When I sat down to watch The Producers last weekend, I was prepared for the humor to be somewhat obscene. Having already seen Spaceballs and History of the World Part I, I was familiar with Mel Brooks’ style. But The Producers reached an entirely new level. I love Brooks’ sense of humor, but still I wondered if it was OK to laugh—while wincing—when the female SS officers dance in a Swastika formation during the first performance of Springtime for Hitler. Still, my discomfort was short-lived, and I didn’t find it too difficult to decide to just laugh at and enjoy the film.
My proximity to the film’s subject matter perhaps helped make me feel more comfortable laughing along with The Producers. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I felt like my personal connection somehow allowed me to be entertained rather than offended. After all, laughing at one’s own history and identity seems more appropriate than laughing at the plight of others. This seems to have been true for Brooks as well; watching the film, I wondered if another writer or director who didn’t share Brooks’ background as the descendant of German and Ukrainian Jews would have been able to take the film to its extreme levels of obscenity—the key to its success.
Of course, the film’s popularity extended far beyond just a Jewish audience, as did its Broadway adaptation and 2005 remake. Though the film was released in 1968, just two decades after the end of World War II, it seems that most viewers were able to set aside any concerns they had about the film’s potential to offend and instead to find entertainment in it—as Brooks intended. This seems a testament to Brooks’ talent; through its unabashed, wholehearted embrace of the obscene, the film is truly hilarious.
But as I watched the film, I wondered if my college-aged peers would see it this way, or if their reaction would echo the outraged one that Bialystock and Bloom expected of their audience. In this day and age, young people in particular are demonstrating an incredible sensitivity to the power of words and actions to offend others. College campuses are the sites of countless efforts to spread awareness of cultural or social practices that, often inadvertently, result in offending members of the campus community. The sense of humor in The Producers stands in sharp contrast to this attitude; many of the jokes extend way past micro-aggressions, to put it mildly. So could young adults possibly enjoy this film?
The popularity of a more recent musical, The Book of Mormon, helps answer this question. When I saw the show this summer, I was immediately reminded of Brooks. Like in Brooks’ movies, nothing is sacred in The Book of Mormon, and yet the Broadway musical has been a huge hit with audiences of all ages for three straight years. Still, after seeing it, I couldn’t understand how my peers were able to laugh so freely at what in other circumstances would be deemed dangerously offensive. It seemed that the rules of political correctness that guide the real lives of so many young people might not be as critical in the world of fiction. And maybe that’s OK.
Brooks’ influence—and it looms large in The Book of Mormon—reminds audiences that sometimes, you’ve got to take a break from dwelling on the sadness and solemnity of life and just laugh, because without laughter we wouldn’t be able to resist drowning in all of life’s hardships. Brooks taught us that the world of film and musicals could be that one place where we allow ourselves to simply be entertained, where we can laugh wholeheartedly at ourselves and at life’s concerns before heading out of the theater and back into the real world to face it all.
Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.