Laughing In the Face of Evil

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on chutzpah contended that it was more audacious for Joseph Columbo to form the American Italian Defamation League than it was for Al Ruddy to pitch the idea of Hogan’s Heroes to executives at CBS. The audacity or chutzpah in both cases was huge. Columbo was himself the head of one of New York City’s major crime families and wanted the American Italian Defamation League to detect and denounce popular perceptions that Italian-Americans were mobsters. Ruddy‘s audacity stemmed from his Jewish identity and the incongruity of creating a show that portrayed Nazi prison camp officers as somewhat lovable and always clueless. To add to Hogan’s Heroes audacity, the chief writer, Bernard Fein, along with Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), and John Banner (Sargent Schultz) were Jewish. In fact, Klemperer and Banner were German refugees who fled Hitler’s policies during the 1930s. One more audacity — the head of CBS, the network that bought the show, which ran for 6 years (1965-1971), won two Emmy’s out of twelve nomination, was William S. Paley, also a Jewish American.

An obvious question is how you can make a sitcom about the Nazis only 20 years after the defeat of Hitler. An even bigger question is how Jewish Americans, some of whom had experience in Germany, could include National Socialism in a humorous production.

For my money, Hogan’s Heroes is way more audacious than the American Italian Defamation League.

And yet, laughter is one way of coping with persecution and social injustice. Jews have a long history with using humor to persevere. One delightful avenue into Jewish humor is the documentary, When Jews Were Funny (it deserves way more than IMDB’s collective rating of 3 stars). Another is Joseph Epstein:

Why are Jews so funny? Jews are like everyone else, of course, only more so. They have what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster.” Optimism is foreign to them. They find clouds in silver linings. If they do not court suffering, neither are they surprised when it arrives. They sense that life itself can be a joke, and one too often played upon them. They fear that God Himself loves a joke.

Adam, alone in the Garden of Eden, brings up his loneliness to God.

“Adam,” the Lord says, “I can stem your loneliness with a companion who will be forever a comfort and a consolation to you. She, this companion—woman, I call her—will be your friend and lover, helpmeet and guide, selfless and faithful, devoted to your happiness throughout life.

“But Adam,” says the Lord, “there is going to be a price for this companion.”

When Adam asks the price, the Lord tells him he will have to pay by the loss of his nose, his right foot, and his left hand.

“That’s very steep,” says Adam, “but tell me, Lord, what can I get for a rib?”

So why don’t advocates for social justice have a sense of humor?

According John Gray:

Contrary to a familiar line of criticism, there are few signs of hypocrisy in [egalitarian thinkers]. Hypocrisy requires a measure of self-awareness, and there is little evidence of that in them.

The same goes for humor. You need self-awareness, and even self-deprecation, to have a good sense of humor.

So how did Dave Chappelle get so funny?


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