Text by Daniel Killy
“Imagine an amusement park with fun rides, colorful lights, music and high spirits. Great! Now take away the fun rides. And then deduct the colorful lights—and the music—and especially the high spirits. Now switch off the light—and you have Papenburg at noon.” That’s how Oliver Polak describes his hometown, a godforsaken place of only 35,000 residents in north-west Germany. Growing up, Polak’s was the only Jewish family on the block—an ostracizing state of affairs for any young kid—but for Polak, his status as a lone Jew helped transform him into one of the most creative comedians on the modern German circuit, and one of the most controversial.
“For years and years I’ve been on stupid German TV sitcoms, and the humorless editors almost drove me nuts, so I thought I’d better try something of my own,” says the 32-year-old actor, television anchor and stand-up comedian. “But I didn’t have a clue about what exactly to do. So I asked a friend and she told me, â€˜Your name is Oliver Polak, you’re from Papenburg and you’re Jewish.’ And I realized that’s my act.” And this act has earned Polak his fair share of attention—comedy tours, appearances on popular German talk shows like Die Johannes B. Kerner Show and the accolades of Henryk M. Broder (a famously sharp German-Jewish writer) in Der Spiegel.
Although Polak has since left his hometown for the more eclectic climes of Berlin, Papenburg and his solitary religious identity remain a touchstone in the act of Germany’s only living Jewish comedian. While Polak bristles at the religiously specific label, he knows that it is intrinsically part of his routine. “Whenever I say I’m Jewish, I feel a certain discomfort in the audience. Like, â€˜Oh, are they allowed to perform again?'” Polak says. “So basically people feel uncomfortable with the fact that there’s a Jew confronting them with humor. And, of course, I’d be rather stupid not to exploit that.” Because there are so few Jews living in Germany, most of the country’s residents are not used such topics integrated into humor. Political correctness has established an attitude that if you joke about the Holocaust, you’re either a neo-Nazi or you’re crazy—or you’re Jewish.
One of Polak’s most popular stunts is the “Who’s Jewish and Who’s Not” game (“Das Judenspiel”). “I yell some names of German celebs and the audience has to decide spontaneously and shout â€˜Normal,’ or â€˜Jewish,'” Polak says. “With some names they’re pretty sure, others trouble them, like ALF.” The game always ends the same way. “I say â€˜Oliver Polak’—the crowd answers, â€˜Jew!’ Then I reply, â€˜No, I’m normal, I’m just doing it for money.'”
But sometimes the audience just doesn’t get it. During a recent show, half the audience left and the other half accused the comedian of either fueling anti-Semitism or having a superiority complex about his Judaism. “I tell you, that was real comedy!” Polak says.
Despite Polak’s readiness to tackle heavy topics with humor, he doesn’t endorse non-Jews making light of the Holocaust. “Sometimes people really don’t get it,” Polak says. “When you tell them, â€˜My father was in a concentration camp,'”—Polak’s own father survived the camps in Riga— “They think it’s funny to answer: â€˜Well, mine was too. He was drunk and fell off the watchtower.’ That’s something no Jew can possibly laugh about. That’s the borderline you should never cross.”
According to the comedian, Jews are allowed to make jokes about the Shoah or other Nazi-related horrors because such subject matter is a part of their culture. Polak addresses this culture in his first book, I Dare to, I’m Jewish (Ich darf das, ich bin Jude), which came out last autumn. The book deals with the life and troubles of an adolescent Jew who lives in the middle of nowhere. “It’s the whole truth—and the rest”, says Polak, who is currently busy with the book’s sequel, a volume that details his Berlin years (working title: Torah Reloaded).
Although the comedian found more relative freedom in Berlin than in Papenburg, Polak—who learned English at an Orthodox boarding school in England—dreams of touring the U.S. one day. “After all, Judenspiel would be much easier over there. Here in Germany, I run out of names after 5 minutes. In America, I could fill a whole program with that.”
Pick up Polak’s book, I Dare to, I’m Jewish.