’s decision to wear a Nazi uniform to a costume party?

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