Anne Frank — remember her? You know, the teenage girl who became a symbol of the Holocaust. The claustrophobic years in hiding. The terrible mystery of betrayal, the horrific last weeks, dying of typhoid in a concentration camp. The poignant way in which her diary was found, its restoration to her father, all that was left of a sensitive, intelligent talented child, all that remained of his entire family.
Good subject for a joke, eh?
You may not think so, but plenty do. This week, the BBC received complaints about a quip by the comedian David Mitchell. “What was the last entry in Anne Frank’s diary?” he asked on a Radio Four game show. “It’s my birthday and dad bought me a drum kit.”
Ricky Gervais has his Anne Frank gag too; you can see it on YouTube. The Nazis were rubbish, he says, not to think of looking upstairs. They mistook Anne’s typewriter for rats. “She had time to write a novel, mind you, it ends a bit abruptly. No sequel. Lazy.”
And when “balloon boy” hit the headlines in America, supposedly floating across Colorado, later to be found hiding in a box in the attic, Twitter rocked with people telling each other the same joke — that Anne Frank had a much better attic hideout. For a while, Anne Frank was one of Twitter’s trending topics — the most popular subjects commented on around the world — as the Twitterati rushed to re-tweet the joke to each other. Or, in a few cases, to express their disgust and offence.
Why Anne? What makes comedians feel she is an acceptable subject? Why does a BBC producer decide to broadcast Mr Mitchell’s witticism when presumably they would censor a more obvious genocide gag?
First, because Anne Frank’s story has become the accessible face of the Holocaust. Her diary lacks its true ending. Had she written about the reality of the camps, the starvation, cruelty and disease, she would have a different place in the culture, and most probably her book would not have been so successful.
When people think of Anne Frank, they think of attics, and hiding. They remember her as a teenager who hid away and wrote a book. Quite a funny book, with farts and toilets and kisses. They don’t always remember her wretched death. When they compose a quick tweet about attics and hiding, she’s the girl who comes to mind. The context falls away, because the associations — the attic, the diary — are stronger.
And then there’s the comedian’s instinct which draws him to Anne. A safe way to tell jokes about the piles of corpses. Why would they want to do that?
Maybe because telling jokes is a way of mastering the things which scare us. Watch Ricky Gervais’s body language on YouTube. His flippant voice tells one story, his hunched shoulders and cringing demeanour tells another. He’s not laughing at Anne. He’s laughing at prats who think they can tell jokes about the Holocaust.
Laughter defuses the horror, but it also brings us closer. The cleverest jokes make us very uneasy as we laugh. It’s an extremely subtle paradox — very easy to get wrong — and one that does not work too well on radio.
The fine line between funny and offensive is one that BBC producers should be able to judge. It seems though that they put as much thought into matters of taste and context as a Twittering teenager.