Larry David on SNL: borderline acceptability or too much too soon?

On November 4, Larry David hosted the ever-popular late night show Saturday Night Live (SNL). A renowned stand-up comedian and mastermind behind the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, David is no stranger to the comedy world. He is well versed in the inner workings of SNL, having worked as a writer for the show during the 1980s, hosting at various times and making guest appearances over the last two years. Despite this strong SNL heritage, David still managed to make some waves in this most recent contribution to the show.

During his set, he turned sharply from the moderately tame to the uncomfortably dark – initiated by mentioning the Harvey Weinstein scandal. David equated himself to Weinstein in that he too is a “Jewish man who is obsessed with women”, a statement that was met with groans and delayed nervous giggles from the audience. Using this idea of his relationship between Judaism and his “obsession with women”, David then launched into a slew of jokes about dating during the Holocaust.

Pondering a fictional life in which he was sent to a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Poland, David questioned if he would have still had the same attraction to women in the camp as he does in daily life – specifically if he would be “checking out women” and what he would have said. The discomfort expressed by the audience doubled and regressed into a series of short, nervous laughs.

The entirety of this bizarre and controversial monologue and comparison allude to a much larger, dated and yet persistent comedians’ dilemma: is it okay to use polarising and controversial topics in humour?

There is no concrete answer to this question because, as is the case with comedy, the outcome of humour is entirely dependent on the context in which a joke is told. But the question of whether or not it is appropriate to joke about something is often a question of underlying morals. In the case of David’s Holocaust jokes on SNL, it can be argued that he said them with honest comedic intentions, with no malicious agenda in mind. Additionally, anyone familiar with David’s career would recognise a pattern of Holocaust and Nazism related humour. Thus, perhaps this instance is permissible when placed in a broader spectrum of consideration.

In the case of the Harvey Weinstein-related instances, however, it appears that there is such a thing as ‘too soon’. The scandal only broke in early October. Women are still coming forward to share their stories of abuse at the hands of Weinstein. Making humorous light of such a recent uproar seems unnecessary and implies a promotion of desensitisation: a sort of detachment from emotions relating to tragedy, disgust or disappointment, instead choosing to laugh off a serious matter despite its societal relevance. Although David most likely had no untoward intentions at play when writing this set, it should have been done with more consideration, especially since he is in American showbusiness himself.

Perhaps we should be asking whether we are immediately on board with comedic escapes from reality, or if there a necessary buffer period before a scandal can become a joke. As is always the case, the answer can be dependent on the context of the joke and the audience to whom it is told. Saturday Night Live however is clearly not the right time or place for such comments.


Image: Angela George @ Wikimedia Commons

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