With his appearance on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, Larry David, the undisputed king of cringe-comedy, may have finally crossed a line. It is a symbolic line, admittedly, one that artists draw for themselves both morally and aesthetically. But it is a line nonetheless.
Of course, it’s not a line David would ever hesitate crossing again. He’s taken that same devilish step many times in the past—all for laughs.
His monologue on SNL, however, doubled down on a theme that properly deserves to be forever buried and left alone. That’s what we do with the dead, especially the victims of mass murder. A certain amount of piety is expected, and one never dreams of desecration with such nightmarish events.
David pivoted from the recently disclosed sexual predations of certain men in the entertainment industry, making the unpleasant association that many of them happened to be Jews, to his own unseemly wolfish behavior. Apparently, so indiscrete are his sexual urges that he can imagine checking out Jewish women in a concentration camp. In fact, he gave a national audience a glimpse of David hypothetically approaching an attractive woman with death in her immediate future, and testing out pick-up lines.
Appalling, but perhaps not surprising. David has been flirting with the Holocaust for many years. And he keeps coming back, not taking no for an answer, a nebbish with a libido for bad taste. Except the Holocaust is not a love interest. It is an unsightly atrocity, incapable of attraction of any kind, and on any human scale.
This is the same man who conceived a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry was making out with a girl during a screening of Schindler’s List. And another in which a disagreeable fast-food proprietor was renamed “The Soup Nazi.” An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm riffed on the Reality TV show, The Survivor, in which a winning contestant squared off at a dinner party with an actual survivor of a death camp, comparing their relative suffering. In still yet another, a man with numbers tattooed on his forearm turns out not to be a Holocaust survivor, but rather just someone who temporarily inks his lotto ticket number each week so as not to forget.
So much for Never Again.
Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption. George Costanza, David’s doppelganger, was an enduring fool of humiliation, placed in recurring, squirming situations. David took the Borsht Belt and twisted it into a straightjacket of Jewish self-loathing.
In France, the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has incorporated crude concentration camp humor (and jokes about gassing Jews) into his act. And because of such material, he is routinely banned from performing and has been convicted for engaging in racial hatred. In Belgium, he was imprisoned and forced to pay a $10,000 fine for inciting hatred. In America, for expressing self-hatred, and mocking the Holocaust, David was honored with guest-hosting duties on SNL.
Of course, freedom of expression is a hallmark of American democracy. David is merely taking extreme artistic liberties with his comedic imagination—Holocaust survivors be damned. Moreover, unlike Dieudonne, David is himself a Jew. Shouldn’t he be given the same leeway African-American comedians receive when their material invokes the “N-word”? After all, concentration camp victims were known to tell jokes to each other in order to keep their spirits up and maintain their moral survival.
But those were their jokes to tell; they owned the experience, and they weren’t ribbing each other for laughs alone, one skeleton to another. And there are still survivors living among us. Isn’t there some gentleman’s agreement about un-ripened events “too soon” for comic exploitation?
And as for France and Belgium, they are democracies, too, with artistic licenses of their own. They just happen to believe that common decency and a respect for the dead should not be debased for the sake of nervous laughter.
Larry David may have finally gone one cringe too far. Surely, he didn’t violate any laws, other than the one of nature—with something as supremely unnatural as Auschwitz, go find another gag line.
But after all these years, shouldn’t the Holocaust be able to take a joke? Actually, it can’t, and what’s more, it shouldn’t have to.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. He is the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke,” among other fiction and nonfiction titles.