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What Makes a Funny Holocaust Joke?

Pretty, pretty, pretty much ever since Jews began making jokes about the Holocaust, other Jews have been offended by them. So when, last weekend, Larry David strode onto SNL’s stage and offered up a thought experiment about what it would be like to hit on a woman at a concentration camp, it was all but expected that the Anti-Defamation League — a group that monitors Holocaust denial worldwide — would deliver a sharp rebuke.

But the sanctimonious hand-wringing over whether David had crossed some invisible line that demarcates “acceptable” Holocaust humor from the abyss of Pepe memes and oven jokes doled out by Nazis on Twitter obscured a fundamental truth: The right Holocaust jokes, told the right way, can be therapeutic, enlightening and even necessary.

Take, for example, this brilliant Sarah Silverman sketch on (coincidentally?) the last episode of her self-titled Comedy Central show. The conceit is that Sarah and her sister, Laura, have set up dueling Holocaust memorials, but while her sister’s is a somber, understated and classy affair, Sarah’s is a literal carnival featuring a sexy Hitler and a giant, water-gushing nose meant to symbolize the snot and tears of the Jewish people.

Essentially, Laura’s memorialization is one that a therapist might prescribe, while Sarah’s makes a holy mockery of the entire affair, laughing at the idea that six million lives lost could ever be meaningfully rendered inside a building made of concrete and steel. (Incidentally, I first saw this sketch at the Jewish Museum in Berlin as part of an exhibition about what it means to be a Jew in Germany. Among the museum-goers I observed, teens were more likely to laugh at Silverman’s sketch, but Germans over 40 barely cracked a smile.)

David’s joke isn’t as fun to parse. The premise is that he’s a womanizing buffoon so controlled by his libido that he can’t keep it in his pants even while stuck at Auschwitz. The bit is cringe-inducing the way all of Curb Your Enthusiasm is, but doesn’t have an overarching point to make besides “Larry is a creep.”

In mixing sex and the Shoah, David’s joke was similar to the set-up for “The Raincoats,” an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry and a date snog during Schindler’s List. Once again, the premise was moral vacuousness in the face of tragedy. That said, David has also shown a deeper interest in the politics of how we remember the Holocaust: The episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which a Survivor contestant and an actual Holocaust survivor duke it out over who suffered the most, revealed the warped politics of victimhood and how easy it is to fall into the trap of relativizing tragedy.

Grappling with big, meaty questions of memory and victimhood or cutting Hitler down to size — à la The Producers — is better than using Nazi death camps for shock value in a story about what a dog you are with women.

But despite the potential for tone deafness, I still think a wide-range of Holocaust humor, especially by Jews, can serve a valuable function. Perhaps that’s why Israeli TV shows have been attempting to make fun of the Holocaust since the early 1990s. Case in point: The Israeli version of SNL once took the Star of David badge, used by the Nazis to brand Jewish people as members of an inferior race, and reimagined the cursed cloth as a children’s show character, which the Israeli press apparently loved.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Jewish comedian Oliver Polak has been making off-color jokes about Nazis since the mid-aughts. In a music video from 2013 titled “Ich Bin Adolf Hitler,” he imagines what it would’ve been like if Hitler had woken up as a bum in present-day Kreuzberg, a hipster hangout. Polak-as-Hitler futzes around his pathetic apartment, accidentally sets himself on fire while rolling a joint, and stumbles outside, where he’s promptly beaten to a pulp by a group of Orthodox Jews in top hats. Predictably, the sketch drew concerned, self-serious debate in Germany about whether Polak’s satire had “gone too far,” but I saw it as playful meditation on the absurdity of Neo-Nazis living in the multikulti metropolis.

Stateside, David is far from the only Jewish comedian to have come under fire for a Holocaust joke. Perhaps the most pitiful Holocaust sketch in history came from none other than Jewish comedian Jerry Lewis, director of a long-lost 1972 film about a clown named Helmut Doork who entertained children in Nazi death camps. Called The Day the Clown Cried, the deeply misguided work was never released because Lewis was apparently mortified by it, but a copy of the film was donated to the Library of Congress in 2015 under the stipulation that it wouldn’t be screened before June 2024. “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh, My God!’ — that’s all you can say,” Harry Shearer wrote of the film in a 1992 review for Spy Magazine.

Similarly, Joan Rivers was roundly criticized after a comment she made on Fashion Police about a dress worn by Heidi Klum. “The last time a German looked this hot they were pushing Jews into ovens,” she quipped. (The ADL called the remark “vulgar and offensive,” though Klum apparently didn’t mind.) According to the 2017 film The Last Laugh, which detailed Holocaust humor throughout the ages, even NBC regretted approving Seinfeld’s iconic “Soup Nazi” episode. Roz Weinman, who was in charge of standards and practices for the network at the time, told the doc’s directors she believes the way the tyrannical soup shop owner passed into pop culture ended up “trivializing” the Holocaust.

You truly can’t win ’em all. As the Soup Nazi haters show, there will never be a consensus about what makes a good Holocaust joke. (Even David finally won some plaudits last night.) The Rorschach Test is dictated by the national mood, and when neo-Nazis are organizing with ease, mining World War II for comically absurd material seems far less fun than it used to. Using the Holocaust as a setting for your romantic foibles just because it inspires shock and discomfort is a bit too similar to the tactics used by pro-Trump trolls.

I still stand by David’s efforts; I just wish he had a better point to make.