First, it should be noted that no one who has followed David’s groundbreaking and taboo-challenging career should be surprised by his SNL monologue. In his 1999 hour-long special for HBO, David had a line about admiring Hitler because “he wouldn’t take any shit from magicians.” The show he co-created with Jerry Seinfeld was literally responsible for mainstreaming Nazi as a descriptor (viz., “soup”). And Curb, the show that bears his auteur imprint most fully, started its run with Larry calling his wife “Hitler” in the pilot, and only went further from there.
In one episode, Larry, who’s the co-owner of a restaurant, continues to employ an obscenity-screeching chef with Tourette syndrome out of the mistaken belief that he had spent time in a concentration camp. (What Larry thought was his tattoo turned out to be a lottery number the chef had written on his arm.) In another episode, viewers are treated to a dinner scene where a Holocaust survivor faces off against a contestant from the reality competition show Survivor. Throw in the season-long arc where Larry stars in a Broadway production of that seminal work of American Holocaust humor, Mel Brooks’s 1967 film The Producers, and you realize just how much space Curb has devoted to the topic.
But it’s instructive to look at the differences between David’s and Brooks’s approaches. A World War II veteran, Brooks created a work that was aggressive, pugnacious, and anti-anti-Semitic: He’s said on many occasions that his reason for portraying the Nazis was in order to cut them down to size. Nonetheless, the original Producers movie is at its core all about the issue of whether or not an audience would accept a work like The Producers and the kind of comedy it offered. Consider the reactions of the horrified audience at the premiere of Springtime for Hitler, the fictional musical at heart of the story: Only when viewers realize the show is mocking, rather than sympathizing with, its subject (“It’s funny!” someone calls out) can it be accepted and become a hit. In short, Brooks’s film employs the Holocaust for reasons the Anti-Defamation League would find acceptable, even if the group might disagree with the methods.
Morality, of various sorts, pervades varying strains of Holocaust humor, most notably the comedic art produced by those who lived through it. Whatever the truth of David’s remark on Saturday night that “there are no good opening lines in a concentration camp,” there were indisputably jokes swapped in the latrines at Auschwitz and in cabarets in Theresienstadt that may have served the purpose of psychic resistance or resilience. But a part of the reaction to David’s concentration camp joke, perhaps, comes from one of the wellsprings of his uncomfortable comedy: its amorality.
Whether it’s through his Seinfeld alter ego George Costanza or his character on Curb, David thrives on presenting himself as deeply unlikable, a magnet for hostility. Part of that anti-appeal—as seen in countless episodes of Seinfeld and Curb’s “Palestinian Chicken” (in which Larry happily sleeps with a beautiful woman who hurls anti-Semitic abuse at him in bed)—is the David surrogate’s willingness to tolerate debasement if it involves the satiation of his lower desires. Watching these antics is often supremely cringeworthy for viewers, if not for the character himself.