“The Producers” is a satirical comedy film created by Mel Brooks in 1967. “The Producers” was Mel Brooks’ directorial debut in Hollywood. It is considered to be a groundbreaking film, pushing the boundaries on dark humor and social norms. “The Producers” tells the story of two men Max Bialystock played by Zero Mostel and Leo Bloom played by Gene Wilder and their journey as Broadway Musical producers. Max was once one of the most popular producers throughout Broadway. However, his career fell apart due to his aging, greedy, fraudulent, and irresponsible behaviors. Leo is Max’s accountant who deals with severe anxiety and panic attacks. After discovering fraudulent numbers in Max’s finances, Leo comes to the realization that a producer can make a lot more money on a play that fails rather than one that experiences great success. Their plan is to create a broadway show so ridiculous and terrible that it closes immediately after opening night. They decide to create the play made by an estranged nazi sympathizer called Springtime For Hitler. The play celebrates Nazi Germany crushing the allied forces and the accomplishments of Hitler as a leader and as a person. To Max and Leo’s shock the audience found the play so ridiculous and humorous that there was a standing ovation.
Throughout all forms of entertainment there are various lines that are never supposed to be crossed. These lines constantly cross paths with comedy, which has a main purpose to test social norms and say the unimaginable. Within society there are a handful of taboo topics that are rarely discussed at a conversational level. One of these topics, as addressed earlier, is the Holocaust. In “The Producers”, Mel Brooks decides to disregard these social norms to tackle the worst genocide of all time.
While humor has become a mainstream form of communication and entertainment, it is important to remember that while we consider comedy to be something that we merely enjoy, the etymology of comedy stems from something much darker. Comedy is a response to society, and when dealing with the Holocaust, like many other devastating historical events, comedy is linked to addressing tragedy and creating dialogue in a more approachable setting. As Mark Twain once noted: “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven.” Comedy is a lens through which we can examine our society. There has been debate about whether the use of humor in reference to the Holocaust is something that should be done. Perhaps it is still too soon. But, rather than looking at comedy as a break from the world and its history, we should continue to be willing to engage with comedians and humor to keep these important discussions alive.
It is human nature to resist talking about horrific events. Every aspect of the Holocaust is dark, depressing, and incomprehensible. While many people view the resistance in partaking in light conversations regarding the Holocaust as respectful, it actually can lead to an even darker aftermath. When people are afraid to address certain topics, they keep it locked away in the back of their head hoping to never cross paths with it. This is a dangerous train of thought when dealing with a catastrophe like the Holocaust. The Holocaust occurred 85 years ago, this means that sadly, in a few, years they will be no remaining survivors alive to tell their story. Without them and without conversations about the Holocaust, it will only be remembered as a tragic event that we read about in history books. This is a very scary thought—the struggles and horrors of the Holocaust need to be with us not only to pay our respects, but also to prevent future atrocities from occurring. While comedy may seem like a disrespectful and childish way of paying respects and raising awareness, it is actually a very productive channel. Comedy brings light to the darkness. Life cannot exist in total darkness, it needs light to grow, spread, and continue to have a profound impact on society. Mel Brooks’ fellow producer and Holocaust survivor, Robert Clary, is a prime example of this. When Clary was sent to a concentration camp in Poland, he began singing and telling jokes for his fellow prisoners. They were all in the worst conditions imaginable, however, they were still able to come together for these few moments of laughter and hope. Clary has stated many times that he and others would have not survived if it wasn’t for the comedy.
Comedy combines the past and the present to make sure nothing is forgotten. “Laughter is a weapon of confrontation, rather than a means of defense or escape, enabling us to face apocalyptic horror…The purpose of parody is to create a sense of continuity between the past and the present” (Montresor Studies In American Jewish Literature). Humor is a form of expression. It is a way of portraying history with a deeper message attached to it. In a society that relies on silence regarding the Holocaust it is up to artistic expression to continue the history of the Jewish Culture, and more specifically, the Holocaust. “Even in the face of silence, form an ineluctable part of the human experience, and that the attempt to transform the legacy of Holocaust trauma into history will, no matter the format, continue in the future” (Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies). Studies show that avoiding traumatic event can only worsen problems and cause more stress. “Dismissing or ignoring the Traumatic experience is not a reasonable option, nor is holding an attitude of benign neglect” (Alexander Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma).
Mel Brooks took a huge risk by creating the movie “The Producers”. The Holocaust had only ended 22 years before the movie was released. Mel Brooks understood that his film would be met with a great deal of criticism and lack of understanding. However, Mel Brooks stood by his ideas. Brooks made it clear that “The Producers” was not making fun of the survivors but rather it was revenge against the Nazis. Mel Brooks has famously expressed the quote “revenge through ridicule.” By ridiculing the Nazis, he was taking away their power. Part of the reason that made “The Producers” so funny was the idea that how could someone possibly think that a musical about Hitler was ok. “The Producers” was not funny because it was about the Holocaust, but rather it was hilarious because of how outrageous and absurd the jokes are. People laughed because everyone understood that the Holocaust is one of the worst events ever to occur in human history, and were shocked that someone was pointing out the humor of it.
The performance of “Springtime For Hitler” is perhaps the most memorable scene from “The Producers”. “Springtime for Hitler” is the climax of the entire movie. “Springtime For Hitler” also includes the song “Hail Myself”. The song begins with a very cheerful musical score taking place in a town located in Germany. The community is dressed in extremely vibrant clothing as they begin cheerfully singing trying to find their leader: Hitler. An SS officer with bleach blond hair and bright blue eyes then enters the stage and begins singing. Some of his lyrics include “Springtime for Hitler and Germany, Deutschland is happy and gay” (“The Producers”). The production is extremely over the top which adds to the ridiculousness of the entire scene. A squad of Nazi soldiers then begin to break out into a tap dance sequence. A line that stands up from the song is “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party”. At this point the crowd is speechless and many get up and leave. It isn’t until Hitler enters the stage that the tides start to change. The character of Hitler is portrayed overwhelmingly feminine and almost like a diva. The audience begins to laugh and view the play as a raunchy comedy.
Rather than sitting back and allowing Hitler to win, Brooks decided to take a much more proactive approach. In an interview from 2009, Brooks says the following regarding his ‘unorthodox’ approach in his numerous works that either referenced or utilized Hitler as a character:
After all the people that he was responsible for killing and after utterly destroying half the world, I just thought the only weapon I’ve really got is comedy. And if I can make this guy ludicrous, if I can make you laugh at him, then it’s a victory of sorts. You can’t get on a soapbox with these orators, because they’re very good at convincing the masses that they’re right. But if you can make them look ridiculous, you can win over the people. I think that was the thrust of it. I knew I could have fun with him, with his little mustache. I saw Charlie Chaplin do it in “The Great Dictator.” I knew this was it, this was the road, it can be done. Chaplin just showed the way.
In a world filled with silence, Brooks’ challenged the accepted passivity in order to tackle this topic. In his mind, this strips Hitler of his power that he holds over us. This is a form of rebellion. It does not at all resemble the original response to the Holocaust, but in doing this, he is pushing back.
There are two major factors that allow for comedy to be accepted in society. The first factor is time. With time people learn to heal and reflect and they are more open to different perspectives. Comedy is more accepted over time because the relevance of the joke isn’t so immediate. The second factor is context. Mel Brooks’ was a first generation child coming from Jewish European parents. He practiced Judaism his entire life and even fought against the Nazi’s as an extremely respected and valuable corporal in Germany.
This is a large reason why Jews were able to become so successful in the entertainment industry and especially comedy. Jews as a culture have a deep understanding of suffering and the true realities of our world. This understanding allows people to connect with audiences and tell jokes that truly resonate with them.
Montresor, Jaye Berman. “Parodic Laughter and the Holocaust.”Studies in American Jewish Literature (1981-), vol. 12, 1993, pp. 126–133. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41206185.
ALEXANDER, JEFFREY C., et al. “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 1st ed., University of California Press, Berkeley; Los Angeles; London, 2004, pp. 1–30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp9nb.4.