Holocaust humour can be funny

By Josh Howie, August 1, 2008

Should we worry about a spate of Shoah jokes on television? Depends on their context


Humour and the Holocaust. That's a dissertation title right there. During the last couple of weeks, we have seen on our screens a few more examples of the merging of the two, a combination which many people would argue should not even exist. I'm not one of them but we'll get to that in a sec.

First let's have a quick look at the examples. In the quiz programme 8 Out of 10 Cats on Channel 4, when asked to name "the world's most disappointing tourist attraction", David Baddiel answered, "Auschwitz", and then went on to add that "the rides are terrible". Last Friday, The Kevin Bishop Show included a sketch about turning Sophie's Choice into a musical, and in Sarah Silverman's new movie Jesus is Magic, which is based on her stand-up and opens on Friday, she also makes some references to the Holocaust. I don't want to ruin them for anyone going to see the film, but they are funny.

That is the most important question that comics have to answer for themselves when deciding whether or not to perform a joke - is it funny? That supersedes everything - but after that there are other questions that do need answering. Especially when dealing with one of the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity.

I'm reluctant to comment on the above examples due to various conflicts of interest. Whilst not personally knowing David Baddiel, I still know my betters when I see them. I write for the Kevin Bishop Show - although not that particular sketch. Sarah Silverman is my hero. So instead I'm going to talk you through the internal process that I go through when judging the appropriateness of my own Holocaust material and you can apply those criteria to the above. Let's take this one:

"I go on about the Holocaust a lot and my non-Jewish friends give me grief for it. They say things like, ‘Why can't you just get over it?' ‘It was 60 years ago.' One friend actually said to me, ‘Why can't you just look for some sort of positive?' (Long pause and delivered grudgingly.) I guess Schindler's List is a good film."

I perform that joke most nights around the country and it unfailingly gets a big laugh.

Does the laugh itself provide the validation for the existence of the joke? No. But I believe that answers to the following questions do: Who is the victim? Why are you saying it? What is the context? Where is it being said? I can't think of a "When".

Who is the victim? This is the most important question, for jokes require someone to be the victim. I have people coming up to me after gigs saying things like "I've got a great Holocaust joke" and then telling me something incredibly offensive usually involving some cheap reference to showers or gas, which just make me want to punch them. Some of you might think that I'm being a hypocrite, but let's looks at who the joke's victim is. In my joke I'm not making direct fun of the Holocaust but rather my personal reaction to it. In contrast, all the various stupid Holocaust pub jokes out there just make a victim out of the victims.

Why are you saying it? Whilst the job of comedy is always foremost to make people laugh, there is a secondary objective that you can sneak in. You have the opportunity to make people think. After the immediacy of the laugh has gone there is a moment when the audience takes in the underlying message of a joke. Not all jokes have deeper levels of meaning - most don't - but it's a great opportunity for you as an artist to get your viewpoint into someone else's head.

In my joke I'm trying to express my reaction to the Holocaust as a third-generation Jew and how it affects those around me. In reality I am obsessed about it and I do go on about it a fair bit. When I started exploring my Jewish identity, it was the Holocaust that played a huge part in how I defined myself as a Jew. Also, I think some non-Jews (and also maybe some Jews) do feel that we go on about the Holocaust too much. Which leads into a joke I have about exactly this point, and how all cultures partially define themselves by their tragedy and suffering - in England's case "Penalty shootouts".

What is the context? Context is king. As illustrated above, one point leads into another. One Holocaust reference by itself might come across as jarring but when placed within the wider context of a whole show - in my case talking about identity and making references about pretty much most religions and ethnic groups, how they see themselves and how we see them - is very different from "Have you heard the one about...?"

And finally: where are you performing this material? What part of the country? What country? I've performed gigs in Germany. I've performed all over our fair nation. The make-up of the audience is always different. Sometimes if I'm lucky it's some fellow Guardian-reading liberals who I love winding up and I'm certain will get the irony of what I'm saying. Sometimes I find myself on a Saturday night staring out at 400 drunken hens and stags. In the moment I have to decide whether that joke will go over the way that I intended it to.

Laughing at anything to do with the Holocaust is taboo and so it should be - but comedy has a role in challenging taboos (a necessary function for any healthy society). Every comic knows deep down that there exists a line - we can brush against it, flirt with it, nudge it a bit to see if it moves - but you know when you've crossed it.

Comedian Josh Howie will be performing his show, Chosen, at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 9.45 pm, until August 24, 0131-226-0000

Last updated: 2:29pm, July 31 2008