In honor of Mel Brooks’ 91st birthday, I’m re-posting this essay (slightly modified) from 2015. Mazel tov, Mel, and thanks for everything.
In 2015, one Jeffrey Imm organized an angry protest against the production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Imm’s complaint was that the show makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust. As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”
It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes. Especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.
Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his funniest movies (including High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) target something he loves and admires. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love. And this is a man who is in love with life.
His exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.
Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.
In The Producers, Brooks isn’t just “making fun of Hitler.” At the risk of over-analyzing humor, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler; he robs him of his power. He subsumes him.
This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win. People gotta do what they gotta do (and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn).
We’re all producers, and the worst mistake we can make is the one Bialystock and Bloom made: when we don’t realize what kind of show we’re putting on. In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what robs them of their power.
An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the somewhat underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (“world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.
The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else. The incompetent theater crew is trapped in a darkened auditorium full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.
They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader of the troupe looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.
And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.
The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!
Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable one day was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. I was trapped, and there was too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. There are many reasons for this; but one stands out in my mind, because it’s so stupid. Out of nowhere, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie (we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband) but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and his situation just gets worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.
So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.
So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.
Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, not a tragedy after all, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.
I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live!” made me want to live, a little bit. That’s what kind of movies he makes.
8 thoughts on “Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?”
But I like spaceballs !
And History of the world part one.
I once was saved by a Seinfeld episode: “The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send soup back in a deli”.
Thank you, Simcha, for being so brave as to share the bad along with the good in your life. I love your sense of humor. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your life, your beliefs, your ups and downs. This post brought joy and laughter. Your insights are most helpful.
Thank you for being you.
Dear Simcha, your mind is very weird and very beautiful. I’m glad Mel helped save you. Thank you for shining some light for the rest of us.
I’ve had a few times in my life that were very, very bad–when I wasn’t sure I would ever get out of the dark place, like you said. And I still remember what made me laugh, and finally broke the suffocating darkness.
Once after a very bad and traumatizing few days, when I was so miserable and exhausted I couldn’t sleep, my husband forced me to sit down and watch television. It was a “Frasier” rerun, and Niles had a run-in with his dry-cleaner, who had ruined his favorite waistcoat (“weskit”) with the mother-of-pearl buttons. “However, since Mr. Kim’s English is limited and his wife’s name is ‘Pearl,’ he became enraged and I was forced to flee in a shower of coathangers.”
I laughed so hard, for the first time in days. And once you can laugh at all, you can laugh at your troubles. (To this day I feel a warm rush of gratitude whenever I see David Hyde Pierce’s face.)
And that’s how I know that comedy is not a little thing, not a trivial thing, but a terribly important art.
The first time I read this I wondered what is the connection between not having much Dom DeLuis in the house and respect for your husband? I didn’t ask then, but since you brought it up again I though this time I thought I would ask.
I know that is utterly trivial in relation to the whole point but what you wrote is almost too big for me to read, let alone make a meaningful comment about. Maybe that is part of the comedy?
Ha ha, it’s no big deal! He just really can’t stand Dom Deluise. I could take him or leave him.