TV Guide, as if that’s ever been a magazine you should be proud to read, came out a few years ago and named Hogan’s Heroes the fifth worst television show in the history of the medium. Really? Are we that politically correct now? Do people really think this show is in such bad taste that it spirals ahead of Mama’s Family and Small Wonder on the dreck landscape?
Let’s get one piece of nonsense out of the way quickly. It did not take place in a concentration camp. It took place in a World War II Prisoner of War Camp.
Now, as a young Jewish boy (not that this really effected how I viewed the show much) I loved Hogan’s Heroes. I used to literally sing out the cast member’s names as they came on the screen. Remember Lebeau sneaking out of that Doberman’s dog house! OK, I had issues, but who doesn’t?
Watch it again sometime. The show was funny, clever, and almost unique among sit-coms in its addition of fairly exciting action. Yeah, they blew a lot of stuff up!
Bob Crane, if you can forget the ugliness of Paul Schrader’s over dark and inaccurate Autofocus, was a tremendously charismatic leading man. Col. Robert Hogan was heroic, smart, empathetic, brave, suave, and funny. Cool under fire, he was a great personification of the truly unique American character. Hogan’s company additionally showed amazing cooperation between men of both different nationalities and different races. Show me another sit-com in the 60s to have a major Black character in its cast. In fact, as a character Ivan Dixon’s Kinch was treated with dignity and respect at all times. He was seen as an intelligent, brave equal in 1965!
Of course, the real question at hand is the following: Is there anything funny about the Nazi’s or the Holocaust? I went to a Jewish Sunday School until I was 17 (truth be told I was late a lot) and I basically learned 1000 times as much about the Holocaust as I did about the Jewish religion. I’m not really sure if I’m supposed to believe that a messiah is still coming, but I can tell you all about Kristallnacht.
One day Robert Clary, who played the short Frenchman, Lebeau, came to talk to one of our classes. Clary was actually a survivor of a concentration camp and lost most of his 13 siblings to the Holocaust. Somewhat buying the hype at that point, I almost asked Clary how he could do Hogan’s Heroes after being in a concentration camp, but decided that the question would be too rude. If I had the chance again, I’d tell him how much I loved the show and ask him to discuss the misguided criticism of it.
So ponder this. Why can’t Nazi’s be funny? And face it, the Nazi’s on this show were extremely funny and each of them in their own ideosyncratic way.
John Banner’s Sgt. Schulz was a fantastic portrait of a clueless and even somewhat lovable old man stuck in the military under a regime he can only avoid and fear. The image of him goosing Lebeau for some strudel or bellowing that wonderful catch phrase “I know nothing!” never fails to bring a smile to my face. John Banner was of course Jewish.
Werner Klemperer was yet another Jew and one who fled Nazi Germany in the 30’s. Besides being by all counts a wonderful man, his Colonel Klink is yet another perfectly realized comic character. Klink was an extremely stupid, paranoid, cowardly, egotistical, moron, who happened to also be very funny.
In their own way, Klink and Schulz were also victims of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s. They are merely two pitiful old men fearfully stuck in an opressive regime. They’re as scared of Hitler and the way he runs things infinitely more than the prisoner’s they administer too. Maybe, that’s part of the problem for people without an imagination. Klink and Schulz are somewhat sympathetic.
In truth, though, neither Klink nor Schulz, had any real power, and to its credit the show had nothing but contempt for The Nazi’s in power.
Leon Askin’s General Burkhalter was a fat, corrupt, and utterly without a single redeeming quality. Howard Caine, who was born Howard Cohen, portrayed Gestapo Major Hochstetter as a humorless, sadistic, automaton, and he also did it in hilarious fashion.
Was it really that hard to see who the bad guys were? It wasn’t wrong when Charlie Chaplin mocked the Nazi’s in the Great Dictator, it was heroic. Why is Mel Brooks’ the Producers genius and Hogan’s Heroes in bad taste? Do we have to constantly mythologize the Nazi’s as evil genius? Personally, I’d love to see them go down as a laughingstock. I say deride their inane regimented goosestepping so it never becomes stylish again. With the Hitler er History Channel on 24-7, is there really no room for a show as funny, well written, and supurbly acted as Hogan’s Heroes. I think not.
PS – Klemperer’s reenactment of Klink in “The Last Temptation of Homer” makes it my favorite Simpson’s episode.
PPS – The other day, the final Jeopardy question was what branch of the German Military ran their POW camps. Because of Hogan’s Heroes, I know that the correct answer was, “What is the Luftwaffe?”