My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

September 13, 2022: War is Hella Funny: Hogan’s Heroes

[50 years ago this coming weekend, the pilot episode of M*A*S*H aired. So in honor of that ground-breaking sitcom, this week I’ll AmericanStudy wartime comedies in various media, leading up to a special post on M*A*S*H!]

On the vital importance of not judging a book by its cover (or a sitcom by its premise).

Maybe starting each post in this week’s series with some blog inside baseball is going to be a thing, because I have to do the same for today’s subject (if in a very different way than I did for Catch-22 yesterday). Despite reruns of the show playing on Nick at Nite quite a bit during my childhood, I’ve never seen a single episode of the long-running hit sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71), and that’s not an accident: I always found the premise, the very idea of a comedy set at a Nazi POW camp, to be one I just couldn’t wrap my head around (I have a similar feeling about the film Life is Beautiful, which I’ve also never seen). I’m not saying that there are topics which should be absolutely off-limits to comedy, necessarily—part of the whole thrust of this series is that there shouldn’t be, that comedy has a role to play in how we engage with even our hardest and darkest histories and themes—but that doesn’t mean that every comedy is for me, and this one quite simply felt like it wasn’t.

Can’t say I had given the show a single further thought since those childhood days until I sat down to research this post. And, well, let me quote at length from the “Casting” section of its Wikipedia page: “The actors who played the four major German roles—Werner Klemperer (Klink), John Banner (Schultz), Leon Askin (General Burkhalter), and Howard Caine (Major Hochstetter)—were all Jewish. Furthermore, Klemperer, Banner, and Askin had all fled the Nazis during World War II (Caine, whose birth name was Cohen, was an American). Further, Robert Clary, a French Jew who played LeBeau, spent three years in a concentration camp (with an identity tattoo from the camp on his arm, ‘A-5714’); his parents and other family members were killed there. Likewise, Banner had been held in a (pre-war) concentration camp and his family was killed during the war. Askin was also in a pre-war French internment camp and his parents were killed at Treblinka. Other Jewish actors, including Harold Gould and Harold J. Stone, made multiple appearances playing German generals. As a teenager, Klemperer, the son of conductor Otto Klemperer, fled Hitler's Germany with his family in 1933. During the show's production, he insisted that Hogan always win against his Nazi captors, or else he would not take the part of Klink. He defended his role by claiming, ‘I am an actor. If I can play Richard III, I can play a Nazi.’ Banner attempted to sum up the paradox of his role by saying, ‘Who can play Nazis better than us Jews?’”

I’m not sure I need to say much more, but I will add this: how freaking cool is that? There’s no doubt that this casting trend was intentional and purposeful, and it honestly makes me rethink the show’s very genre; seems to me that it should be described not only as a sitcom, but also and especially as continued resistance to the narratives of Nazism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and more. Heroic indeed.

Next wartime comedy tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other wartime comedies you’d highlight?

No comments:

Post a Comment