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.
In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times writer Frank Rich attributed the rousing success of "The Producers" to a blatant nose- thumbing of a politically correct cultural environment. Audiences have grown tired of preachiness and sensitivity. They want humor that comes with a rollicking belly laugh, not with a mushy message.
Rich makes a valid point, but one wonders if such a successful PC backlash could ever occur without a display of proper ownership rights. Brooks' Jewishness allows for a broaching of a touchy subject--could many subjects be touchier than the atrocities wrought by Hitler's madness?--and, likewise, "Producers" choreographer Alan Johnson's homosexuality allows us to wink at the flaming stereotypes inherent in the work's gay characters. This may be a PC backlash, but one might argue that it is one that has its bases properly covered.
Brooks and Johnson, by the way, were the team behind another "Hitler-as-humor" farce, the 1983 film "To Be or Not To Be," which contains the classic line: "Let's face it--without Jews, fags, and Gypsies there would be no theater!"
A Jewish Brooks and a gay Johnson gave legitimacy to that gag in a way that a gentile/straight creative team never could. In their hearts and minds, Brooks and Johnson must have felt that they owned that joke. (As for the Gypsies, well, they're always left out in the cold.)
Ownership, however, can be a strange and fickle creature. Sometimes birthright and background just can't buy a comedian quite enough slack.
Just ask Eddie Murphy, the creative force behind the "PJs," the animated series about life in the projects and recently canceled by Fox. When it debuted in 1999, the series came under attack as demeaning to blacks. Spike Lee labeled the show "hateful."
Some bought the explanation, some didn't. Yet no one should have been surprised to see such a show from Murphy, a comedian who has long taken the issue of ownership and run with it in an attempt to deal with our nation's uncomfortable racial history.
As a cast member of "Saturday Night Live," Murphy scored big with "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood," an urban nightmare of repo men and property crimes far from its idyllic PBS counterpart. With his imitation of the Little Rascal's character Buckwheat, Murphy garnered huge laughs while simultaneously revealing the ridiculous, Sambo- type character for what it really was. And in his portrayal of a hardened, black prison poet obsessed with "killing whitey," the young comedian offered up a dose of ownership humor that sent chills down the spine and tingles down the funny bone.
With that type of history, it's difficult to believe that Murphy's claymation look at the projects was "hateful." Painful, perhaps. But hate and pain are not necessarily related.
A similar controversy brewed up a few years ago when UPN presented "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a sit-com about an English nobleman of Moorish descent who ends up as a black butler in the Lincoln White House. Protesters were appalled that a comedy even remotely dealing with the subject of slavery (which the show rarely did) could see the light of day. Whether due to organized protests or god-awful writing, the show quickly received emancipation and was released from the network's schedule.
Nathan and Fanaro may have been in the right, but without a strong ownership claim -- without a direct link to a history of racial discrimination -- their position was weakened, fairly or not.
I felt a bit like Nathan and Fanaro a few months ago after receiving a call about my one of my articles. In the piece, I'd mentioned how much I enjoyed a parody by illustrator Bruce McCall in which he reveals the "lost" re-workings of American icons from the hand of Nazi architect Albert Speer. Specifically, I mentioned his monumental, fascistic version of Yankee Stadium.
The next day, a voice mail message angrily branded me--and anyone else who laughed at the piece--an anti-Semite.
Which brings up an interesting point: Is there a question of ownership on the receiving end of humor as well? As a non-Jew, is it proper for me to laugh at "Springtime for Hitler" with the same gusto that someone with a Jewish heritage might? When I hear comic Chris Rock talking about the difference between black people and "niggers," should my hilarity be somewhat restrained because I'm white?
I seriously doubt that the originators of the comic bits would want it that way; then again, they probably realize that such varied responses are inevitable, affected by everything from world history to personal history. To think that a Holocaust survivor wouldn't have a different reaction to "The Producers" than a WASPy teen-ager is somewhat ludicrous. To say that one response is more appropriate than the other is another question altogether.