Larry David caused a small furor this weekend, as host of Saturday Night Live, when he pondered how difficult it might be to pick up women during the Holocaust. “There are no good opening lines in a concentration camp,” goes the joke. “‘How’s it going? They treating you OK? You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. Do you like latkes? What? What did I say? Is it me or the whole thing? It’s because I’m bald, isn’t it?’”
Apparently there was backlash, which as far as I could tell comprised a few tweets, compiled in a Twitter Moment, expressing distaste with the bit. Then there was backlash against the backlash, which comprised comedians defending the bit: It’s inoffensive, Jews have been joking about the Holocaust as long as Jews have been doing stand-up, if you were expecting Larry David to tread lightly then you don’t know Larry David. All true and reasonable stuff. It was a pretty mundane joke, all told, hardly worthy of outrage. Still, it sucked, and not because of the Holocaust aspect specifically but because of what set it up.
About five minutes into his monologue—which, let’s be real, bombed—David turns his razor wit to predators in Hollywood. “You know, a lot of sexual harassment stuff in the news of late,” he says. “And I couldn’t help but notice a very disturbing pattern emerging, which is that many of the predators—not all, but many of them—are Jews.” He reacts to this with a Yiddish phrase for “woe is me” (truly!) and goes on to say that he prefers when Jews are in the news for good reasons, like developing the theory of relativity or curing polio. “What I don’t want: Weinstein took it out.”
A few things are immediately disappointing about the bit. First, his immediate reaction to revelations about sexual harassment and assault in show business is that… it makes him look bad. Yes, the man’s made a fortune from self-deprecating comedy, but the subject of this joke is literally the destruction of people’s lives—people who are not him. If your reaction to other people’s trauma is to yuk about how it affects your image, perhaps a more empathetic move would be to keep those considerations to yourself.
Second, David sanitizes Weinstein’s crimes. “What I don’t want: Weinstein raped women” doesn’t quite have that punchline sound, because of course it isn’t a punchline. It’s the truth. You literally don’t want that. Nobody does. By making “Weinstein took it out” his punchline, David trades on the preexisting feeling that, well, taking it out isn’t really all that bad—it’s not rape, after all—and is in fact kind of funny. I don’t mean to suggest David believes this, though I do think it’s telling that he skates over certain gravities inconvenient to his task. To turn a thing into a punchline is to say: This thing is not as serious as it thinks it is, or people say it is, or tradition demands we consider it to be. That’s true about one half of his punchline—Weinstein—but not the other.
What’s more disappointing is his transition to the Holocaust material. “I’ve always, always, been obsessed with women,” he says, “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?”
To wit: After half-heartedly gesturing to, without explicitly taking, the point of view that creeps in showbiz are a cancer, David jokes about how he’s a shameless creep obsessed with women. This isn’t outrageous, no. It’s just boring. It’s lazy and predictable. It says: “I care about sexual harassment in Hollywood only insofar as it can help me set up a joke about myself.” It says: “I don’t understand, let alone give a shit about the structural injustices that I am complicit in.” It says: “Here, watch me retrench those very injustices.”
In the space of about two minutes, David appropriates the profound, fresh suffering of real people—people who are not him—for just another bit about a guy trying to get laid. Every man in comedy has a bit like this. And while I will grant the possibility that individual bits may be good, even great, there’s a cumulative cultural effect to art that represents women primarily as objects of male desire. This effect is, uh, not unrelated to why men like Harvey Weinstein have gotten away with their crimes for decades. A great many factors perpetuate the white heteropatriarchy, and unfortunately for comedians, jokes are one of them.
Jokes are bigger than themselves and the people telling them. That’s not to say comedians should not have the freedom to experiment and fail terribly, but that even the most diaristic material bears consequences on other lives. Most comics don’t have to worry about this quite so much. Larry David does. I don’t think it’s too much to expect.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.