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Don’t Forget To Laugh

Facing protests, Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’ reminds us that the art of a good joke is all about context

Brandon Ambrosino
July 24, 2015

Mel Brooks originally unleashed The Producers on the world in 1968 as a film, for which he won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. In 2001, he adapted the script for the stage, earning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Producers remains one of the most popularly and critically successful musicals ever made. Which means that plenty of us really like laughing at Hitler.

The plot is simple enough: Max and Leo, two Broadway producers, scheme to become millionaires by putting on the worst flop Broadway’s ever seen. Their search for a lousy script leads them to Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden, a love letter to Hitler written by Nazi sympathizer Franz Liebkind. After procuring the exclusive rights to the script from Liebkind—which they earn by swearing their eternal allegiance to Hitler—they convince the flamboyantly gay and notoriously lousy director Roger de Bris to sign on to the production, with permission to make Springtime for Hitler “just as gay as anyone could possibly want.” But though Max and Leo are sure Roger’s antics will offend audiences and force their show to close immediately, camping up Hitler backfires. Audiences love the show, and critics rave. Max and Leo learn a lesson as their flop becomes a hit: Hitler, in the right hands, can be a real treat for audiences.

Alas, not everyone understands the humor in seeing the 20th century’s cruelest dictator prance around stage like a mincing queen, as I discovered this summer during a regional production I’ve been performing in at the Olney Theatre Center in suburban Maryland. Several weeks into our run, our company management and a few of our actors began receiving messages via email and Twitter from a man who was concerned about our willingness to joke about such sensitive material.

Here’s how he appealed to readers of his blog:

We need you to urge [the theater] to end the scenes in the Olney Theatre presentation about Adolf Hitler and the twisted “comedy” of “Springtime for Hitler.” They will tell you it is a satire. They will tell you it is their artistic freedom. They will get Mel Brooks and theater reviewers to defend how “funny” it is. Mr. Brooks, actors, and comedians have a right to their personal twisted sense of humor. But when symbols of racist hatred are displayed in public areas, mocking the tragedies the world has suffered, they need to take their sense of “humor” elsewhere. … TELL THEM “ENOUGH.” … TELL THEM “TAKE IT DOWN.”

Several times, he stood outside our theater protesting our musical. “SAY NO TO HITLER MUSICAL,” read one of his signs; another warned “HITLER NO JOKE.” He urged citizens to call our artistic director to let him know “they don’t find Hitler to be entertaining.” He also tried to organize larger protests, but nobody else ever showed. One evening before I started getting ready for the show, I went outside and asked him to explain his rationale for protesting a comedy. He answered that at a time when Americans are intent on eradicating Confederate imagery from public places, it’s only right that they would expand their efforts in removing all symbols of hatred (e.g. Hitler, swastikas).

When I asked if it mattered how the material was used, or the fact that it was created by a Jew who fought in WWII, or the fact that the script is satirical, his answer was essentially that context doesn’t matter.

But of course context matters. Brooks wasn’t trying to whitewash Hitler, and he certainly wasn’t trying to glorify him. As Brooks has often explained, he saw it as his goal to mock Hitler. “You can’t get on a soapbox with these orators, because they’re very good at convincing the masses they’re right,” he said in an interview. “But if you can make them look ridiculous, then you can win over the people.” If he was going to go toe to toe with Hitler, he had to rely on the only weapon he had to annihilate his opponent: comedy.

Brooks’ comedy is evident throughout The Producers—but it’s the responsibility of audiences and critics to listen for it. And that’s where so many recent critics who’ve positioned themselves as gatekeepers of comedy have fallen short.

Take, for example, Lena Dunham’s infamous New Yorker quiz, “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?” which asked the reader to determine whether or not a list of 35 statements referred to her dog or her boyfriend. Though Dunham has been wildly received by pop culture critics, many took the opportunity to pounce on her and scold her for her offensive, insensitive jokes. Politico’s Ben White called it “anti-Semitic garbage.” Even the Anti-Defamation League released a statement, calling the piece “tasteless,” particularly for its evocation of harmful stereotypes. Then there was the stink over Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart’s successor on the Daily Show, who made jokes about women and Jews that some found offensive. The most recent controversy centered on up-and-comer Amy Schumer, one of the feistiest comics ever to grace Comedy Central Roasts. “Don’t believe her defenders,” read a Washington Post headline, “Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist.”

In each of these instances, the worst was assumed about the comedian, and no effort was made to understand the joke as a joke. Takedown articles were issued with dizzying speed, sometimes even accompanied with a demand for the culprit to lose their job. Who could forget the Justine Sacco debacle, where Twitter went after, and got fired, a theretofore-unknown HR worker for tweeting a joke about AIDS? The irony, of course, was that Sacco’s joke actually very comically called issue to white American privilege, the very issue her critics were going on about.

But understanding that would’ve taken Twitter users a few seconds worth of thought, which is something that Twitter users don’t often seem to have. The name of the game on Twitter, and, indeed, in a digital publishing industry that’s indebted to Twitter, is speed. The joke is made, the article written and shared, the outrage provoked, and, if all goes according to plan, no time or energy is expended on thinking.

A former editor of mine, aware of this trend, once called a meeting to warn staff writers to be careful with our tweeting. Before you tweet a joke, he said, think about what the most uncharitable interpretation of that could be—because that’s the interpretation someone will certainly share. For months, before I dared joke on social media, I had to ask myself, “What is the worst way my worst Twitter follower will read this?” I’d heard of playing the room, but this was ridiculous.

There’s been a lot of discussion the past few months about how a culture of political correctness is killing comedy. And Jerry Seinfeld is right—it is. But there’s something else that’s killing comedy: our inability to read. To pay attention to context. To listen for the author’s voice. To look for her intention. Do we really think Louis CK finds child molestation funny? Do we really think Gilbert Gottfried is happy about 2011 tsunami in Japan? Or is it more likely that they, like most comics, are, you know, making jokes about the things we find most difficult to deal with? Bill Maher’s advice about learning to take a joke comes in handy here. So does GK Chesterton’s caution against self-importance: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

It was clear that the protester outside The Producers had only “skimmed” the show, and as a result, had no idea about the power of Brooks’ ironic voice. Perhaps he could learn something from Brooks’ grandson. In the documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, Susan Stroman recalls a heart-warming exchange backstage at The Producers between Brooks and his grandson.

“Is Hitler a good guy or a bad guy?” the boy asked.

When his grandfather told him Hitler was a bad guy, the grandson seemed taken back. “Then why did Hitler make me laugh?”

“Hitler didn’t make you laugh,” said Brooks. “I made you laugh.”

Brandon Ambrosino has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Atlantic, TIME, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, and Daily Beast.