Whose Laugh Is It Anyway?

In 'The Producers,' Mel Brooks satirizes the Holocaust like only a Jew could. But when does ethnic humor cross the line?

BY: Jeff Daniel
The Post-Dispatch

 

In an episode of television's "Seinfeld," a recurring character named Tim Whatley converts to Judaism -- not for reasons of faith, but simply for the opportunity to repeat off-color Jewish jokes without fear of reprisal. He is a Jew, so now he can riff on "his people."

It's a funny bit, and one that gets to the heart of a major theme in comedy: ownership.

Ownership is what allows black comedian Richard Pryor to title an album "That Nigger's Crazy." It's what allows Italian Catholic Don Novella to ridicule the church as the irreverent Father Guido Sarducci. And ownership is what allows Seinfeld himself to let his TV character have a passionate make-out session in a movie theater during a screening of "Schindler's List." All of the above have the proper history, heritage, and birthright one needs for such a poking of sensitive wounds.

Comedic ownership, above all else, is about the intersection of painful memories and cathartic laughter. It allows for the pairing of extremes such as reverence and ridicule, or piousness and parody. Feelings get hurt. Toes get stepped on. In a best-case scenario, the roar of laughter drowns out the roar of outrage.

Mel Brooks knows the sound of those roars. One might even crown Brooks the king of comedic ownership, if solely for his 1968 film and current Broadway smash, "The Producers." Winner of 12 Tony awards, the stage version is Brooks' reworking of a movie classic that introduced the world to "Springtime for Hitler," a musical take on Nazi Germany complete with Busby Berkeley dance numbers and zingers such as "Don't be stupid/Be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party."

As a Jew, Brooks takes liberties in "The Producers" that non- Jewish comedians might never be allowed even to fantasize about, from having his Jewish lead characters don swastika armbands and gain favor with a Hitler worshiper, to having buxom stormtroopers decked out in sexy uniforms, to...well, the list of outlandish situations goes on and on.

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