When funny fails: Sarah Silverman as Hitler

Sunday, March 13, 2016 - 11:53pm

Sarah Silverman went on “Conan” as Hitler last Thursday, and it wasn’t cool.

The long-standing question of what is or isn’t OK to represent comically is constantly being put to the test. We often take for granted the ways in which comedy serves as a vehicle for the truth — mainly because we’re too busy laughing to notice. But it’s important to consider the implications of this power. With comedy, we can say what we normally wouldn’t about things we typically wouldn’t address.

Sarah Silverman’s appearance on “Conan,” dressed as Hitler, is an example of the failure to adequately consider the repercussions of humorously addressing a tyrant and murderer. Though I personally enjoy Sarah Silverman’s comedy and admire her ability to brazenly say what’s on her mind, her portrayal of Hitler in response to the increasing likening of the former ruler to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump was an instance of poor judgment in taste.

Trump is known for his controversial policy ideas about minorities, and more recently, for increasingly spitting out hateful comments directed at minorities in the U.S. Regardless of whether he truly believes the things he says or if his bigotry is just a ploy to stay in the limelight, his statements are no laughing matter. And neither is the comparison of him to Hitler.

On Thursday night, Sarah Silverman went on “Conan” to address this comparison as none other than Hitler himself. Aside from the jarring experience of seeing a man responsible for the genocide of millions reincarnated in a cartoonish costume on live television, Silverman’s humanization of Hitler has just as little place in the media as do Trump’s discriminatory statements.  

You might think to yourself, “It’s only a joke,” or, “It’s OK because she’s Jewish.” Well, it’s not just a joke. As Charles Churchill wrote, “A joke is a very serious thing.” Jokes give us the power to criticize our society, because they knock our guard down and expose us to truths we don’t want to face before we can put our guards back up again. Silverman, dressed as Hitler, exposes “Conan” ’s audience to a truth that is both unintended and unfounded — that manipulating Hitler’s ideology to make light of both his and Trump’s beliefs is OK.  

Though pretending that even Hitler would denounce Donald Trump drives home the point that he has some problematic views (to say the least), it has a very powerful, unintended side effect: it paints Hitler in a light that ignores the nature of his beliefs and actions. In essence, Silverman is making the case that Trump is someone who’s worse than Adolf Hitler — whose Nazi regime oversaw the brutal persecution and ultimate extermination of six million Jews, as well as millions of other victims.

Silverman walks on stage greeting the audience with a casual “Heil,” then proceeds to speak in her own voice as Hitler, saying, “I agree with a lot of what he says — a lot. Like 90 percent of what he says, I’m like, this guy gets it.” Silverman acts like herself, reciting Nazi ideology in a manner more in line with her own than Hitler’s, making her statements all the more unsettling. Silverman (AKA Hitler) then proceeds to take issue with Trumps “crass” way of speaking. Yeah, because Trump’s delivery of the hateful garbage is the problem.

Her intention, of course, is not to promote Trump’s or Hitler’s ideas, nor is it to offend the generations of people actually victimized by the man she portrays. But her casual delivery of the racist attitude that effectively led to the deaths of millions trivializes the image of Hitler and events that took place under his rule. Since the beginning of the difficult healing process following these events, much debate has surrounded their appropriate representation in the media. Though many years have passed, no amount of time can buffer the difficult sentiments associated with evoking images of the Holocaust. And it will especially never, ever be funny — no matter what the intentions are in satirizing it.   

Comedy isn’t only great, it’s also an essential part of discourse in our society. But as with most things, it has a place and time. And making Hitler, the most hated man in our world’s history, funny, has neither a place nor a time — especially not on Conan O’Brien’s couch and not during his show. Silverman’s performance, though intended as a wake-up call to the kind of person that’s in the running for leading our country, simply makes fun of something that isn’t and shouldn’t be funny.

When you have a voice as powerful and established as Silverman’s, it becomes necessary that it be used judiciously. I’m not trying to attack Sarah Silverman or chide people for what they think is or isn’t funny. But this instance of misguided humor serves to remind us of the delicate balance between making fun of something and trivializing it. While it is important to remember the consequences of what Hitler did, his image and memory should stay in the past, where they belong. And it is our duty to remember that when it comes to humor, there are some things that are out of bounds.