Comedy is a touchy subject. The clip of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator shown today made a significant portion the class laugh. It likely also made many individuals uncomfortable. Chaplin’s impersonation of Hitler is, simply put, silly. However, it raises a serious question as well: how was a man whose mannerisms were so outrageous also so successful in winning over his audience? Humor oftentimes plays off of stereotypes, so it can be difficult to discern if the comedian is asking us to question these assumptions, or if he is simply reinforcing them. Either way, comedy clearly has a place in the study of history, as it is a form of art and therefore provides a window into the thinking of a certain time period.
An earlier post on this blog from one of my classmates raised the issue of “Nazi memes”. Clearly, a line must be drawn, as we cannot simply laugh at tragedy. But a 2014 global poll indicates 46 percent of people have never heard of the Holocaust. We should not refuse to engage culturally with certain things just because they are serious. While this line must be navigated with the utmost care, comedy is an important means of conveying information, and the recent popularity of satirical news shows this.