I saw a local theater’s production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers a few weeks ago. Entirely by coincidence, I happened to be there during the talk-back session. Now, I’ve participated in talk-back sessions before, so I should have known better than to ask serious questions; most of the time, a talk-back is just another opportunity for the actors to blush beneath the gushing weight of the audience’s praise. It’s not unreasonable; when are you going to see most of these people again? If you want them to say something nice about you, you need to seize the opportunity.
But, I forgot about that and, thinking the actors might like to chew on some material a little more substantial than “How did you learn all those lines?” and “What do you do for your real job?” I posed a question about the Nazi musical number in the middle of the play. I phrased it fairly tactfully, in a bumbling, uncertain way, because I didn’t want people to feel like I was “attacking” them (this is an issue that needs to be addressed some time in the future), but what the question amounted to was:
“Why do you think it’s a good idea to have a hilarious Nazi musical in the middle of the play?”
Now, as I mentioned before, talk-backs aren’t really for serious discussions; the actors and director mostly revealed that they hadn’t thought about it, and that they really were doing the play because it had been very successful on Broadway. And, hey, that’s a reason. That is definitely a reason to do a play.
One of the actors asked, “What better way to mock the horror of the Nazis?” Which is an interesting question, because it gets right to the heart of the issue: “Why is mocking the horror the best thing to do with it?”
Now, I’m under no illusions. Maybe in the Olde Dayes, Mel Brooks was different, but there’s no question that The Producers musical is in NO WAY a contribution to the artistic landscape. Mel Brooks is in the business of Mel Brooks, and he’ll make anything into a play on Broadway if he thinks he’ll get a dollar out of it. So, the reason that there’s a Nazi musical in The Producers is because the movie was about two guys making a Nazi musical, the end, no additional consideration required.
There are some interesting discrepancies, though. Remember the movie of The Producers? How, right after the “Springtime for Hitler” number, there’s a shot of the audience sitting there just completely stunned out of their minds — eyes wide, jaws agape, &c. It’s only after this moment of complete, uncomprehending astonishment that they conclude that the play is the funniest thing they’ve seen in their lives (if I recall the movie correctly, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder go to the bar after the first act confident that the play is going to bomb).
It’s clear in the movie that the audience concludes that the play is a satire ONLY because they couldn’t possibly believe that someone could make a play like this and mean it.
This is very different from the musical, because there’s no way to effectively simulate that audience response onstage — or, well, there are ways (you could have a projection in the background, for instance) but none of them are very good. The consequence of this is that, while in the movie the audience is using humor to account for their disbelief, in the play people just think it’s funny.
Which is interesting. The movie sort of neatly parallels what we can assume were that attitudes of, if not Brooks’ himself, certainly many of his contemporaries regarding the Nazis. Astonishment — a kind of mind-blowing horror — followed by the natural mechanism of humor. The sense of overwhelming relief at being free from the danger, laughter as a way of processing danger. The mind, in order to restore normal function after a terrifying or traumatic event, can denude the power of the memory by making it laughable. Humor is a shield that we use to protect ourselves from terror (I’ve written more about the Horror/Humor Problem elsewhere).
This does draw attention to the fact, though, that it’s NOT the Olde Dayes. See, there’s a few key differences between Mel Brooks and most of the people that worked on and were in this show (the one that I saw, I’ll leave the Broadway production out of it):
1) Mel Brooks is Jewish.
2) Mel Brooks was born in 1926.
Mel Brooks, and his contemporaries who were watching the movie of The Producers in 1968 had first or second-hand experience of the Second World War, and of the Nazis. The Holocaust was a just-healed wound forty years ago.
Meaning: Mel Brooks needed to process the Nazis. You and I (well, maybe you, I don’t know how old you are) don’t. For us, there is no direct experience of the horror that needs to be worked on by the humor mechanism. We talk about how certain people are privileged to make certain jokes because of their experiences, but I’m starting to think that it’s actually a reasonable thing to consider.
There’s something that feels disingenuous to me about my laughing at Nazi jokes, in much the same way that it feels disingenuous for me to participate in St. Patrick’s Day — like I’m laying claim to experiences that aren’t really mine.
All of this begs the question: if we’re not using humor in The Producers to process actual horror, then what are we using it for? Which brings me back to that actor’s response (“What better way to mock the horror?”) — and since we haven’t got actual horror, let’s replace it with “Nazis.” “What better way to mock the Nazis?”
So, is that a good idea? Neil Gaiman points out in his novel, Anansi Boys, that good ridicule actually makes the subject itself ridiculous. It’s a good way of stopping any one thing from getting to serious — and humor has a long history of functioning like this. Of course, there is something pretty funny about the Nazi musical part of the play (I especially like the bit where the dancing girls come out with zeppelins and Bavarian pretzels on their heads), but it’s a serious question as to how effective and useful a technique this is.
Because it’s probably very effective at mocking Nazi iconography; it’s just not so good at mocking all of the things that actually made the Nazis dangerous. It doesn’t help us to think anti-Semitism is ridiculous, or Fascism is ridiculous (and here I mean “ridiculous” in the sense that, if someone asked you to become a fascist, you’d say, “No, that’s ridiculous”). We just start associating Nazi uniforms with dancing girls that have pretzels on their heads, and that would be great if anyone still publicly used Nazi iconography to support their politics.
My worry, ultimately, is that techniques like this actually make the real dangers of the Nazi party insidious; by attacking the iconography, the actual philosophy is able to slip away, unnoticed. Once we start to think of the Nazis as a joke, and once we’ve started to think of the Nazis as primarily about the uniforms they wore, then we stop worrying about what they thought. I suppose if you had to boil it down (loathe as I am to boil things down): most of us haven’t had to experience the Holocaust or the rise of Nazism; shouldn’t we continue to think it’s horrific?