Almost exactly a year ago, I was in a synagogue in Brooklyn during Hebrew school dismissal one Sunday morning when I heard two 10-year-old girls chatting.
Girl 1: I’m so MAD about the election. I don’t want there to be another Holocaust!
Girl 2: They’ll make us shave our heads.
Girl 1: I’d look terrible with a shaved head.
Girl 2: Me too! (laughing) My hair is one of my best features.
Two little girls, running only on rice-cakes and dealing with the thought that they might pay a price for their religion for the rest of their lives, should not be able to improvise better Holocaust jokes than Larry David and a team of comedy writers. But they did, because their joke turned real fear into comedy.
Their joke made light of the inherited fears of Holocaust details (what do we know about the murder of 6 million Jews? That they shaved everyone’s hair!), not the victims of the Holocaust. Plus the girls were talking privately and in a Jewish setting. Larry David’s Holocaust bit in his Saturday Night Live monologue this weekend was a bland, context-free reference to the fact that the Holocaust happened; about as interesting or as relevant as David taking off his pants mid-monologue.
But David’s joke was worse than irrelevant. It was offensive. He may not have defaced the memory of victims of the Holocaust, but he did deface the tradition of Holocaust humor. And we should expect more from the man who brought us the world’s most beloved Nazi — the “soup Nazi.”
Dealing with the collective, inherited trauma of our people’s near mass-extinction has long been a Jewish pastime. When dealing with a tragedy so enormous it’s beyond comprehension, it’s a natural response. Lenny Bruce did it. Actual Holocaust survivors did it. Like knishes or praying mincha, it’s Jewish, but it’s not for all Jews.
David is the master of observation; a genius at wielding discomfort. So what is his excuse for going on national television and telling lame, superficial, Holocaust jokes? Remember, we’re living in an age where there are actual real-life Nazis planning police-protected events and recruiting on the internet — it’s not exactly tough to find inspiration.
If Holocaust humor isn’t for you, fine. But at least acknowledge that all Holocaust jokes are not created equal. “I know I consistently strive to be a good Jewish representative,” said David during his monologue, right before totally wasting an opportunity to represent the Holocaust to an enormous international audience.
Let’s examine his monologue:
I’ve always been obsessed with women, and I’ve often wondered—if I’d grown up in Poland when Hitler came to power and was sentenced to a concentration camp — would I still be checking out women in the camp? I think I would. “Hey Shlomo! Shlomo! Look at that one over there by barracks 8. Oh my god, is she gorgeous! I’ve had my eye on here for weeks. I’d like to go over and say something to her.” The problem is, there are no good lines in a concentration camp…”How’s it going? They treating you okay? You know, if we ever get out of here I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes? What? What’d I say? Is it me, or is it the whole thing? It’s cause I’m bald, isn’t it?”
Okay, now let’s break this travesty down.
“Would I still be checking out women at the camp?”
First mistake: He combines sex and the Holocaust for maximum shock value, and it’s so obvious that it’s obscuring anything funny that he might say. He’s just come from a joke comparing himself to Quasimodo, reinforcing the notion that it’s so, so hard to imagine someone voluntarily sleeping with him under normal circumstances; involving the Holocaust feels like too easy a distraction.
“Hey Shlomo! Shlomo!”
Second mistake: Use of traditional, stereotype, Ashkenazic names as Jewish comedy! So elementary.
“There are no good lines in a concentration camp”
Third mistake: The whole thing really falls apart here. David is forgetting that his audience has a wealth of imagery and a healthy imagination when it comes to concentration camps; the impossibility of such a scenario begs one to wonder: Where exactly are these people standing? Are they doing hard labor? Why are the guards allowing flirtation?
“I’d love to take you out for some latkes.”
Fourth mistake: How is it possible that this man, who looks like Job and talks like Bernie Sanders, had to stoop to referencing latkes to try to make a Jewish joke? It’s unforgivably kitschy. How are Jews going to survive in the Diaspora, if we are always reducing our entire culture to latkes to appease the goys?
“It’s cause I’m bald, isn’t it?”
Final mistake: What is this joke? Is it making fun of Larry David, for being bald? If so, that is very, very boring. Is it making fun of concentration camp victims for having their heads shaved? That is boring too, and offensive. Now we’re confused, angry and hungry for latkes.
Larry David, next time you piss off the Anti-Defamation League, don’t steal your jokes from a Jewish amateur standup night. If you’re going to joke about the Holocaust, you have to have something to say. Take a note from these comedians:
“Springtime for Hitler”, “The Producers”
A full out ensemble song and dance number presented within a larger context: this is a timeless classic for a reason.
“Remember That We Suffered”, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
This is a joke about how modern Jews remember the Holocaust and incorporate it into our identities, and its brilliance NUMBS THE MIND.
Observe Tracy Morgan greeting a French-speaker:
“Hope: A Tragedy”, Shalom Auslander Jewish satirist Shalom Auslander wrote a novel about what would happen if you discovered the elderly Anne Frank had been hiding in your attic for decades, writing a second diary. Get on that level, Larry. Here’s a (warning: graphic) trailer for the book, with Auslander and Ira Glass.
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny