Arts & Pop Culture

The Cathartic Absurdity of Mel Brooks

Srsly, he’s pretty funny

By Felicia Kuhnreich

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In today’s media, where there are so many outlets for comedy and so many funny people, I still always find myself returning to Mel Brooks. His brand of silliness is critically acclaimed (he is in the elite EGOT club), and I often regard him as a safe choice for a favorite comedian. Brooks’ lowbrow vulgarity drives movies such as History of the World Part 1 (1981) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). While these are hysterical movies, he is most remembered for the films Blazing Saddles (1974) and The Producers (1967), which have stood the comedic test of time and include some of the most famous scenes in comedy history. Who knew that cowboys farting over and over again could be so funny? This clearly philistine humor coincides with Brooks’ efforts to push material boundaries. The Producers and Blazing Saddles were met with criticism regarding insensitivities toward race and religion, but the fact that the same two films eventually became celebrated by critics illustrates how movies can successfully tackle controversy if the material is enough of a spoof and still tells an honest human story.

The controversy surrounding The Producers stems from issues of anti-Semitism and the film’s portrayal of Nazis. Max Bialystok and Leo Bloom, two Broadway theatre producers, enter into a get-rich-quick scheme when they realize they can make more money with a flop show than with a hit. They attempt to produce the worst show ever written by the worst director who ever lived, and decide on a little production called “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden.” It is penned by Franz Liebkind, an ex-Nazi, and directed by Roger De Bris, a flamboyantly gay man. Naturally, controversy ensued with this plot.

Released just 23 years after the end of World War II, the film was criticized for its insensitive ethnic humor. Renata Adler of The New York Times wrote in 1968 that many parts of the film are “shoddy and gross and cruel.” The film was thought to be crude, with many scenes in bad taste. While the uproar from critics was not unfounded, the film works because of its ridiculous, over-the-top nature. A few Nazi jokes sprinkled throughout a plot may cause concern, but a full-on Nazi musical production containing Nazi showgirls dancing around in the shape of a swastika? I beg you to try not to laugh. The absurd humor in this movie is necessary for tackling such heavy subjects in a comedic manner. Franz Liebkind is an undeniably delusional Nazi, and the movie makes this clear when Bialystock and Bloom go to his house to get his permission to produce his play. He screams in excitement to his pet pigeons about the prospect of getting his show produced, and proceeds to make Bialystock and Bloom take the Siegfried Oath pledging their loyalty to Hitler. Liebkind’s goal to restore Hitler’s reputation through “Springtime for Hitler” is emblematic of the fallacy of his Nazi perspective. Similarly, his diatribe against Winston Churchill ultimately portrays him as insane. Depicting the Nazi character as the most ridiculous fosters the satirical and hilarious tone of the picture. The all-out nature of the scene and the film overall makes laughter the only rational way to respond.

“His outrageous spoof doesn’t eliminate the tragedy of history but points out and allows us to process its insanity.”

As mentioned previously, the highlight of the movie is the actual production of “Springtime for Hitler.” The audience gets to see a small sample of the show, and Brooks goes for all-out shock. In the span of three minutes, the audience experiences every German stereotype, including showgirls dressed as pretzels and beer. The dancers are dressed in Nazi uniforms and their dances incorporate the Hitler salute and a swastika formation. This performance makes a statement about Hitler’s status, and Brooks creates a demeaning depiction through his choreography. One officer sings, “don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party,” as shots fire. The lyrics further display the absurdity and stupidity of their horrifying organization. Of course, in retrospect not a single “smarty” would ever consider joining, but stating the opposite of what the audience truly feels or believes makes it all the more poignantly ridiculous.

Brooks uses his lowbrow humor and silliness as a tool to demean the evil forces in the world. His outrageous spoof doesn’t eliminate the tragedy of history but points out and allows us to process its insanity. It is not just ridiculous in its exuberance, but also in its lack of rationality. Liebkind is extremely angry in the second act after “Springtime for Hitler” becomes a success. His solution is to shoot himself, and the ensuing minute sequence lacks any semblance of logic. He mocks people who cling to life “like baby butterflies” and tries to die like a man, but as he screams that he will soon join his idols and pulls the trigger, it jams. He then throws the gun away in anger and mutters, “when things go wrong,” upset about not dying, but not determined enough to double-check the gun and give it another try. Liebkind’s decision-making displayed in this chain of events is entertainingly illogical. Reason further escapes the situation when Bialystock suggests that Liebkind kill the actors because they are the ones actually ruining Hitler’s reputation. This inane and illogical problem-solution sequence imitates the fundamental lack of sense that is embedded in historical reality. These mad suggestions serve not just to make the viewer laugh but also to expose the true irrationality and disconnect of the past.

If The Producers was met with controversy, Blazing Saddles pushed it to a whole new level. This film, released seven years later, is Brooks’ first Western parody. In it, he channels the traditional racism and sexism that appear throughout the genre, and through the ridiculous plot, he points out the inherent idiocy of those tropes. The main story arc involves an evil railroad builder attempting to drive the citizens of the western town Rock Ridge out by appointing a black sheriff. The first scene, in which white railroad workers demand a working song from black railroad workers, illustrates racial tensions, and as the story unfolds it continues to explore race relations. Co-written by Richard Pryor, his and Brooks’ social commentary on race shines through the silly gags. Brooks creates a synergy between the absurdity of racism and the movie’s innate madness. The townspeople are portrayed as so ignorant that it’s funny. If their stupidity goes over your head, Brooks breaks the fourth wall—in signature style—to call the racist townspeople idiots, making his criticism both humorously exaggerated and impossible to miss. Blazing Saddles’ success can be attributed to the inherent truth found though the craziness.

Racism in America and Nazism are not light subjects. But Mel Brooks’ comedic and cinematic style takes these uncomfortable and horrible truths and puts them in a comedic context. By making us laugh at things that are simply not funny, Brooks shows us that some of the most horrifying aspects of humanity are based on an inhuman ridiculousness. This allows us to experience and contemplate events that might have been too sensitive to discuss and find some closure and catharsis in laughter.

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