Roseanne plays Hitler for Heeb magazine

August 3, 2009

Not too many people are laughing at Roseanne Barr’s portrayal of Hitler on the cover of Heeb magazine this month. Yet there she is: a real-life Jewish grandmother dressed as a “Nazi domestic goddess.” She even figured in the trademark Hitler mustache and swastika armband, and bakes a batch of “burnt Jew cookies,” you know, for emphasis. Extra TV did a segment on the cover last week calling it “not funny” and shaming the controversial choice. But Heeb publisher Josh Neuman defended it, saying the cover was meant as “satire” and not done for “shock value.”

OK, you mean to tell me putting a Jewish woman on the cover of a Jewish magazine costumed as the man who burnt Jews in ovens (while she burns things in ovens) has no shock value? Since we’re being a wee bit insensitive to the remaining Holocaust survivors and their children, let’s at least call a spade a spade here, folks.

But if you’re mad, don’t blame Heeb. It was Roseanne who wanted to be photographed as Hitler. According to the magazine, she has a theory “that she may in fact be the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler,” and thus requested to create a kind of Jewish Halloween nightmare in order to make a personal statement. Writer Oliver Noble accompanied Roseanne at the photo shoot and wrote about the strange atmosphere on set:

“When you meet her, it’s best if you don’t try to shake her hand,” Roseanne Barr’s makeup artist and longtime friend warns me. “She doesn’t like to be touched by strangers.” OK, no sweaty handshakes. Fair enough. But there’s more. “If you get nervous around Roseanne, try not to show it. She’s like a shark. If she smells fear, she’ll tear you apart,” the makeup artist says.

Noble wisely decided to go with the flow. He writes that he greeted Roseanne with a “Sieg Heil,” in honor of the shoot.

As the “Domestic Goddess” dons the famous moustache, transforming into “Domestic Goddess Hitler,” I notice that she’s beginning to have fun. She nails the Fuehrer’s facial expressions with twisted glee, and as she takes the burnt gingerbread “Jew Cookies” out of the oven it occurs to me that Barr may be the last celebrity utterly incapable of giving a fuck.

“Until it’s time to face the practical repercussions,” Noble writes.

On her blog, Roseanne had to defend her choice and wrote that she was mocking Hitler and ridiculing his ideas.

Hitler thought he was being really manly “cleaning Germany up” by burning people in ovens. I was making fun of him, not his victims. My caricature of him very aptly imitates the “man with a godly mission” pose that he struck in all the early photographs taken of him. I portray him being very proud of his burnt cookies, because in his last words, he was proudly congratulating himself for killing so many Jews, and encouraged the German people to carry on his mission against the “International Jew.” The guy actually thought that killing jews was a good thing! The language that he used is still being used by many world leaders to this day. He killed my whole family, it is true, but he is also dead, and I, a Jewish woman, am still alive to make fun of him, and I will continue to make fun of the little runt for the rest of my life! He, and his ideas need to be laughed at even more these days, picked apart and analyzed up and down, as there are more and more people denying his crimes, and more and more despots trying to copy them.

But from the public’s reaction, it seems the larger culture isn’t ready for such a blatant Holocaust joke. It hasn’t inspired conversations about satirical irony, as Heeb had hoped, as much as it has elicited shock and awe from those who were unprepared for such an image. Which is a problem for smart comedians like Roseanne. It’s the same criticism that was made of Sasha Baron Cohen for his latest film, “Bruno” in which overt embodiment of gay stereotypes was meant as a critique of homophobia, not of homosexuals. Before the film was released, New York Times writer Brooks Barnes wrote, “Ultimately the tension surrounding “Brüno” boils down to the worry that certain viewers won’t understand that the joke is on them and will leave the multiplex with their homophobia validated.” The same could be said of Roseanne’s Heeb cover: anti-Semites won’t get the joke and will continue to endorse Hitler’s agenda.

Neuman thinks it’s time American culture owns up to its own interests. On Heeb’s blog, he writes that a rise in mainstream humor about the Holocaust may be signaling a cultural shift in attitude.

“Virtually every pitch we received leading up to the publishing of our Germany Issue circled back to the Nazis and the Holocaust and almost all of them were humorous,” he writes. “Certainly Jews have been joking about the Holocaust since the Holocaust (I believe it was the Warsaw Ghetto where the Jewish inhabitants referred to Hitler regularly as “Horowitz”), but these jokes have largely been uttered in private or underground. In recent years, they have been finding themselves in the most public of conversations.”

He cites some examples:

Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” is as much a part of American culture (and Jewish culture, specifically) as Fiddler on the Roof, and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Survivor” episode is about as controversial as a Christmas Day screening of Annie Hall. And the trend seems to only gather momentum. Just this month, Brüno (at one point, America’s number one box office draw) introduced the concept of “bleaching one’s Auschwitz” and the climax of The Hangover (which has now grossed over $247 million) revolved around a stripper (played by Heather Graham) returning the ring of the grandmother of one of the leads (played by Ed Helms). “I didn’t know that they gave out rings in the Holocaust,” jokes the character played by Zach Galifianakis.

“And what better way to capture this moment in popular culture than by having the original ‘domestic goddess’ don the Fuhrer’s famous mustache?” Neuman asks.

In the magazine’s defense he says “Heeb is a satirical Jewish culture magazine that interrogates stereotypes and ideas that many hold sacred in order to represent the complex and nuanced perspectives that many Jews have about their identities.” Indeed, in comedy as in satire, nothing is sacred. But pop culture jokes about the Holocaust have been getting public play long before the Soup Nazi entered the kitchen and certainly before Heeb decided to put one on the cover.

Mel Brooks has been playing and mocking Hitler for decades (anyone see a little play called “The Producers”?) and has said on television that, “One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler, because how do you get even? There’s only one way to get even: you have to bring him down with ridicule.”

Roseanne would probably agree.

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