Holocaust comedy? It's no joke

Can genocide ever be a subject for laughter?

By Daniel Goldman, September 12, 2012
Controversial? Holoclownsto is a story about the Nazi genocide featuring balloons, silly music and Brazilian clowns

Controversial? Holoclownsto is a story about the Nazi genocide featuring balloons, silly music and Brazilian clowns

Heard the one about the six clowns that get put on a train to a concentration camp? No? So, the first clown says to second clown…

In fact, in the award-winning Holoclownsto, nobody says a word. You will soon be able to find this out for yourselves. Troupp Pas D’Argent, an acclaimed theatre company from Brazil, is bringing its clown show about the Holocaust to London.

It is being performed as part of the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival, a festival that I set up in 2007 to stage the best of the region’s theatre in the UK. From over 150 applications this year, we selected Holoclownsto because it moved us, made us laugh and broke our hearts. It is a completely wordless piece that works for all ages. In short, it is a great piece of theatre.

So far so good. And yet, whenever I tell people we are presenting a clown show about the Holocaust, I tend to get one of two reactions. The first is confused nervous laughter followed by a pause and possibly the expectation (or hope) that I will say that I am only joking. The second is confused anger that manifests itself in a barrage of questions or, worse, a sad shake of the head.

The shake of the head is near impossible to deal with. The person’s mind is made up and will not be changed. The barrage of questions, however, is really interesting: how dare they do a clown show about the Holocaust?; is the Holocaust something to laugh about?; what do they know about the Holocaust? Are they even Jewish?

Each one of these questions raises yet more questions about the nature of taboos — how far one can go on certain subjects, what is permissible and what isn’t. This is nothing new. This year’s Edinburgh Fringe was riddled with rape jokes, jokes about rape jokes and then columnists writing about rape jokes. Perhaps we are programmed to laugh when we get too close to the edge — in the darkest places lie the funniest laughs. And nothing is darker than the Holocaust.

Stand-up comic David Schneider has been mulling over the idea of humour within the context of the Holocaust for some time. When I ask him what makes one joke about the Holocaust funny and another simply offensive, he is fully aware of the volatile nature of the subject but suggests there are perhaps two basic rules — you have to be able to defend it, and it must have truth.

After that, getting a joke right is all about context — who is telling the joke, who is the audience and where and why the joke is being told. In the right context and handled right, jokes on even the most taboo subjects can break down barriers and change the way we think for good. Of course, get it wrong and it will blow up in your face.

The Holocaust was a defining moment for the human race. A mirror was put up to our humanity and we were shown that we are as capable of violence and evil as we are bravery and good. It was a tragedy with implications on a global scale. It belongs to everyone. Including Brazilians. Who incidentally may or may not be Jewish.
Our prejudice is natural. We have lived with the weight of the Holocaust for almost 70 years. Some of you reading this lived through it. My grandmother lost her entire close family. She still has nightmares about what happened. If we have formed strong views about what can and cannot be said about it, it is to protect the memories of those we have lost. It is understandable that we are wary of people who use it simply as a theme to be explored.

And yet the most profound tragedy has invited the most profound response from artists from all genres. I will never forget sitting in a cinema for 10 hours watching Shoah. I will never forget reading Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and I will never forget laughing for the first half and crying for the second half of Roberto Benigni’s film comedy, Life is Beautiful.

Holoclownsto is not disrespectful or distasteful. Troupp Pas D’Argent has simply created a show that continues in the tradition of Benigni and Primo Levi in holding up a light to the darkness. It is a work of intelligence and compassion that highlights the experiences of all the Nazis’ victims.

It is not a show about pratfalls (though there are great pratfalls) and it is not a show about balloons (though there are balloons) and it is not a show about acrobatics or silly music, though they are present too. But it works precisely because it is a clown show.

As Troupp Pas D’Argent itself says: “The story we tell isn’t less tragic because we tell it as clowns. It is the contrast between the innocence of our characters and the terrible nature of what happens to them that makes it a story that cannot be forgotten. The clown exists to present the folly and stupidity of mankind and make it recognisable to the audience.”

My rabbi once said something that has stayed with me. “If we Jews didn’t laugh, we would cry”. Maybe we should do both. Maybe we should laugh till we cry and cry till we laugh and in that spirit, celebrate a piece of theatre that, in its own clownish way, aims to bring home the lessons of the Holocaust to a new generation.

‘Holoclownsto’ is at Ovalhouse, London SE11, on September 12 and 13 as part of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival 2012. David Schneider will give a pre-show talk on the 13th looking at humour in the context of the Holocaust. Details and tickets at www.casafestival.org.uk

Last updated: 5:19pm, September 12 2012