Laughing at the Devil Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Laugh at the Nazis

“The Devil…the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.” — St. Thomas More

In a nutshell, that is why laughter is one of the most effective weapons against a totalitarian regime that murdered over six million people. And it’s something that Mel Brooks understands and brilliantly utilizes in The Producers.

I always assumed that was obvious, but apparently it’s not. Earlier this week, Jeffrey Imm launched a campaign to shut down a Maryland production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers on the grounds that it normalized the Nazis and whitewashed their crimes.

To quote the always excellent Simcha Fisher:

Resolved: Jeffrey Imm is a moron, and so is anyone who wants to sanitize the power out of comedy.

For anyone not familiar with The Producers, it’s about two corrupt Broadway producers who scheme to raise one million dollars for a one hundred thousand dollar flop that closes its opening night, and then embezzle the remaining funds. In order to ensure that the play closes immediately after its first performance, they select Springtime for Hitler, a love letter to the titular dictator.

As I wrote in my review of The Producers:

[D]eclaring The Producers offensive misses the point of the unflattering mockery of everything and everyone in the film. The jokes take for granted that the behavior of all the characters is deeply unethical, and then it exaggerates that behavior to expose how stupid, shallow, and destructive such sinful behavior is. That is one of the best types of comedy.

Of all the subjects lampooned in The Producers, none is more evil than Hitler and the Nazis, and consequently the Third Reich is made fun of more outrageously than anything else in both the movie and the play. The big number of the show within the show, Springtime for Hitler takes for granted that Hitler was a terrible person; if he wasn’t the song would only be a few chuckles funny, not outrageously laugh out loud funny as it is.

However, Simcha raises another point:

Excuse me while I get a bit emotional about this, but this is why Mel Brooks is so great: he’s an optimist, and 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.

This is something all the best comedians understand. I am aware Woody Allen is a controversial figure, but in his best movies, he finds what is funny amidst a world of imperfections and short comings. Simcha’s piece instantly reminded me of Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Allen plays a hypochondriac struggling with depression. The first time he contemplates suicide, he’s stopped by the very funny realization he’d have to commit mass murder to make sure everyone affected by his death would also die. After his second and more serious suicide contemplation, his saving moment of light comes from attending a screening of Duck Soup and realizing that laughter and beauty do permeate the world. By the way, Duck Soup is an absurd mockery of fascism in which characters gleefully celebrate going to war with song and dance numbers, punch foreign embassies based on misunderstandings, and make openly sexist remarks. The film had clear enough parallels to Mussolini that it was banned in Italy when it was first released, much to Groucho’s delight.

Another brilliant example is The Big Lebowski. The film is essentially a series of preposterous non sequiturs as two bumbling idiots needlessly complicate their lives. The humor is so great, because regardless of how terribly the characters are behaving or how bad their luck is, the film manages to highlight something thoroughly outrageous. Has your best friend smashed the living daylights out of a stranger’s $40,000 convertible due to a misunderstanding while screaming obscenities at a teenager? And has the stranger then retaliated by smashing the living daylights out of your car? Then how bad has your week really been?

A recent comedy which puts laughing at the devil into startling relief is Four Lions, about four would be jihadists who are so incompetent that they continually thwart their own attempts to carry out a terrorist bombing. In light of recent terrorist attacks, it’s not hard to imagine the film receiving backlash, but the humor takes all power away from terrorists by portraying them as fools who despise Western technology while owning every latest gadget, think placing one’s hands over one’s beard constitutes a sufficient disguise, and think the height of commitment is driving one’s car straight into a brick wall. In no way does Four Lions belittle the victims of actual terrorist attacks; on the contrary, death is treated with respect and sorrow. Instead, the film highlights the absurd illogical standards of the terrorists and serves as a reminder that evil does not have the last laugh.

And of course, Mel Brooks returned to satirizing the worst of human behavior with Blazing Saddles, a spoof of westerns that highlights the racism and slavery which prevailed through the old west. The author of the piece for PJ Media said, “God forbid this Imm see Blazing Saddles.” The obvious reason being that Brooks mocks racism (and sexism) in the same way he mocks Nazism: by showing that type of behavior to be as stupid and outrageous as possible, or portraying the work of the devil, and the devil himself, as idiotic.

What does Mel Brooks achieve with his best work? As Simcha stated:

Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.

So go ahead, laugh at The Producers and Blazing Saddles and The Big Lebowski. God made the world and He saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:31) Regardless of how ugly we make it at times, there is always some aspect in which we can see the foolishness and absurdity of human depravity. We should never laugh to normalize the ugliness itself, but the recognition of how we have fallen short is like looking at the world distorted through a funhouse mirror. We can choose to despair or we can choose to see hope and humor by recognizing mankind’s shortcomings, either giving our enemies power over us or laughing at them. For my part, I chose laughter.

 

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