Riddikulus! Humor as a Weapon against Fear and Evil

I have a guilty confession: I really like watching old re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes. Yes, Hogan’s Heroes, with the hokey tunnels and wacky disguises. Probably one reason I enjoy it is because my kids think it’s hilarious; we don’t have Image result for comedy maskcable, and it comes on every night on one of the stations we get with the antenna. It also reminds me of my childhood and the silly stuff we loved then, like Gilligan’s Island and Batman. However, after doing a little research, I began to realize that there was something more at work here, something far more complex than tunnels in tree trunks and microphones hidden under portraits of Hitler. Just as we see in the rich and complex texts we discuss here, even campy Hogan has something intriguing to say about fear and the power of laughter.

I first started to realize there was something more thoughtful here when, out of curiosity, I went checking to see if any of the Hogan cast members were still alive. Unfortunately, the sordid death of star Bob Crane, under lurid circumstances, has cast a pall over the whole show, but the rest of the cast members are actually far more interesting (Who knew that the reason Sgt. Carter usually wore gloves was because actor Larry Hovis refused to remove his wedding ring, and Carter was single?). There is, in fact, one surviving member of the Stalag 13 gang, Robert Clary, who played Corporal Lebeau. Ironically, Clary was himself a prisoner in a concentration camp during his childhood. But he is not the only one whose real life intersected with the actual, serious war that serves as the backdrop for this not very serious treatment of war movie clichés. Werner Klemperer, whose iconic portrayal of Colonel Klink overshadowed his many other professional accomplishments, was, in fact, the son of Jews who fled Hitler’s Germany, and was himself an American Army veteran who served in World War II. John Banner, who played Sergeant Shultz (and whom we can all thank for coining the phrase, “I know no-thing” in his distinctive accent), was a Jew who fled his native Vienna and came to the United States as a political refugee to escape being sent to a concentration camp. His entire family died under the Nazis. His parents and siblings were all killed in concentration camps.

At first glance, it seems incredible that these men would play these roles. Banner and Klemperer actually wore the uniforms of those who killed and oppressed them and their families. But their choices reflect something very important that Harry Potter learns from his best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Professor Lupin teaches Harry and his classmates that the way to defeat a boggart is laughter. In order to disable the boggart, which takes the form of whatever a person most fears, one must make it coImage result for harry potter riddikulusmical, with the spell, “Riddikulus!” For Harry’s classmates, this includes making scary mummies into clumsy bunglers or forcing a terrifying teacher into Grandma clothes. Likewise, Banner, Klemperer, and the rest of the Hogan’s gang took the monsters of their own lives, and made them clumsy bunglers. Klemperer reportedly only took the role after being assured that Klink would never succeed in any of his schemes.  On Hogan’s Heroes, the very real terrors of the Nazis became clowns and buffoons, incapable of detecting the huge underground (literal and figurative) operation in their midst.  At times, vast and complex Allied plots are literally being hatched right in front of Shultz, who is either enraptured with chocolate bars or Lebeau’s strudel or so terrified that he will have to report something  (which will either mean he has to actually work or be put into combat) that he studiously “sees nothing, hears nothing, and knows nothing.”

Vain, clueless, and utterly incompetent, Klink was manipulated and stymied by Hogan and his crew every week, while Shultz, motivated by the dual power of his stomach and his desire to avoid being sent to the Russian front, studiously ignored anything that he might have to report or that might upset his comfort level. By making their monsters into morons, actors like Banner and Klemperer could banish their demons.

Part of the reason this approach works is because, as C.S. Lewis notes, laughter gives us power over evil. In his Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis refutes the interpretation of Satan as a heroic figure by demonstrating the comic nature of his behavior in Milton’s epic. Satan, Lewis notes, is neither heroic or admirable, not the noble and lofty creature he believes himself to be. Instead, Lewis asserts, “the Devil…is an ass.” This is doubtless the reason why Image result for rabadashLewis de-fuses the power of Prince Rabadash in The Horse and his Boy by making him a donkey, his once terrifying habit of waggling his ears becoming, instead, a ludicrous, ass-like habit that makes him a buffoon like Shakespeare’s Bottom instead of a heroic conqueror. He “couldn’t bear being made ridiculous,” but by both his failed stunt of trying to jump down and make a dramatic speech in battle (which ends with him hung by his mail shirt on hook in the wall) and by his transformation into an actual jack ass, Rabadash is utterly ridiculous, even being called Rabadash the Ridiculous behind his back and after his death. In the process, the very real threat he has presented is removed. After all, he has been planning to wipe out the Archenlanders, kidnap Queen Susan and force her to marry him, and to eventually subjugate both Archenland and Narnia under Calormen. Those terrifying prospects are nullified by the revelation of Rabadash as a fool. In order to be un-donkeyed, he must present himself in the temple of Tash and never again go more than ten miles from Tashbaan. As a consequence, he leaves neighboring countries alone and becomes a ruler known as a peacemaker. Thus, laughter and making the terrifying into the silly results in peace and removes the danger Rabadash presents.

Perhaps the producers of Hogan’s Heroes did not have C.S. Lewis in mind when they created the screwball comedy that still airs on local access channels, and J.K. Rowling would not introduce the world to boggarts for another 30 years, but it is clear that they well knew a fact that is just as true in our world as it is in Narnia or in the wizarding world: that when we cower in fear in front of something, especially something that is only a memory, we give that thing power over us. On the contrary, when we see those terrors as ludicrous, we take away their power over us, and we are both refreshed by the power of laughter, and released from the power of terror.  While it may be difficult to laugh at our tormentors and fears in the moment (defeating a boggart is no mean feat), when we empower those fears, even after they are over, by continuing to fear them, we are at their mercy. However, the courage of actors on an utterly ridiculous show can remind us that those men could have bowed beneath the pressure of the past, offended and oppressed by what had happened to them  and their loved ones, and unable to move forward. Instead, they made fun of what had hurt them, and, victorious, let us laugh with them. That makes them real heroes.

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Nice – thank you! (Lewis also has those relevant epigraphs from Martin Luther and St. Thomas More at the beginning of Screwtape.)

    Allow me to add Leon Askin – born ‘Aschkenasy’ (according to IMDB) – ‘General Burkhalter’ to your accents! And, the more I read about secret operations and POW camps (especially Colditz) and WW II history generally, the more I admire Hogan’s Heroes and the artistry of the series, even including the ways in which it is true to, if much larger than, life. (As well as Pat Reid’s and Reinhold Eggers’s books about Colditz, consider, for example, W. Stanley Moss’s and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books and the 1957 film, Ill Met by Moonlight, about the abduction of General Kreipe.)

    The Hogan’s Heroes pilot episode is very close to Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), which already skillfully combined dramatic tension and (satirical) humor. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of the original stage version, but IMDB says it authors, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, were both POWs in Stalag 17B in Austria.) But, by contrast, that pilot also develops the broader humor characteristic of the series – which I think hearkens back to the satirical comedy of wartime cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, etc. Another distinct feature of that pilot which also characterizes the series as a whole is the interweaving of real (deadly) threats from smarter Germans – who nonetheless get outsmarted in the end.

    It’s intriguing how many actual incidents or details the Hogan’s Heroes seem to draw on. I wonder, for instance, if the one where they have a plane is playing with the actual building of a plane by the prisoners in Colditz? And a notable example is the Hogan’s Heroes analogue to Operation Valkyrie – though, to my way of thinking, with a surprisingly unsympathetic Von Stauffenberg figure (food for thought, here: why? – and how exactly did they do that ?: time for more rewatching!).

    Incidentally, Leon Askin (who had worked with Billy Wilder after Stalag 17 but before Hogan’s Heroes – in One, Two, Three (1961) – coincidence, or factor?) later (at 86 or 87!) did what looks a fascinating film about one of the quirky (and, truly ridiculous) providers of the occult roots of Nazism, for which there is a sort of trailer on YouTube, “Adolf Lanz: Mein Krampf – Hitler had meine ideen geklaut…” (something like ‘My Cramp: Hitler had stolen my ideas’) – sadly, with only a few seconds (c. 2:20-49) of Askin playing Lanz.

  2. waynestauffer says:

    your point is well taken.
    From the other side, those working to maintain control and power also understand the power of humor to disarm. they often turn humorless and do not find satire or parody funny when directed at them. think of Professor Umbridge…and the Weasley twins’ handiwork upon their exit from Hogwarts.
    if those in control require fear as a tool, they cannot abide the loss of that tool due to humor

    great article

  3. Prof. Hardy,

    I can actually vouch for your recommendation of watching a show like “Hogan’s Heroes” to help come grips with an issue like the Nazis. I once was trying to wrap my head around it, and of all things, the show actually did help me along on my way toward making some sense out of it all.

    Didn’t Rowling somewhere say that her “Riddikulus” charm was in part based on her Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? If so, is it possible that making the series functioned in the same way for Banner, Klemperer and Clarey? It would be interesting to find out how such a mental process works, if it even is true.

    Another film that’s worth watching in the same vein as “Hogan” is a 1943 comedy, “To Be or Not to Be”, starring Carol Lombard. It focuses on a Polish Theater troupe trying to survive occupation under the Nazis. It features a gallows humor that is very much in the same vein as “Hogan”, and might have been part of the latter’s inspiration. An interesting thing to note about the film is how it revolves around the illusions put on by actors who are aware of the more elaborate types of subterfuge from their knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays.

    Because of their grounding in the kind of thinking that went on in Renaissance theatrical production, these actors are able to outsmart and escape the Nazis, due to their acting talents, and the connected ability to play with and against the shortsightedness of their oppressors. The underlying message of the film could be similar to one made by Tolkien, that evil is too unimaginative, and hence too ridiculous, to understand a more complex form of motivation such as love. In point of fact, the Bard sort of helps them escape with the well-timed delivery of a monologue from “The Merchant of Venice”.

    One more thing about Larry Hovis. I’ve heard a story that, at an Emmy Awards ceremony at which he was a guest speaker, before he was scheduled to go on, he helped foil a kidnapping attempt against one of the sons of his fellow cast members. He apparently spotted the act in progress, rushed into the thick of things, and laid the assailant out flat. After that, he just gave himself a quick dust-off, and then went on stage and did his bit.
    Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Prof. Hardy,

    Additional thanks for nudging me to browse around YouTube as a result of this fine article – where I encountered a moving 2015 interview, ‘Robert Clary: Hollywood’s Last Survivors’, and an interesting one, ‘Robert Butler discusses directing the “Hogan’s Heroes” pilot’. (Checking the Clary title, just now, I see ‘Robert Clary speaks as a Holocaust survivor’ – something I must find an hour for, soon!)

    ChrisC,

    Yes, well thought of! Reading up at IMDB, I see that Billy Wilder (having escaped the Nazis) was one of its writers – as well as for Ernst Lubitsch’s earlier totalitarian satire, Ninotchka (1939). And, that Felix Bressart, M.D. (!), who delivered that monologue from “The Merchant of Venice”, having escaped the Nazis in 1933, was also in Ninotchka – on the strength of which a part was created for him in yet another anti-totalitarian satire, Comrade X (1940), which, like Ninotchka came out during the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

  5. D.L. Dodds,

    You know it’s funny. I knew a bit about the production of “TBONTB”, however it all comes from the commentary on the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray.

    I was aware of just how nuanced Lubitsch approached the material, however this is the first I’ve ever heard about Wilder being the screenwriter, or about Bressart. I’m wondering now if I might have missed something.

    Either way, thanks for the enlightening, not to say fascinating info.

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ChrisC,

    My comment was after reading around a bit at IMDB – where I can’t seem to find that datum again! And, now, looking a little further – online – I’m not finding Billy Wilder credited for TBONTB: my great problem is, I’m nowhere near a really good library, and can’t check published print sources… So, trust your Blu-Ray, or anything you can find in, say, books about him (or it)! (Maybe I just muddled this one all by myself…)

  7. Prof. Hardy,

    It just occurred to me that there is one aspect of “HH” that you didn’t mention, and yet it’s probably another striking feature of the show. Going back and looking at the series, I’m struck by how often the writers were willing to give opportunities for women to be the heroes, on occasion.

    In part, this is an acknowledgement of the role women played not just in the Allied Armed Forces, but also in the underground and resistance movements. At the same time, it was a pretty daring choice to make, just when the Women’s Movement was getting started in the 60s.

    The best episodes that illustrate what I’m talking about are: A Tiger Hunt in Paris (two part episode), The Ultimate Weapon, Six Lessons from Madame LaGrange, Rockets or Romance, Lady Chitterly’s Lover (another two part episode), Operation Hannibal, Hogan and the Lady Doctor.

    The two best episodes of this example, however, are probably D-Day at Stalag 13, and Is General Hammerschlag Burning? The latter episode is interesting in that it is based around the real life French Resistance hero, Josephine Baker.

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ChrisC,

    We might call A Tiger Hunt in Paris doubly interesting in this respect, thanks to the contributions of Nita Talbot (who will be 87 in a couple weeks) as Marya, playing on the occult susceptibilities of some Nazis and helping exploit this – notably where Himmler was concerned, something which I think had been receiving sensational public attention since the English translation of Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s (“crypto-historical”) book as The Morning of the Magicians in 1964 (though these episodes preceding its paperback edition by a couple years).

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