How Mel Brooks saved my life

How Mel Brooks saved my life July 29, 2015

producers audience

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

Imm’s complaint is that Mel Brooks’ The Producers 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.

Kathy Shaidle skewers Imm for his stupid protest, but then flashes her alien ID, saying:

Imm, in his own flaky fashion, is onto something. It’s not that those topics aren’t funny.

It’s that Mel Brooks isn’t funny.

This aggression will not stand, man.

I agree that 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 love and devotion for his targets (including in High Anxiety — inexcusably missing from Shaidle’s list of Brooks hits) are the heart and soul of his funniest movies. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love.

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.

Shaidle says:

Brooks always counters anti-Producers critics (no, Imm isn’t the first) by pointing out the obvious: that he was making fun of Hitler.

But what’s brave about that? Hitler managed to look pretty stupid without much help, and when it mattered, neither The Great Dictator nor (the far superior) That Nazty Nuisance accomplished sweet eff-all.

Well, he wasn’t just “making fun of Hitler” (and I don’t believe that Brooks considered himself “brave” for making The Producers, anyway). At the risk of overanalyzing humor, which is the worst thing that anyone can do ever, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler. 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.  

I don’t mean to crap things up by getting too analytical, but it’s hard to ignore: we’re all producers, and the worst mistake we can make is not to 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 saves us from succumbing to them.

An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers  (they’re “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 audience is 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 looks the Nazis straight in the eye, and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on her 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 was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. Too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. Part of the reason for that is because, of all things, 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 things getting 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, 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. That’s what kind of movies he makes.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • JoeCool1138

    “I agree that Spaceballs… is unwatchable.”

    PISTOLS AT DAWN!

  • Hey, thanks for the link.

    But again: The central premise of The Producers is flawed. That matters.

    And more importantly, influential liberal Jews like Brooks who are still “fighting” the Nazis while ignoring Muslims (and even mocking those of us who are trying to raise the alarm about Islam) are actually a danger to the future of the West.

    This is the part where some “I’m proud to be dumb” American conservative will reply, “Lighten up! It’s just a movie.”

    You, too, are part of the problem.

    • simchafisher

      Has Brooks mocked people who raise the alarm about Islam? If so, that’s the danger of responding to the artist instead of his art.
      Anyway, geez, I don’t think Brooks ever set out to make a political point about the Third Reich specifically. As a Jew, Hitler is his boogeyman, so that’s who appears in his movies, and that’s who the good guys triumph over.

    • Leggy Mountbatten

      “You, too, are part of the problem.”

      Aw gee, we were all gonna chip in and get you a high horse for Christmas, but it looks like you already got one.

      • Clare

        Indeed. Not saying that raising awareness about the dangers of Islamic extremism isn’t important, but Ms. Shaidle’s singling out of “professional Jews” as “a danger to the West” for (allegedly) failing to cheer on her pet cause seems petty at best and potentially rather disturbing, not to mention rather a non sequitur.

    • plungingforward

      A huge part of the intrinsic value of remembering, mocking and hatin’ on Hitler is so that next time somebody comes along trying to raise the alarm against the EEEEEEEEVIIIIIL of an entire religious population, perhaps we’ll think the geopolitical realities through a little before we do anything drastic.

  • Leah Joy

    I’ll never forget something that happened a few days after the birth of my first child. The delivery and first days had been very traumatic (I happened to read a list of symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and I had several of them). The baby was actually asleep one evening and I was wandering the house like a zombie when my husband took me by the arm and made me sit down in front of the TV.

    There was a Frazier rerun on. Niles was describing his attempt to be assertive with a dry cleaner who had ruined his best “weskit,” the one with mother-of-pearl buttons. “However,” said Niles, “Given that Mr. Kim’s English is limited and his wife’s name is Pearl, the conversation did not go well and I was forced to flee in a shower of coat hangers.”

    And I laughed so hard. And I felt human again, and alive, and like we might all just possibly survive, and that maybe things might even be OK sometime soon.

    That baby is sixteen now, and thanks to Netflix I watched that episode of Frasier with her a few months ago. Indeed, we all survived–but I sure needed to laugh on that day to help me remember it was possible. I’ll never be disdainful of the value of comedy again.

  • The Anti-Monitor

    Not to detract too far from the main point of your article, but “Spaceballs is unwatchable” really throws me. Granted, taste is often relative, so if you don’t like Spaceballs, I won’t fault you for it. As a Star Wars and sci-fi nut, though, I find the movie hilarious. In fact, for my wife and me, it’s our “go-to” movie when we need to be cheered up. We watched it the night before I went to Afghanistan; the night before she had major surgery last year; and pretty much any time we need to make a major decision. Also, right after Joan Rivers died.

    I can’t find fault with any movie that scene-for-scene duplicates the worst part of “Alien,” right down to the same actor, and yet makes hilarious what was horrible in a different context.

    I’ll agree on “Men in Tights,” though. Watched it again for the first time a few years ago, and found it very dated. What’s funny in 1992 isn’t necessarily funny 20 years later.

    • J.D.

      I give Men In Tights points for, unlike some other Robin Hoods, speaking with an English accent. And bonus points for Cary Elwes, just because.

  • rminnema

    The best thing you can do to bad ideas is make fun of them. National Socialism was a bad, bad idea, and it deserves all the mockery it can get.

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite shows: Hogan’s Heroes. Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink) actually fled the Nazis in the 30s. One can see his portrayal of good Col. Klink as one, big, extended middle finger. And one of the best things about that portrayal is how he demonstrates the petty, little evils of Naziism with humor and flair.

    By the way: If you haven’t watched Hogan’s Heroes in a while, go back to it. It’s excellent. Well-written, well-acted, and screaming good fun.

  • Joseph Nelson

    I am just disappointed we never got to see “Hitler on Ice”

  • Barbara Dawson Cobb

    You lost me at “Spaceballs is unwatchable”. Top movies quoted in whole sections by me and my friends: Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life, Coming to America, and Spaceballs.

    • The Anti-Monitor

      When my wife and I give each other advice–say, “buckle up”–the other always playfully fires back “Ahhh, buckle this!” Moranis’ original delivery was perfect, of course.