By Jamie Denbo
April 22, 2015 – I do a comedy act called Ronna & Beverly, a talk show with two yente hosts interrogating celebrities that we do live every month at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles. In it, there’s a running storyline about Beverly, my Jewish 60-something year-old character, taking an extra Ambien by mistake on the morning of Sept 11, 2001, and being miffed that she “missed the whole thing.” Beverly also stole a Louis Vuitton bag from Boston Common on the day of the marathon bombings because everyone had scattered so quickly. “There was NO ID in there. I checked right after I tossed the wallet in the bushes! Look, the marathon was a tragedy. But the bag is a waste.”
And so on…
I’m used to saying whatever I want when I’m wearing the Beverly wig and glasses and being a character who, in the spirit of Archie Bunker, is designed to MAKE FUN of the people who ACTUALLY think in that narrow frame of mind. Beverly tries to be an equal opportunity offender; she thinks the N-Word would be an adorable name for a cat. “If it DIDN’T mean what it means! You understand? I can say it because I’m not SAYING it THAT WAY! It’s a PHOENETIC THING! Here, Nigga. Here, Nigga, Nigga, Nigga…”
Beverly is meant to satirize the Jewish women I grew up around. By showing her completely, I try to show that people are multi-dimensional and even lovable despite their most racist and odious flaws. As a Jewish woman, I feel I have a right to make fun of other Jewish women.
Which leads me to the Holocaust.
Beverly’s entire mission in life is to insert the Holocaust into every conversation she ever has to make sure that, A. we hang on to Israel, and to B. make sure that EVERYONE knows that she would have made it six million and one — which makes her WAY more important than you will ever be.
That’s the thing about the Holocaust. It has defined subsequent Jewish generations in various ways. For me, Ronna & Beverly is born of exactly how MY personal generation was handed the torch of the Holocaust. Or the memory. Or the burden. However your generation absorbed it. I am a child of the grandparents whose distant relatives were lost in the Holocaust. Therefore I am direct-ish-ly related to those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Basically, mine was the generation that was taught, “Okay, so this is far enough away that it isn’t directly related to you, but that means if you don’t remember it, IT WILL HAPPEN AGAIN. LIKE TOMORROW. AND THE MOMENT YOU FORGET, IT WILL BE YOUR FAULT THAT IT HAPPENED AGAIN. SEE? LOOK OVER THERE. HITLER’S BACK. BECAUSE YOU FORGOT FOR A SECOND.”
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Jews burning in ovens. I went to a Jewish day school. We watched Shoah in kindergarten. It was traumatizing but also oddly normal. I didn’t realize there were kids out there (the ones that had those adorable Cadbury Crème Eggs while we were eating MATZAH) who didn’t suffer nightmares about being shoved into cattle cars every night.
As a mother now, I cannot imagine forcing my young kids to watch that grainy black and white footage of dead bodies and empty Zyklon-B canisters while wagging my finger and saying, “REMEMBER OR IT WILL HAPPEN AGAIN TOMORROW MORNING!” Not YET, anyway. Of course it’s important to see Shoah. To hear accounts of horror, survival, Oskar Schindler, Elie Wiesel etc… But I plan to wait at least until my kids outgrow the Tooth Fairy before introducing the concept of mass graves and the ethical responsibility that goes with knowing one’s history.
I grew up thinking it was normal to wear construction paper cut-out Yellow Stars that said “Juden” pinned to my Kermit T-shirt all day, every Holocaust remembrance day. I didn’t think about how weird this was until much later in life, when I realized that I felt oddly entitled to make fun of the Holocaust through Ronna & Beverly or in any other comedic context. And I certainly wasn’t the first. “Springtime for Hitler” anyone?
Recently, I had the opportunity to do the Dead Author’s Podcast with Paul F. Tomkins at UCB. The show works like this: Paul plays author H.G. Wells, and an invited comedian is allowed to select an author from a list of dead authors to portray opposite him in a live onstage interview. It’s all for fun; no expertise on the chosen author or his/her works needed. In fact, Paul uses an iPad onstage to prompt his guest into a funny and absurdist conversation. When I went down the list of authors that Paul had yet to interview, I found Anne Frank .
The revered Ms. Frank is regarded as a symbol of righteousness, humanity, strength and light throughout the world. Her legacy is nothing but one of hope and peace, and she probably shouldn’t be mocked.
But I immediately recalled a story a friend told me a few years ago. Apparently a friend of hers had a grandfather who had gone to grade school with the real, the one, the ONLY, Anne Frank. And you know what he said? That she was a TOTAL pain in the ass. A real know-it-all and not particularly nice.
Yup. A peer and fellow survivor of Europe’s darkest hour said that Anne Frank was basically Hermione Granger without the charm.
And who knows? Why not? Maybe she was a little shit! We don’t have ANY ONE ELSE’S DIARY who was stuck in there with her for two years and for all we know, she might very well have driven them fucking crazy. And if you have read the diary, you can assume that she was in fact often a totally oversexed tweenage know-it-all in ADDITION to being an undisputedly beautiful writer.
Guess what else, America? SHE PROBABLY WOULD HAVE BEEN A BELIEBER. She was EXACTLY the age of the girls who worship Justin Bieber today. Maybe the guest book at the Anne Frank House wasn’t the best place for Mr. B to share this observation, but he’s probably right. Anne probably would have been first in line for The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1, if it had been around.
And I knew that if this was exactly how I played her, it would be funny enough to trump any offensiveness.
I don’t want to say that it was the greatest comedic performance, but it went well. I took her own words and acted them out. She had a wild crush on Peter van Pels, the only young male prospect sharing the attic with the Franks. So my “Anne” couldn’t keep her hands out of her pants while speaking his name – that kind of thing. I tried to stay true to the fact that most 13 year-old girls think they know everything and maybe Anne was no different. People laughed. And I truly don’t think anyone was offended. (But I will also concede that a ton of Holocaust survivors don’t regularly attend shows at UCB.)
To replay the reality of a bright, innocent adolescent girl being plucked from the prime of her life and brought to the most horrifying end our world could offer in the hopes that it never happens again is one way to go. I can also assure you it’s not the only way. I believe we can remember through laughter. To touch on horror through laughter. In this way, can we not see humanity as more complete? Complete with laughter in the hopes of ensuring that evil history won’t repeat itself? I would rather ensure no more Holocausts through comedy then watch Shoah again. That’s just me.
Ronna & Beverly podcast on EARWOLF: http://www.earwolf.com/show/ronna-beverly/
Dead Author’s Podcast: http://thedeadauthorspodcast.libsyn.com/chapter-31-anne-frank-featuring-jamie-denbo