When Comedy Stops Being Funny

Larry David’s segment on Saturday Night Live reignited the debate over whether there are topics that are inappropriate for comedy. Humor has been essential to the survival of the Jewish people, and we are rarely shy about pushing the envelope. However, this time it hit too close to home, when David joked about concentration camps. I cringed when I watched and found it unfunny, hardly able to see the segment to the end. At the same time, I must admit my personal biases and sensitivities when it comes to the Holocaust. 

Gallows humor is essential in some situations. It treats serious, frightening, or painful subjects in a light or satirical way. Anyone who served in the military is very familiar with the concept, as are medical professionals and others who frequently brush with death, chronic illnesses, and other life-threatening situations. Joking under these conditions is not a sign of lack of caring or disrespect. It serves the psychological need to reduce pressure, to establish intimacy among those who are involved, and enables the professionals to keep going under the toughest situations. 

As a rabbi, I witness gallows humor quite often. When family members and close friends gather around their loved one reaching the end of her or his life, or after their death, it is rather common for someone to crack a joke. Some may roll their eyes, sigh and even condemn the one who told the joke and his co-conspirators who laughed at it. However, for the most part, the temporary relief following the laughter is welcomed, if not essential. It helps everyone to remain sane in an insane situation. 

So what is my problem with Larry David’s joke?

Many groups develop a backstage language not meant to be understood nor shared by outsiders. It is how we talk when it's “only us.” It can be a family around a Shabbat table or teachers in the teachers’ lounge. I have been in the company of Holocaust survivors who reverted to humor when describing indescribable situations from their past. It made sense only at that place and time. If anyone else outside of this group would use that kind of humor, it would be extremely rude and disrespectful. 

And that’s exactly what Larry David did. Despite being Jewish, he is not a Holocaust survivor, and neither is his audience. He was talking to millions of people, some of whom are even Holocaust deniers. In the medical field, bioethicists consider gallows humor moral and appropriate only when it is contained to caregiver professionals. It is categorically unethical, even harmful, when directed at the patients and their families. 

I usually love Larry David’s comedy, but for me, Holocaust jokes cross the line. We Jews have ample and better material for his self-deprecating humor. 

B’shalom.