Yes, even Hitler can be funny

Sunday, March 20, 2016 - 5:20pm

Sarah Silverman went on “Conan” as Hitler last Thursday, and it was only kind of funny.

Daily Arts Writer Shir Avinadav, in her well-argued piece “When funny fails: Sarah Silverman as Hitler,” made the point that what Silverman did, dressing up as Hitler and bemoaning the Donald Trump comparisons between the two, was out of the bounds of acceptable comedy. While I agree that the skit was misguided at times (the exchange at the beginning when Conan tells “Hitler,” “You’re the worst,” and Silverman replies “I know, I know” felt forced and, yes, trivializing) I have to disagree that the skit in its entirety was out of bounds.

It was certainly jarring to see the man responsible for mass genocide appear on late-night television — particularly because he was greeted with resounding applause. Silverman often tends to concern herself with breaking the boundary of what we can and “cannot” talk about, and the Conan skit is a clear example of her edgy jokes. For the countless families who suffered from the Holocaust (at this point it seems necessary to mention my own, which in some twisted way adds credibility to these sort of dissenting articles), there will never be a point when the Holocaust is “OK.” And there never should be.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t address it, or even humor it. It’s paramount that we refuse to allow Hitler’s memory to remain in the past, lest we risk such a tragedy again.

As Avinadav’s article aptly points out, “A joke is a very serious thing.” Even with the guise of casualness that she brings to all her jokes, there is an acute awareness of this in Sarah Silverman’s satire. When she, acting as Hitler, compliments Trump by saying “this guy gets it,” she makes light of the comparisons, sure. But she also, on a deeper level, encourages us, whether we like it or not, to at least take a look at the similarities between the two.

Some have been offended by the very comparison itself, arguing that it is demeaning to Hitler’s victims. I’m not so sure. It’s no doubt hyperbolic rhetoric, and I don’t think that Donald Trump is anywhere near the level of Hitler, who was far more intelligent and crazed. But the tide of support that he has received for suggesting a ban against Muslims and demonizing Mexican-Americans is nevertheless frightening. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like for those groups to see this rhetoric unfold in the 21st century, especially in a country like the United States, which spouts freedom and liberty as its very foundation. Raising the red flag and pointing out the history strikes me as preventative, not offensive.

When we say that using Hitler in comedic situations is off-limits, since he must be a special case, we run into the dangerous territory of trying to parse through who and what are special cases, what makes them so and when, if ever, they stop being so special. Take Bill Cosby, for example, who was joked about frequently in the last two years following the reveal of the breadth of his sexual assault claims. Some were aghast that comics would even approach such a subject — rape can’t be funny, can it?

Well, it depends. Just as it does when approaching the Holocaust, 9/11 and everything else. Treated with the right amount of irreverence, the right lens and offered with the right irony and self-awareness, these dark and somber subjects can be enlightening and even amusing. Hannibal Buress did a great job showcasing this in his fierce monologue about Bill Cosby.

“Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old Black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said. “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, Black people, I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.”

Not only did it elicit a powerful response — and laugh — from his audience, but also a powerful response from the media, and soon Bill Cosby’s horrifying actions were again brought to the attention of the public, this time for good. Such is an example of when irreverent comedy and shocking elements work together successfully and actually evoke change. Are we to berate Hannibal Buress for this?

This isn’t to say that Bill Cosby and Hitler are similar at all, but rather to point out that too often when we attempt to make these determinations we end up with our backs against the wall, trying to figure out which groups suffered more than others, who is evil enough to chide, when it’s “too soon,” etc. These are questions that, like the term “acceptable,” have little place in comedy. Rather, we should be determining what is funny and what isn’t, not what’s OK and what isn’t.

Still, humor is subjective, and while there’s not, in my opinion, so much a limit on what is “acceptable,” there’s at least a minimal level of nuance that good comics need to approach controversial topics in a way that will get the laughs they crave.

Take Larry the Cable Guy as an example of when poor taste ruins humor. His jokes are crass and often incorporate some level of subtle sexism or racism (“I dated this retarded woman once, but we broke up. We couldn’t agree on anything. I’d say ‘tomato,’ she’d say ‘bowling shoes!’”). They aren’t funny to the majority of the public today because they feel antiquated, rooted in a society that we no longer ascribe ourselves to. Now that the public is more cognizant of those issues, it isn’t funny to hear an old white dude pretend they don’t exist.

And you could argue that Sarah Silverman’s impression of Hitler simply wasn’t funny. That’s totally subjective and OK. For some, like the author of “When funny fails,” Hitler will never be funny.

But he’s still fair game.