Avoiding Controversy with Tasteful Comedy: Hogan’s Heroes (TV Showcase #37)

This is one of the few classic television shows that is still highly recommended and watched by people my age, albeit it’s not as popular as other shows like “Get Smart” or “The Twilight Zone”. At surface level, this show is very much like many other 1960s sitcoms, and the style of humour is basically the same. But I’d like to mention something else the show did, completely outside of its technical aspects. So let’s take a trip back to the 1940s and over the pond to wonderful Germany in a look at “Hogan’s Heroes”.

“Hogan’s Heroes” (HH for short) was created in 1965 and ran for 168 half-hour episodes over six seasons, ending in 1971. The show was about Colonel Hogan of the United States, who, along with other prisoners of war, are trapped in the worst-run Nazi prison camp in Germany. Hogan and his four main partners have managed to build a secret network underneath their bunkers, and they often assist the Allies and defeat the Nazis in secret, all under the noses of their wardens, Kommandant Klink and Senior Sergeant Schultz. The “prisoners” constantly prove what big buffoons Klink and Schultz are, but somehow they also manage to convince higher-ranking Nazis to leave Klink and Schultz in charge of their camp, Stalag 13, and they are able to continue their plans.

While I applaud the show for its lack of extreme formulation and its freshness of ideas from episode to episode, I really want to point out what the show did in popular culture, and how it was allowed to make light of World War II.

In the years between 1966 to 1970, HH was nominated for twelve Emmy awards and won two of them. In 2002, the highly-respectable TV Guide named HH the fifth worst TV show ever, in the history of television. Why was this? Well, you’ve probably already guessed it: to the easily offended, the show makes it look easy to live in a Nazi POW camp, and it also made Nazis look incapable and dumb. If that’s the case, how did the show continue to be renewed for six years? Why was it acceptable?

As an educated guess, I’d say that to understand the show, you’d have to look at the culture to which it was being presented. The 1960s audience was comprised largely of World War II veterans, and it’s a safe bet that all of the actors in HH (maybe with the exception of some of the older actors) had all been in World War II themselves. And here’s the real kicker: the four biggest characters in the show were all played by Jewish actors. How in the world did this show fly? Well, the culture of the 1960s was unique, and political correctness wasn’t rampant like it is today. Let me explain.

The majority of the viewing audience for HH was probably WWII vets who, it might be safe to say, resented the war, and even after twenty years, I doubt that they were able to erase any horrible image of that war from their mind. So along comes a tastefully-written sitcom, put on by other WWII vets, and what do they do? They rescue people and make the Nazis look like imbeciles, every single episode. In fact, Kemplerer, who played Klink, made it clear that he would only play Klink on the condition that Hogan always won, without a shadow of a doubt. Kemplerer won both of those Emmy’s, by the way.

I’d assume that the audience was tired, and after so many years, they didn’t want to keep crying about it and remembering how awful it was, even though they couldn’t help it. So why not watch HH, which is filled with all the ridicule the vets would have wanted to throw at the Nazis; indeed, such caricatures may have appeared in newspaper political comics. There were even impersonations of Hitler himself on the show, and he was made to look the most laughable of all. And for twenty-five minutes each week, these WWII veterans could laugh with other WWII vets and as odd as it sounds, make the best of the horrors they endured.

So whether you liked it or were offended by it, “Hogan’s Heroes” is a great example of tasteful comedy regarding an otherwise controversial topic. And I think it was a fantastic show; sorry if that isn’t politically correct. What do you think?

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