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Look Who’s Back: Writing jokes for Hitler

I just finished reading Er is wieder da. For those not in the know, Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) is a fictional take on Hitler coming back to life in central Berlin in 2011.

It’s humorous fiction. Really.

And for those doubly not in the know, they made it into a movie in 2014. And that movie will debut on Netflix in non-German-speaking parts of the world on April 9.

Look Who's Back/Er ist wieder da
Photo thanks Constantin Film Verleih GmbH.

And for those triply not in the know – I’m in the movie. So, like, my Netflix debut is Friday.

Back in 2014 I got a call from an acquaintance in the movie business. He asked if I had any interest in playing comedy coach for a mysterious someone. My answer was: Not really. I’m only skilled at two things and neither of them is comedy coach.

He then asked if I, instead, had any interest in writing jokes for the mysterious someone.

“Maybe,” I said.

“With pay.”

“When should I be there?”

A couple days later – a Wednesday, I believe – I found myself sitting with comedy friends on the set of an unrelated TV show in a studio in southeastern Berlin. Near that airport that never opens.

The acquaintance who invited me introduced to us to someone who claimed to be a director.

The director reminded me of Animal from The Muppet Show. At the very least, they had the same taste in fashion.

He asked us if we knew about the book. He said he was making the film.

“We’re not supposed to tell you,” he said, “but it seems to work better when you know.”

We were going to be writing jokes for Hitler, he said.

I wondered if I was living in a Mel Brooks play. I debated singing Springtime for Hitler.

But soon Christoph Maria Herbst showed up. If you’re quadruply not in the know, Christoph Maria Herbst is a big-time German comedy actor who actually played the lead in the German version of The Office (called Stromberg, for those keeping score at home). Just think of some middle-aged comedic actor you’re familiar with.

Are you thinking of that actor?

Good. Christoph Maria Herbst isn’t that famous. Because Germany.

But you get what I mean: it was cool to see him.

He was in character. He said he had a guy with him who either was or was not Hitler but either way would be getting a TV show and we should write jokes for that TV show. Nothing was sacred he said and, during a group brainstorm, made clear the direction he wanted us to go with our humor.

It’s a direction everyone goes, just not in front of cameras. But if cameras, then probably for a lot more than they were paying us.

I was starting to get nervous.

I wasn’t sure the jokes that were forming in my head were OK.

When it comes to borderline culture questions in Germany, I turn to a select collection of Teutonic friends. They have similar political and humanistic leanings as I and I trust them to answer my questions in sticky German situations.

Like if it’s OK to participate when someone asks you to write jokes for Hitler.

One of those friends was sitting next to me on that set – a comedian and filmmaker named Georg – so I figured it was OK.

But it was more than just the day’s task that was making me nervous.

The entire time two beefy security guards had been circling the set, looking unhappy.

Were they part of the scenery? Or had the production company hired them just in case some lefty activists decided to drop in on Hitler?

They were either perfectly cast and were playing their part very well or were beefy security guards with questionable political beliefs.

I couldn’t stop sweating.

Christoph Maria Herbst (you couldn’t not write all three of his names every time either) had us each write five jokes and then he read them aloud. I don’t remember any of the ones I wrote. He then picked his favorites and left to get the man who was either Hitler or a man pretending to be Hitler.

In the book, he’s Hitler. That day on set, he was actor Oliver Masucci. But I still tried to imagine what it would be like if Masucci really were Hitler.

My imagination apparently isn’t good enough. Because I couldn’t.

Look who’s back: And he was

Hitler asked for our advice on his humor and was not amused when I suggested he go for self-deprecation. The Führer making fun of himself would be hilarious, I assured him.

He assured me that wouldn’t happen. Even though he wasn’t really Hitler he was still very menacing, like if Vladimir Putin was standing right there but without the ability to cause you to have a car accident on the way home.

About this time Georg started freaking out. He started telling everyone how he would have no part of this. That it was unfair to Germany’s past (or something like that).

I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. I decided that if Georg stormed out, I would storm out too, like two Clark Gables in Gone with the Wind. Or maybe Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

To hell with the money. I had principles (though I would be a bit disappointed because I’m pretty sure no one ever remotely as famous as Hitler would ever ask me to write jokes for them again).

But Georg stayed and so did I.

Animal the director showed up a few more times and I eventually got escorted off by the security guards for offending Der Führer with my self-deprecation suggestion.

This was a bit unnerving.

They say if you’re ever kidnapped you should make yourself more human to the kidnappers by telling them about your personal life. After finding myself behind the set alone with the hulking, clearly-miffed security guards, I figured humanizing myself might prevent any beatings they were contemplating.

“So, uh, are you guys actors or security guards?” I inquired.

Das hier ist alles scheisse,” the blonder of the two barked back (“This is all bullshit.”) I considered checking to see if my health insurance card was in my wallet.

I still have no idea what he meant.

Dude, Georg

Afterward, standing in the sun, I asked Georg if we were ethically OK or if the whole thing went too far.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“In there. You were freaking out.”

“That? I knew what was going down all along.”

“Holy shit! I thought you were totally against it! I was ready to leave with you!”

“Yeah,” he said, pulling on his e-cigarette. “It’s called acting.”

Months later, after my wife saw the film, I told her what I just told you.

“They’re really good,” she said. “You can totally see that that’s what you’re thinking. But your joke is one of the best in that section.”

I can’t wait to see it on Friday.

I hope my wife is right.