Hitler-Joke Historian on How Late-Night Comics Should Handle Trump

Andrew Lipovsky/NBC


As Jimmy Fallon gets eviscerated for his kid-glove treatment of the GOP candidate, THR turns to Rudolph Herzog, son of Werner Herzog, whose book 'Dead Funny' details how toothless humor helped Adolf Hitler rise to power.

On Thursday night, with just 53 days until the U.S. presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump paid a visit to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During that appearance, the jocular host lobbed a number of softball questions, laughed gleefully at Trump's jokes ("I prefer Monopoly," Trump said when Fallon asked if he played the game Sorry) and, in the evening's viral moment, mussed Trump's hair.

The appearance was eviscerated on social media and the web. The Huffington Post called it an example of "humanizing a well-documented … racist." The Guardian saw "one powerful white man protecting another." The New York Daily News called Fallon a "sappy, clawless fanboy" who "nauseatingly gushed." Et cetera.

Trump presents a singular and unprecedented conundrum for political satirists and comedians. Ironically, it was Fallon's other guest on Thursday night, Norm Macdonald — who parodied Trump's Dr. Oz appearance — who first and best articulated it, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter from September 2015, back when Trump was still fending off 16 other candidates for the nomination.

"They say humor is the ray of light that illuminates the evil or whatever," MacDonald said. "But I was reading that in Germany and Adolf Hitler times, everybody was making fun of Hitler. Every cartoon was against Hitler, there were comedy troupes doing sketches about Hitler being an idiot with a stupid mustache and what a stupid little idiot he was. So anyway, there goes that theory about the power of comedy. It doesn't work at all."

After that chat, I checked out Macdonald's bedside reading. Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler's Germany, by Rudolph Herzog, the 41-year-old son of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, offers a riveting retelling of the Nazis' rise to power, framed entirely by the bar-room jokes and political satire of the time.

"Political jokes were not a form of resistance," Herzog writes. "They were a release valve for pent-up popular anger. People told jokes in their neighborhood bars or on the street because they coveted a moment of liberation in which they could let off a bit of steam." In the early days, Nazi officials did not discourage such displays of humor. On the contrary, they found it to be "in [their] interests … no matter how humorlessly they may have portrayed themselves in the public sphere. …Those people who let off a bit of steam with a few jokes didn't take to the streets or otherwise challenge the Nazi leadership." 

The jokes were largely "uncritical of the system, playing on the human weaknesses of Nazi leaders rather than on the crimes they were committing." If the jokes did express some kind of dissatisfaction with their political platforms, they also tended to convey "the message that there was nothing anyone could do about it." Jokes made by Jews, on the other hand, were much blacker expressions of "a will to survive against all odds." (An example from late in the war: Two Jews are waiting to face a firing squad, when the news arrives that they are to be hanged instead. One turns to the other and says: "You see — they've run out of ammunition!")

Watching Fallon pet Trump like the family golden retriever, I was reminded of Dead Funny. I was also reminded of another, far more biting late-night appearance — that of Sarah Silverman, who, channeling Hitler on Conan last March, said of Trump, "I'm like, 'This guy gets it.' But I don't like the way he says it. It's crass."

To help me make sense of all of this, I decided to track down Rudolph Herzog at his home in Berlin. To my delight, he had already watched Trump's Tonight Show appearance on YouTube. What follows is a slightly condensed and edited version of that conversation.

What was your impression of Jimmy Fallon's interview of Donald Trump on The Tonight Show?

I was slightly embarrassed for him, frankly. There's something odd about it. I didn't mind the messing of the hair as much as the banter that was going on — this lack of any kind of criticism or trying to challenge Trump in some kind of funny way. I think political humor has to be risque, it has to challenge the powerful. It's not like sucking up to them. It's not toothless banter. There's something so wrong about it. I found the whole thing slightly embarrassing.

He does do a fairly cutting and accurate impression of Trump when Trump is not on the show.

Fair enough. But still, if you've got that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you need to be a bit more cutting than that. Humor in a democracy is a very powerful tool to use against someone. Ultimately we're going to have to decide in an election if we're going to go for this guy or not. There you have the airtime, that's the moment to find a really intelligent and funny way to tear off the mask. I think the whole thing just seemed so lame and sad really for [Fallon].

You mention various kinds of humor in your book. Jews were making dark jokes, gallows humor, as a sort of defense mechanism. But the non-Jewish German's jokes about Nazis were much blander.

People pretend that they were critical but also showed this almost affection for the people in charge. There were lots of jokes about [Hermann] Goring, who was extremely popular but also fat and very vain. There were loads of jokes about him wearing medals. "He had his medals remodeled in rubber so he wouldn't have to take them off in the bathtub." The guy was a mass murderer. They were doing lame jokes about his vanity. It showed affection more than anything.

Kind of like tousling Trump's hair on The Tonight Show?

Well, yes you could argue that, I suppose. But that's a crass connection you're weaving there. It seemed a bit like Fallon was sucking up to him a bit. That's how it came across. Frankly, that's the not the role of someone who does political comedy. Political comedy in the Third Reich, if you jump on a stage and do jokes about Hitler, your life was literally on the line. There was a case of someone who was put in a camp who did that. In a democracy, you should be able to say what you want. There's no excuse for the lame performance. Maybe the guy just had a bad day? I don't know.

Sarah Silverman impersonated Adolf Hitler on Conan.

Would you call Trump's political rise an unprecedented situation, though, that calls for a new set of rules when it comes to satire and journalism?

Depends what the outcome is. I mean, there's always been these kind of demagogues. I can tell you in the case of Hitler, a lot of people were laughing, literally, before he took power. He seemed such a ridiculous person with his little mustache. A lot of people in the establishment thought he was miserable. And then also the stuff he wrote in his book all seemed so absurd. When the Nazis took over power and were marching in the streets, there were intellectuals on the side of the road just laughing at these people in ridiculous uniforms. Then Hitler actually did what he wrote in his book. So the question now is: Is Trump really going to deport millions of people? Is that really serious? You laugh at it, or maybe he is. I don't know. In history occasionally these people actually did do the preposterous things they propose.

You don't see Trump's personality to be similar to Hitler's? That's not a fair comparison?

There's no question about it that Trump is a kind of demagogue, and only time will tell if he were to become president if he would follow through on his rhetoric. In Hitler's case, unfortunately, he followed it to a letter. It's so preposterous and murderous that no one took [Mein Kampf] seriously. But he followed it to the letter. So it's very difficult for me to draw comparison to this man if we don't know the outcome. In politics there's a lot of posturing going on, but then the wall is never built and no one is deported.

Couldn't you argue the effects are already being felt, in the ways the Trump campaign has brought the white supremacist movement out of the shadows? In the increased anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican sentiment that trails his campaign?

There's an incredible divisiveness that's poisoned political discourse in the United States. I'm really sorry to see that. Comparisons to a murderous individual like Hitler, I wouldn't go there. It's singular what this man did in history and I'd be uncomfortable with that, frankly. That's not to say that Trump is not a savvy showman-slash-demagogue. That is true. But you'll get in a swamp by drawing these historical parallels. What I'm a bit weary of, and one thing to take from Hitler's rise to power, is that even something that sounds preposterous when asking for your vote, you've got to take it at face value. Because they might actually do it.

What can comedians do now? What is their responsibility? Should they specifically be trying to prevent him from getting into power and what kind of comedy would do that?

They should challenge him. I think to some extent he's just a windbag. He's been caught lying many times. I think there's a lot of leverage there for some really biting comedy. Some much more cutting humor is needed for that. It's not about his hair. That endears people to the man, because people like individuals who have faults. It's human to have faults. That's not the tack. You have to go for the actual issues and hollow showmanship with cutting humor. Comparisons to Hitler are very, very problematic, but there is stuff to take away from Hitler's rise to power any time you're dealing with a demagogue. Be more attentive.