Larry David is hilarious. The comedian and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm is hysterical on elevator privacy, how to give and accept gifts, and insult jokes about whole groups of people—like those with disabilities or gentiles—that walk right up to the line of offensiveness before being saved by self-effacement.
During his already much-maligned Saturday Night Live monologue that aired last night (Nov. 4), he sought laughs about Quasimodo’s dating preferences, the homeless, and—yes—the Holocaust. And he bombed. But before he joked about pick-up lines in concentration camps, the moment everything started going truly sour was his reference to the Harvey Weinstein sexual-assault scandal and its fallout.
After feigning discomfort, the legendary comedian and Seinfeld co-creator told the audience he had noticed a lot of the men named in the post-Weinstein sexual-assault cases were Jews. He doesn’t like to see Jews in the headlines for notorious reasons, he said: “I want ‘Einstein discovers the theory of relativity.’ ‘Salk cures Polio.’ What I don’t want: ‘Weinstein took it out.’”
You can imagine David scanning the headlines and seeing one of his favorite topics—Jewishness—inherent in the names of these sexual predators. “Material!” he thinks. For the women who were raped or assaulted by any of the long list of men named as predators in recent weeks (as well as those men who have yet to be named), I’m going to guess that nothing could be less relevant than the ratio of Jewishness to non-Jewishness in the list of Weinstein et. all.
He’s not the only one to think this is a laughing matter. Two weeks ago, James Corden had to apologize for joking about the Weinstein allegations when he hosted an awards dinner in Beverly Hills. “This is a beautiful room, this is a beautiful night here in LA. It is so beautiful that Harvey Weinstein has already asked tonight up to his hotel room to give him a massage,” he said. He tried to explain the joke on Twitter, unconvincingly:
Last month, two stars of the TV series Supernatural added their contribution to the history of bad rape jokes, this time alluding to Bill Cosby. The Game of Thrones actor who plays giddy masochist Khal Drogo also recently apologized for once bragging that he got to rape beautiful women on the show.
But last night, David took rape-joke culture to a whole new level by awkwardly trying to segue to the Holocaust. In his opening monologue, he wondered if he’d still try to hit on women in a concentration camp. “I’ve always, always, been obsessed with women, and I’ve often wondered—if I’d grown up in Poland when Hitler came to power and was sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out women in the camp?”
Yes, he thinks he would. So he imagines how he would go about this by riffing off some flirty opening lines:
“How’s it going?”
“They treating you okay?”
“You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes?”
“What? What did I say? Is it me, or is it the whole thing? It’s because I’m bald, isn’t it?”
Some viewers took to Twitter in defense of that bit, while others have expressed disgust. Another cohort of critics note that the jokes themselves weren’t just offensive—they also weren’t even funny. Perhaps if they had been sharper or if they poked at something in the zeitgeist, they could have worked. Writes Philly.com:
David’s problem wasn’t deciding to tell a joke about the Holocaust on Saturday Night Live—it was telling a Holocaust joke that many people didn’t find particularly funny.
“The thing about a joke about the Holocaust … it’s all about the funny. It’s got to be funny,” comedian Judy Gold explained in The Last Laugh. “You can’t tell a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world.”
Feminists have similarly argued that rape jokes can be funny when rape culture is the target, and victims are not. Criticizing rape jokes isn’t about “thought control” or artistic censorship so much as consdiering where the blow lands, they say.
Using that argument, you could defend another Weinstein joke from last night’s SNL show. In that skit, US president Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) visits former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s (played by Alex Moffat) house, where he is currently under house arrest. “What an idiot that Harvey Weinstein is,” Baldwin says. “He could have gotten away with it all if only he had gotten himself elected president.”
Yes, Baldwin had just made a sexual-assault quip—but when the butt of the joke was the president of the United States’ wandering hands, did that somehow excuse it?
I propose it did. Maybe the litmus test as to whether an assault joke works is whether your initial shock that someone had the audacity to go there is quickly eclipsed by a sick feeling and appropriate anger—not at the comedians, but with them.
Much in the same way that we may need to see the videos of mass shootings, war, or executions to feel prompted to act, as one study recently suggested, comedians can help keep the focus on the very things we want to look away from. We need all the public voices available—including those of artists, musicians, and comedians—to keep us focused on what Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, and others have done or are accused of doing.
What they shouldn’t try to do is change the subject for a cheap laugh.