Sure, you can poke fun at Anne Frank. But it may be a mistake to do so by joking about Hitler’s testicles.
That’s the approach that comedian Jeff Ross takes in the “Anne Frank” episode of his new Netflix series “Historical Roasts,” in which historical figures take the stage in order to be lampooned by their peers. Abraham Lincoln, played by Bob Saget, gets roasted by Jerron Horton’s Frederick Douglass and Yamaneika Saunders’s Harriet Tubman; James Adomian’s Freddie Mercury gets ridiculed by, among others, Nikki Glazer’s Kurt Cobain and Fortune Feimster’s Princess Diana.
It’s a premise designed to offend. But the series’s boldest move might be having Frank, played by Ruth Feinstein (“Crashing,” “I Feel Pretty”), take the hot seat in front of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jon Lovitz), Don Rickles (Mindy Rickles, his daughter) and Adolf Hitler (Gilbert Gottfried). Ross, who hosts, makes a point of expressing his admiration for Frank. “I only kid the ones I love, and Anne Frank is close to my heart,” he says. “I read her diary, and it made me cry.”
“With Anne Frank, it seemed like too many people were forgetting her story,” Ross told EW. “In order to never forget, you have to be enlightened to what happened.”
Given that devotion, it’s somewhat perplexing that the episode has, well, very little to do with Frank. “Historical Roasts” is something of a free-for-all; members of the panel are as likely to make fun of one another as the supposed subject of their scorn. But everything circles back, in some way or another, to the person in the hot seat. Jaleel White, as Nelson Mandela, might rip into Brandon T. Jackson’s Barack Obama, but he makes sure to turn back to Martin Luther King Jr. (Jerry Minor) in the end.
But when it’s Frank’s turn to take the taunts of Roosevelt, Rickles and Hitler, her primary role is looking vaguely annoyed while the men jab at each other. Lovitz, as Roosevelt, shapes his set around his glee about the fact that Hitler had only one testicle; all he says about Frank is that he wishes he could have saved her, but, well, he can’t walk, and the secret annex was up some stairs. Rickles-as-Rickles jokes about Eleanor Roosevelt resembling a horse, sings “The Grand Old Flag,” and grants Frank exactly one mention: His wife is Jewish, Rickles says, and she “hides from me every night.” And Hitler makes some astute observations about how America’s so-called Greatest Generation, Roosevelt included, perpetuated injustice in their own country — just before he, too, makes derogatory comments about Eleanor Roosevelt’s femininity. He speaks about Frank only briefly: “Everyone knows you as a hero and best-selling author, but to me, you’ll always be little number 825060.” (Accuracy isn’t the point of “Historical Roasts,” but it’s worth noting that the number with which Frank was tattooed at Auschwitz isn’t known; it was somewhere between A-25060 and A-25271.)
Even God (Fred Willard) shows up in order — theoretically — to explain why he let the Holocaust happen. But his appearance is really in service of another cause, which is returning the show to its true subject: Hitler’s balls. God snaps, and Hitler’s remaining testicle disappears, much to the glee of the assembled. And he sets up Frank, who gets the last word, to make the episode’s culminating joke: “Hitler, eat a dick.”
It’s actually funny to watch a bunch of 21st-century comedians treat a genocidal dictator as less scary than a teenage girl with a pen. But it’s unnerving that an episode supposedly focused on Frank, and marketed with a focus on Ross’s explicit admiration for her, suggests that she’s interesting primarily because she presents a neat opportunity for emasculating Hitler. And there’s a cringe-y aptness to the image of powerful men taking puerile swipes at each other over a silent Frank, stuck uncomfortably between them in a too-large chair.
“Historical Roasts” may have set out to roast Anne Frank, but what it really ended up damning was history’s approach to Frank. You can only comfortably joke about someone when you’re clear about who, exactly, they were. It’s easy to joke about Hitler’s junk, because Hitler was unambiguously one of the worst men in history. But history still hasn’t decided what to make of Anne Frank as an individual. In the context of the Holocaust she’s a sainted symbol, Hitler’s powerful adolescent antithesis. But although her diary is an intensely human document, history has often found the idea of Frank as a human, with corresponding, risible human flaws, to be icky — in a way that Hitler’s dick is, somehow, not. If only Jeff Ross and his cohort had been transgressive enough to look at Frank as she was, and make fun of her for it. If only they had the balls.