Is it wrong to be funny about Anne Frank?
I got a strange email in the middle of the night from one Dan Bloom, a freelance writer who says he’s living in Taiwan. He asked if I could blog about an open letter he posted on TheWrap.com asking comedian Ricky Gervais to refrain from joking about Anne Frank.
Last week, Gervais appeared on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” for the second time in only a month. His much acclaimed prior visit discussing bestiality was such a big hit, Stewart invited him back. This time they discussed Gervais’s new HBO series “The Ricky Gervais Show”. Then the men had what I can only describe as an awkward conversation—about Anne Frank.
While talking up his collaborator and sidekick Karl Pilkington, the 37-year-old British comedian who appears on his show, and has something of a cult following in Britain according to the New York Times, Gervais giddily said, “This is a man who genuinely thought that Anne Frank was just avoiding paying rent.”
Jon Stewart dropped his head, something he does when he is stunned by a joke, as if hiding his face is an act of detachment.
“What do you mean?” Stewart asked.
Again referring to Pilkington, Gervais said, “[He] thought she was a squatter. He said, ‘I knew she lived in a cupboard but I thought that was to keep away from the landlord.’”
Cracking up, Gervais added, “I had to explain the landlord in this situation were the Nazis.”
“Does Karl really think a whole industry would crop up over someone who was hiding from a landlord?” Stewart asked incredulously. Stewart seemed uncharacteristically serious. “Why would we still know about it? Why would there be movies?”
If anyone can take—or rather make—a joke about Jews, it’s Stewart. But here, he seemed a bit disturbed. Like he sensed ill-humor.
Gervais: “I didn’t know how far back I had to go to explain about the war and the Nazis. I’ve been to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and it’s tiny,” he said, pausing. “So I don’t know why they didn’t find her earlier to be honest. It’s terrible! But Nazis must be stupid! Really? Everyday they went in, didn’t one of them say, ‘Can we look upstairs today Sargeant?’”
Stewart, now visibly horrified, replied: “She didn’t live in a Nazi’s house…”
“No, but they were looking for her so…” Gervais interjected.
“But they didn’t come in everyday and go…” Stewart began, defensively. Then even he suspected he was walking a dangerous line. “You should read the book,” Stewart said. “It’s very.. its… good!”
“That’s what I mean,” Gervais shouted. “She had time to write a book! Did they go, ‘What’s that tapping? Move on, it’s just mice. I can hear something Sarg!’.. it’s ridiculous!”
At this point, Stewart gets instructive, realizing that the man across from him who he ordinarily finds very funny is now making jokes on a subject in which he’s completely ignorant.
“The Nazis in general, did not go… it’s not like Halloween everyday [when] the Nazis came by and they would knock and go, ‘Any Jews today?’ She lived with a family that was harboring… people would harbor Jewish people, and protect them, but the Nazis wouldn’t do like bedchecks.”
Gervais gets the message and backpedals. “Say what you want,” he says to Stewart, “but I think the Nazis are useless—that’s what I’m saying.”
“Well you’re not gonna get a lot of pushback from me on that,” Stewart concedes, but then he goes back to being serious. “It’s more the logistics of what happened. It’d be like just describing other things that way, you know, ‘They should have done with Jesus, just not put him up on that wood, that was the trouble!’ We need a contextualizing of the historic [reality]…”
Whoa Jon Stewart.
Stewart’s discomfort is worth attention. Usually casual anti-Semitism or a bad Holocaust joke is worth an eye roll, or concerted quiet when everyone else is laughing. But the cringeworthy headline “Ricky Gervais accused of anti-Semitism” is hyperbolic, if not entirely off-base. Ignorance is not the same thing as hatred, but it is still a dangerous tone.
As Elie Wiesel has said, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. What I think Stewart detected in Gervais’s comedy was blatant dispassion towards the Holocaust, a cool, impassive detachment. This does not, by any means, mean Gervais would have been a Nazi, but it does make you wonder if he might have been a bystander.
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in times of moral crisis, do nothing,” wrote poet Dante Alighieri. Ignorance leads to indifference which permits moral atrocity to go on unchallenged.
But we must be careful about which comedy we jump to criticize or censor. As I’ve written before, for the mantra “Never Again” to be realized, the Holocaust must become a paradigm ingrained in the culture, and with such an imperative, all kinds of permutations and perversions are inevitable. The Holocaust will appear in an “X-Men” movie; Anne Frank will be made fun of in literature and on television.
As Hungarian Jewish author Imre Kertesz and Holocaust survivor acknowledged in his essay, “Who Owns Auschwitz?”: “For the Holocaust to become with time a real part of European (or at least western European) public consciousness, the price inevitably extracted in exchange for public notoriety had to be paid.”