Triumph of the Wit
By Joel Lazar
This coming May I’ve decided to trounce around in front of hundreds of people as a neo-Nazi maniac with six pigeons for friends. My parents are tremendously proud. I play Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks’ smash hit, The Producers, brought to us by the esteemed and only living Jewish theatre company in Australia, JYM theatre co. ‘Why couldn’t you study law like the rest of your class?’, the parents ask. Well I do. Nazism is a side thing.
The timing of this production is apt, the season running only weeks after Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. And the question I face every Yom Hashoah is now more poignant than ever: What is the best way to eradicate the possibility of a Nazi-like ideology rising again, bent on killing the Jews or anyone else? And how do I continue to straddle the line between “Never Forget” and “Never Again”?
There are many possible ways. Listening to survivor stories is one. In so doing, we try to understand unfathomable human cruelty. Maybe then we’ll recognise it before it rears its head again. Other ways include building shrines of remembrance and museums, or creating meaningful educational trips to the skeletons of ghettos and concentration camps. All of these have value. Some are more successful than others at helping us understand the brutality of the Nazi war machine.
So what of humour? What role does humour play in this story, if any?
When Brooks was interviewed about the making of The Producers, he lamented that ‘Jewish organisations were outraged’. They argued, ‘how can you make jokes about Hitler? The man murdered 6 million Jews.’ Firstly, he responded, the show makes not one reference to concentration camps or the Holocaust. And importantly, Brooks’ father was a German Jew and his mother a Ukranian Jew, both undoubtedly familiar with the terrors of Nazism. Brooks even fought the Nazis in the 78th Infantry Division of the U.S. army. He too knew the face of Nazism. He cannot be accused of insensitivity on grounds of existential or emotional distance. So why the Nazi wise-cracks? Because, says Brooks, ‘with comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths’. To destroy a myth is to defeat it at its own game of imagination. Humour then is a mighty opponent, capable of stripping the great Hitler façade bare, kicking it off stage in its soiled underpants.
David Slucki, in his 2012 article “Too soon? The case for Holocaust humour”, argues that Holocaust humour does not necessarily trivialize the event (as many would argue), rather it is
“…part of the landscape of Holocaust remembrance. It has a role to play…Not all [examples] are in good taste. But to dismiss humour altogether as part of how we remember the Holocaust is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The question is not if the Holocaust can be funny, but how, and within what ethical parameters.”
In that vein, I believe that a show like The Producers serves a number of noble purposes.
Firstly, most ways we try to eradicate the memory of Hitler and challenge Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism are simply too kind. Retorting to a Holocaust denier or neo-Nazi: ‘How dare you! Do you know how many Jews died in the war? How many families were torn apart?’, bestows upon an irrational viewpoint a rational outlet. It’s an undeserved compliment. Reasonable dialogue belongs to the domain of reason. As a vile form of irrational prejudice, Nazism transcends reason and it deserves no conversation. How suitable then that humour, in many ways a human expression that transcends reason, should posthumously destroy Nazi memory.
Secondly, whilst the true essence of humour is difficult to decipher, we know it arises in contexts of the disjointed, incongruous or unexpected. For example, we might laugh at a cartoon of three corrupt MPs dressed as The Three Wise men in the nativity scene. It’s out of place and mildly funny. So when we split ourselves laughing at a maniacal neo-Nazi who loves pigeons and Bavarian dancing; or an ostentatious prancing Hitler; or the dazzling gold sequins of show girls, arms adorned with oversized swastika arm bands, we begin to realise the power of humour. It highlights the absurd juxtapositions between the monstrous and the noble. That way we never forget what monsters look like.
Thirdly, that The Producers was written by a Jew, performed on stages across the Western world and is now being produced by an Australian Jewish theatre company, is the most life-affirming victory over Hitler of which I can conceive. It says not only that we survived. It declares: We live. We thrive.
So when I take the stage on May 11th with six harmonising pigeons and the cast and crew of JYM theatre co., I’ll be quite content that every asthma-puffer-inviting, paper-bag-sucking, cardiac-arrestingly funny joke is one more smudge on Deh Fuhrer’s stupid name and all of his stupid Nazi friends.
The Producers season shows from May 11 – 25 at the Phoenix Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at www.jymtheatre.com. They’re selling fast!
Joel Lazar is a cast member of The Producers and an aspiring comic who will never quit his day job.