“Don’t mention the war” became the most iconic line from BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers.
In the episode titled “The Germans”, Fawlty Towers receives German guests and despite warning his staff against mentioning anything about “the war”, when he comes face to face with the guests, Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) finds himself in a lather of increasingly barefaced World War II references, building to this famous, very funny exchange:
Elder Herr: “Will you stop talking about the war?”
Basil: “Me?! You started it!”
Elder Herr: “We did not start it!”
Basil: “Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”
The full scene:
It’s a great scene and the foremost example in the dangerous humourzone of ‘Holocaust Comedy’, in which the true butt of the joke is actually the English perception of Germans, not Nazis.
Referencing the Holocaust and Hitler in the sphere of what falls under the “comedy” banner is incredibly risky business. The line between funny and gross cultural insensitivity can be gossamer fine. Crossing that fine line is grounds for vilification – something triple j presenters Tom and Alex learned after a questionable segment involving a Hitler-themed word association game called “Six Degrees of Hitleration”. Think, wind farms = fans = fan-forced ovens = ovens = murdering Jews in concentration camp gas chambers. LOL?
triple j has issued a public apology for the segment, after the station was slammed with complaints. This was posted on the triple j website:
Further to our post yesterday on facebook, triple j takes all complaints seriously. We recognise the concerns regarding the comments are serious. triple j agrees the comments made were inappropriate. The matter has been followed up with the Breakfast team. triple j regrets the matter and apologises unreservedly for any offence caused.
Tom Ballard also took to the Tom And Alex Facebook page with the following statement:
I’m very sorry that on my breakfast radio program, I offended and upset a lot of people. That’s not what I like doing; I like making people laugh and I like making people happy. I never set out to vindictively offend or belittle anyone or any group with my comedy, that’s not what I’m about. I sincerely apologize that’s how I came across in this instance. (Tom)
It’s actually pretty remarkable to see an apology coming from anyone from a group as proudly and outspokenly unapologetic as comics. Every topic on earth – no matter how precarious – is considered fair game in the world of comedy, and the group is voracious in defending the fact.
Racism, sexism, rape, homophobia – it’s all on the table and available as subject for joke-making. There should always be one condition though; whether you’re of the mind that “Six Degrees of Hitleration” was just a silly lapse in judgement, a hilarious moment of radio gold or a disgraceful display of cultural insensitivity, the consensus should be that if you’re going to even whisper something about a topic as immeasurably sensitive as the Holocaust you better MAKE IT WORK.
Make it work. For example, I could do a joke about stupid people and say something like: “Hey Tom, in Australia we spell ‘apologise’ with an s, mate. If you’re going to apologise at least spell it correctly, dipshit.” but that isn’t funny is it? It’s cheap, it isn’t clever, it isn’t entertaining – and no one gets anything positive out of that.
I have nothing against Tom and Alex personally, I’m quite sure they’re delightful guys. What I DO have something against is when comedians who by definition exist for the purpose of BEING FUNNY, aren’t. In theory, jokes about the Holocaust don’t offend me; in fact, people should be able to make jokes about terrible things. Humour plays a huge role in the way human beings cope with and overcome tragedy. What I am offended by is “comedy” that isn’t funny. And the “Six Degrees of Hitleration” segment was pointless and boring and low in LOL.
What burgeoning comedians can learn from this episode is that sometimes it’s better to just cut your losses and avoid the Holocaust entirely, because for a lot of people it will never not be a case of “too soon” as far as that topic goes. Vegans and famine on the other hand…