Friday, December 03, 2004

P.G. Wodehouse's Hitler Heil-arity

For those of you just joining The Great Laughter Debate now, here’s the sequence of events:
1) Colby Cosh buys a copy of controversial video game JFK Reloaded, writes, “I don't want any angry e-mails unless you can absolutely swear to me that you don't find anything funny about the idea of shooting that god-damned Halston pillbox right off Jackie's head.”
2) Warren Kinsella finds nothing funny about the idea, writes, "A game in which you get to murder John F. Kennedy (or George W. Bush, for that matter) isn't even remotely ‘funny.’ That is so obvious it barely merits saying." Kinsella follows this up by suggesting Cosh be fired from his day job for inappropriate laughter.
3) I read Cosh’s post, find it “funny,” defend Cosh’s dark sense of humour, note that jokes are made about horrible things all the time, particularly among journalists.
4) Kinsella blogs back that he is disappointed in me, notes, "Murder isn't funny, period, and I can't recall ever working in a newsroom where we all sat around and laughed about someone getting killed. Ever."

Now that we’re all up to date, let me make one thing absofrigginlutely clear: I do not find murder funny, nor does anyone else I have ever met on the planet. I do not find the Kennedy Assassination funny, nor do I find the other senseless murders Kinsella lists funny. And I am rather miffed that he has misrepresented what I was saying in this fashion.

First of all, there is a very significant difference between a game and reality, between an image and what that image represents, between fiction and non-fiction. People of a certain age seem to have particular trouble recognizing this when it comes to video games, that most despised of art forms. The very folks who are shocked by JFK Reloaded wouldn’t bat an eye at a bunch of Civil War re-enactors trying out a different version of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. Nor are they upset that Philip Roth defeats FDR and corrals American Jews into ghettoes in his revisionist novel The Plot Against America.

But let’s leave that contentious issue for a moment and focus on laughing at “jokes” about tragedy or stories/representations of tragedy. While actual murder is emphatically not funny, jokes and silly depictions of real or imagined death often are – it’s the entire basis for the Road Runner cartoon oeuvre for goodness sakes. Representations of actual assassinations are not immune to this. (I direct your attention to David Ives’ very funny one-act play Variations on the Death of Trotsky.)

And now for the ultimate in overused rhetorical flourishes: Consider, if you will, Herr Adolf Hitler.

Making jokes about Hitler and the Nazis has been very popular from Chaplin (The Great Dictator) to Mel Brooks (The Producers) to Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful). Each of these comedians has been attacked, but for the most part the masses have praised their work with gales of laughter. (Or, as a Kinsellian might see it, the insensitive masses have praised their work with gales of scandalous, Holocaust-mocking laughter.)

In short, for Kinsella to say that jokes about murder are never funny... well I sincerely doubt that he has never laughed at a joke in a film or a book that hinges on violence or death. And I still would like to know whether or not he has any "Dead Kennedys" albums, given that the name of that band makes light of not one, two assassinations with a few other tragedies thrown in to boot.

I don't want to be miscontrued as saying that humour is appropriate in all instances. This debate -- and what bugs me about Kinsella isn't that he was offended by Cosh's laughter, but rather his absolutist "I can't believe there can be actual debate about this" stance when the debate over appropriate and inappropriate laughter is age-old -- has made me think quite a bit about humourist P.G. Wodehouse’s run-in with the Nazis, which I recently learned about in Robert McCrum’s very readable Wodehouse: A Life.

During the Second World War, Wodehouse –- the dry British wit behind the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster novels, as well as the book for Cole Porter’s Anything Goes –- was captured by the Nazis in Le Touquet, France, where he was living and writing. Like other male citizens of the U.K. under the age of 60, he was rounded up and put in an internment camp. He kept a low profile, but his fellow inmates eventually figured out exactly who he was. On at least one occasion, he raised the spirits of the men by turning his wry eye to internment camp life.

Shortly before his 60th birthday, Wodehouse was released and -- as he was not allowed to leave the country -- he took up residence in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin.

The Nazis had at this point realised exactly who Wodehouse was and asked him if would like to give a series of radio broadcasts to his fans in the United States, which wasn’t yet at war with Germany. Wodehouse, a political naïf, agreed in order to keep in touch with his fan base and reassure them that he was okay.

His first broadcast in June of 1941 was based on some of the material he had practiced on his fellow internees. (All of his broadcasts are available online here.) Here are a couple of excerpts:
It has been in many ways quite an agreeable experience. There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading. You also get a lot of sleep. The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal. It is not pleasant to think that by the time I see my Pekinese again, she will have completely forgotten me and will bite me to the bone - her invariable practice with strangers. And I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side....

The only concession I want from Germany is that she gives me a loaf of bread, tells the gentlemen with muskets at the main gate to look the other way, and leaves the rest to me. In return I am prepared to hand over India, an autographed set of my books, and to reveal the secret process of cooking sliced potatoes on a radiator. This offer holds good till Wednesday week.
While similar jokes lightened the mood among internees, Wodehouse’s broadcasts sapped morale back home in Britain. In Parliament and in the newspapers, he was branded a traitor and a Nazi collaborator. Librarians withdrew his books from circulation. Though some like Orwell defended him later, it ruined his reputation after the war.

What I find interesting about this story is that it illustrates perfectly how wildly subjective humour is and how it can be used for just about any purpose. Wodehouse’s stories were very funny to his fellow internees; they were almost a form of resistance. To the folks back home while the war was being waged, they were a Nazi propaganda coup.

Wodehouse’s story is a cautionary tale on the limits of ironic detachment -- and I do worry about that sometimes while enjoying a laugh with my oh-so-cynical peers. There are times when laughter topples dictators and there are times when it feeds them. Sometimes the exact same jokes can be used to both purposes.

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