A Lot of Words About One Tweet

Background to a scandal

Opening Night of the Rugby World Cup: Auckland trains stranded thousands of fans, causing many to miss the Opening Ceremony, and even the match. Some weeks prior, Adidas attracted disapproval for pricing the All Blacks jersey more expensively in NZ than overseas. And, during World War 2, the lives of some six million Jews were wiped out in an extraordinary genocide perpetrated by Germany. Trains were involved.

Five days after the Rugby World Cup opening, and 66 years after the Holocaust, I tweeted this: Wednesday 14/9/11 11.47pm:

“Maybe Adidas should run Auckland public transport. Nice German company. They should know how to load thousands onto trains.

Three days later, the Herald on Sunday rang, shrill with anger. I asked her to email me questions, but she refused: “I’ve got you on the phone!” She’d located people who’d been offended. What did I have to say? Didn’t I have a responsibility? I asked the reporter to get these complainants to contact me, so I could respond. (Twitter is an open forum of back and forth, but when offended parties don’t use Twitter -- for example, when a reporter uses GPS, CSI and DNA to geo-locate the most offendable people on any given topic, to tell them of a tweet that plainly wasn’t meant for them; and then with emotional, loaded questions, demands a response on the spot -- well, for that, try Facebook, or this site.)

Next day, Sunday September 18, the Herald on Sunday’s headline read: Kiwi Comedian’s Holocaust Joke Falls Flat (Being the Herald on Sunday, the headline really should have been: Nobody Famous This Weekend Caught Having Inappropriate Sex.)

In brief, one of the people offended said what I’d done was to “trivialise” the harsh realities of the Holocaust. Another said, “There really isn’t anything funny about the Holocaust.” (Valid opinions, all.)

Since the article, however, I’ve attracted much, much stronger criticism. This is what I want to address here. I’ve been accused of anti-Semitism. In fact, if you read the article at the Herald online, a picture of evil fashion designer John Galliano appears adjacent, from an article months before. Visually, the effect is ‘Holocaust joke’, and next-door, John Galliano, and in the middle, me. I wind up being painted anti-Semitic by association, innuendo, or worse, by defamatory web layout.

My tweet was anti-Adidas, anti-Nazi, and obviously, anti-bad trains. It was also really rude to Germans. But it was not anti-Semitic. If anything, it was anti-anti-Semitic. Referring to something isn’t always a recommendation. An allusion doesn’t have to be an alleluia.

Anyone who calls my tweet anti-Semitic is doing real, foaming anti-Semites a disservice. Crazy Mel Gibson is anti-Semitic. The barking mad leader of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who pledges to wipe Israel off the map) is anti-Semitic. Neo-Nazis are anti-Semitic.

It’s not like I released an album with the Hamas Symphony Orchestra. It’s not like I designed a new Spring Collection with John Galliano. It’s not like I sent al-Qaeda flowers of condolence to mark the tragic loss of Osama bin Laden. It’s not like I went into Anne Frank’s house with members of the SS and shouted in my best German: she’s in the bookcase!

My tweet wasn’t anti-Semitic. It was insensitive (in other words, I brought up, obliquely, the subject of a tragedy, but without wearing black, playing an anthem, or making a two-part documentary.) But as Steve Martin said, comedy ain’t pretty.

Somewhere in the world, right now, there’s a disaster, a genocide, a tragedy. And quite soon, somebody will make a joke about it. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re cheerleading for it. A mention isn’t a manifesto.

I don’t deserve my name linked anyplace near anti-Semitism by malicious, salacious media shorthand. My career in comedy (if you can call it either) has stood up against racism, in favour of the underdog. My jokes demonstrate, I like to think, the folly of racism. Judge me by my words, not my words as pecked over by hand-picked offendees who create so much graphic detail of any tragedy, of course it’s gonna ruin the joke.

(Fun fact: the two founding brothers of Adidas, Rudi and Adi Dassler, were members of the Nazi Party. Appropriately, Adi was born Adolf. And Rudi was Rudolf, making him Rudolf the Red-Nosed Nazi. It doesn’t appear there are plans for Adidas to rebrand as Adolfdas.)


My tweet didn’t use the word Holocaust. Obviously, the H-word has headline grunt, which appeals to the Herald on Sunday, but this word does not appear in my tweet. This is deliberate. Holocaust, quite frankly, is a difficult word to use in a joke. Tends to drag the audience down. (I advise young comedians against it.)

The choice of euphemism is vital. I’m not a shock jock. It’s the difference, between ‘f***ing’ and ‘intercourse’. The fact is the same, but one version has bubble-wrap. Notice, in my tweet, no expressions like systemic murder, Zyklon-B, or Dachau. I didn’t even use the word people. Or humans. Or Jews. I said, deliberately, ‘thousands.’ To use a number is distancing, and when you want someone to laugh at a joke, you need to create emotional distance. (But not so much that it isn’t a joke.) My words were ‘thousands’, and ‘trains’ -- enough to get the idea across, but hopefully, not so much to form a detailed mental picture of genocide, til suddenly we’re watching Schindler’s List and reaching for a tissue.

Bottom line: I was insulting Germans, not Jews. I hope we've cleared that up.

Finally, to all the people who’ve expressed their support, I have seriously been grateful for every single message. Thank you so much.