Encyclopedia of Surfing, here on the site itself but also on Facebook, has attracted some whip-smart and wicked funny commentators, and none more so than a California woman named Aviva Rosenthal. She’s got an amazing range of knowledge, high to low, and 10 fingers that are as quick as they are sharp on the keyboard. Doesn’t surf, but is fascinated, in a totally non-fawning way, about surfing and surf culture. She’s writing a book about it, in fact. And that’s about all I know about her.
On Tuesday I posted a History of Surfing page about how the sport, around the time of Gidget, got rebellious, sort of, kind of, in a grinning and suburban manner. One of the examples I cited was the La Jolla surfers, who of a gentle summer afternoon in 1959 might heed the call to dress up in full Stormtrooper regalia and march across the beach near Windansea while holding a huge black-red-and-white Third Reich flag. Maybe you’ve seen the clip of the boys sliding down the La Jolla storm drain? (See bottom of page.)
Anyway, posted the History section, did the social media two-step, and Aviva was quick to the keyboard, zeroing in on the La Jolla bit. Her Facebook reply:
This is a problem for me with a lot of these guys. I don’t care if it’s punk or play or whatever. I can tolerate a lot, trust me, but this [the Holocaust] was something that had taken place only 15 years prior, that my people were being gassed and shot and burned by the millions. There was no scenario in which this was cute or playful. It was just shitty. And it makes it very hard to look at everything else these guys did without horror and nausea. It’s like saying, well, Hitler was an exemplary vegetarian. Uh, yeah, but…
I read portions of this to a black friend and asked her, how would you feel if some incredible athletes you admired were frolicking in the yard dressed like Klansmen? And she said, girl, I would burn them to the ground.
Anyway, my two cents. It’s not cool, and they knew what they were doing. If that makes me a humorless bitch, I’m 100% okay with that.
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I’ve been inclined, over the years, to give the La Jolla guys a pass. Like Aviva says, you file it under “play” or “punk.” It was a long time ago. Everybody was so young! You let it slide. Or no, actually, worse, you laugh and shake your head and wave the episode into the same super-fun wing of the surf history museum as BAs and lit firecrackers at the surf movies and quickies in the back of the woody. Stacy Peralta cheerfully showed the Nazi-rigged La Jolla guys in Riding Giants. And look at me, yesterday, on autopilot as I made the clip below—acting before thinking about what I actually wanted to write in this post; I blame the internet—riffing on the riff, putting Wagner on the soundtrack, adding a cute title.
Except Aviva is right. Big, strong, blond young adults marching under a Nazi flag, just to piss off the squares? It works! But only in that, yes, the squares were outraged. It works because it is on some level dangerous; crafting laughs out of horror is tricky. But if you’re clever enough (and the La Jolla boys were) you can get results. Here we are, almost 60 years later, still watching the funny surfer-Nazis.
Analyze comedy at your own peril. Everybody knows this, but I’ll step into the trap anyway. The La Jolla Stormtrooper bit, forget how mindlessly hurtful it was, still is, it doesn’t actually work very well as comedy. Only on the simplest level. Outrage is great. Lenny Bruce, Pryor, Hicks, Sarah Silverman, Louis CK—the best comedy depends on outrage, is built on it. I mean, is literally built on it. The outrageousness of Silverman’s filthy mouth is balanced atop the fact that a woman comic isn’t supposed to have a filthy mouth. That’s the real outrage.
And here’s where the La Jolla gang fails. The outrage they provoke has no worthy opponent. It is built on nothing. You’ve upset Jews. You’ve disappointed your parents. You’ve dishonored all the vets who liberated the camps, who beat Hitler, who won the war, and thus created the mid-century life of leisure into which surfing and BAs and beachfront day-drinking could flourish.
I’ll finish with just a quick word about Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who outraged on a far grander scale than the La Jolla boys, just a few years later, using many of the same tools—read more about Roth here and here—but actually hit the comic G-spot.
Roth’s Rat Fink was funny because Mickey Mouse, Fink’s inspiration and doppelgänger, was so not funny.
Roth’s “Surfer’s Cross” pendant, modeled after the German Irons Cross, was funny because it played on the ridiculousness of American teen trends. Same with his follow-up, the plastic Wehrmacht helmet. With Roth, you get somebody who loved the flash of American consumer culture—and for sure cashed in on it—but also loved making fun of it. “That Hitler,” Roth told Time magazine, talking about the success of the Surfer’s Cross, “did a helluva public relations job for me.”
Roth was a Jew, by the way, which makes the joke better.