Review: Dead Funny by Rudolph Herzog
We’ve all heard comedians bellyache about tough crowds, but imagine doing political stand-up in Nazi Germany in front of “cultural monitors” and spies, where a risqué punch line at the Third Reich’s expense could result in a train journey to the nearest “re-education” camp. Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny is actually a dead-serious study on how humor and jokes were used, by Germany’s professional comics and ordinary people alike, not as political protest but as an escape from their totalitarian reality. The book also demonstrates how comedic styles and content developed in response to the changing fortunes of war: As Germany’s prospects became increasingly grim, more and more people were sent to their deaths for anti-Nazi jokes.
Herzog investigates both public and private humor, detailing not only how comedians approached their satirical craft in light of Nazism, but also how everyday joke-telling folks might be turned in by neighbor informants at any time. And although the book’s historical analyses are top-notch, the stories of doomed comic actors, such as Fritz Grunbaum, hit the hardest: Grunbaum was arrested by the Nazis and relegated to a fate of making his SS captors laugh or face brutal beatings.
Dead Funny’s real value lies in the way it situates anti-Nazi folk humor in the shifting historical context of this grim bygone era, and the fact that the author is able to resuscitate such obscure jokes verbatim is a phenomenal feat in itself. Though Herzog’s conclusion that these jokes represent the German people’s distrustful relationship to Hitler’s regime is debatable, his book’s strikingly original historical research sets it apart from the glut of dry tomes which are still being cranked out about Nazi history.