Imagine that Adolf Hitler, the most notorious dictator and mass murderer of the 20th century, reappears penniless and clueless in present- day Germany. Author Timur Vermes explores this fictional scenario in his dark comedy, Look Who’s Back.
According to Vermes’s story, the former dictator wakes up in an abandoned parking lot, adjacent to the location of his old Berlin bunker. Because nobody believes that Hitler is really back in 2011, all guess that this strange creature is an eccentric comedian who mimics Hitler.
That makes a lot of sense, because by 21st-century standards, Hitler’s way of speaking indeed sounds preposterous.
As a result, Hitler’s career as a comedian, cheap entertainer and YouTube star quickly soars. Adopted by a TV broadcasting company, he receives a slot in an obscure comedy show, and his diatribes become viral in the social media.
It doesn’t take long before the former Fuhrer recognizes an opportunity to regain his lost political power.
Every successful book is first and foremost a reflection of its time. Vermes does not only expose the superficiality and shortsightedness of contemporary politicians, voters and the media. In addition, his parody points a finger toward a larger problem: the unhealthy mix of entertainment, comedy and politics. It is well known, for example, that comedians, satirists and clowns can say things totally unacceptable in polite society.
In Israel, for example, an eccentric professor named Amir Hetsroni lost his academic job due to his incessant mocking of women, ethnic groups and the underprivileged. Later, however, he resurfaced as a highly successful stand-up comedian. In his shows, he voices the exact same opinions as he did before, only now they do not really incense anyone. Things that most people could not accept from scholars, journalists and publicists, they gladly accept from comedians.
This, by itself, is absolutely normal.
Comedy is a great way to give vent to anger, frustration and other negative feelings restrained by politeness, norms and political correctness. It becomes dangerous only when mixed with actual politics, an increasingly common tendency in recent years.
In Israel and many other states, politicians must win the direct support of large crowds through mass media, a boon to those who are also celebrities.
Television, still the most important medium of communications, favors politicians who are photogenic and skilled in harvesting quick headlines through provocations.
The rise of social media exacerbated these tendencies. Politicians quickly discovered that it may be even more beneficial to bypass the gatekeepers of mass media (editors, moderators, producers) and speak directly to the multitudes through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or Instagram. One of the most cost-effective ways to do so is to entertain the voters as a stand-up comedian would. The real-life political comedy also projects coolness, youth and iconoclasm, popular among contemporary voters disillusioned with establishment experts, journalists and politicians.
In Israel, young right-wing politicians such as MK Oren Hazan (Likud) built entire careers on entertaining their voters with rude punch lines. The European Right shows a bunch of curious figures braving the line between comedy and politics. Italy’s Beppe Grillo and France’s Dieudonné are actually comedians who entered politics, but others, such as Geert Wilders, also use stand-up comedy techniques and provocations as part of their political strategy.
The United States is obviously no stranger to this new reality. Comedians such as John Stewart and John Oliver became a major news sources for many progressive media consumers. On the other side of the hill, “conservative” celebrities such as Milo Yiannopolous crafted their image as half publicists, half clowns. Old-fashioned American conservatives indeed find it hard to believe that Yiannopolous, with his eccentric fashion, crude jokes and flamboyant demeanor, somehow became a paragon of their camp.
The most successful stand-up politician in recent years is undoubtedly Donald Trump, who won the US presidency after years as a business mogul and reality TV show star. In his campaign rallies, Trump entertained his crowd with techniques long common in the world of cheap TV entertainment: mimicking journalists with disabilities, insulting rivals with catchy nicknames such as “Lying Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” and telling crude jokes with obvious sexual overtones. In fact, Trump was so entertaining as to receive hours of free time on TV, usually sold for millions of dollars.
Many voters, entertained and satisfied by this iconoclastic stand-up comedy, preferred Trump to more conventional GOP politicians with very similar views.
In the last US elections, the message was much less important than the jokes.
That’s precisely the warning of Timur Vermes in his Look Who’s Back. When comedy becomes actual politics, used by aspirants attempting to turn jokes to reality, the result could be less than funny.
Bill Clinton once said on the campaign trail that George H.W. Bush was not a clown, because “a clown makes people laugh. Bush makes them cry.”
In the contemporary world of politics, Clinton’s remark became outdated. It is the clowns who could make us all cry in the end.
■ The writer, a senior lecturer for general history and East Asian studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of The Plots against Hitler and Curse on this Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan.