To be or not to be… fearless in comedy

There has been a lot of debate lately over what is appropriate in comedy or not, but let me give one example from 37 years ago. And here’s an interesting add-on — 38 years before this music video came out was just after the end of the Nazi reign in Europe.

So… we are about as far from this video as its intended satirical target was when it came out. But more on which after the jump. Please give it a watch.

Okay, yeah, there is a lot of shit to unpack here, but I’ll start with the obvious note. All of this was created by Mel Brooks in order to market a film he starred in at the time, To Be or not to Be, which was itself a remake of a Jack Benny movie of the same name that was originally released during WW II.

Both films absolutely parody Hitler and company, by the way. Benny was far more daring because he did it while that asshole was in power, although Brooks certainly earned the right to remake it by virtue of being Jewish.

Which brings us back to the linked video, which I hope you’ve watched because, again… unpacking time.

First of all. the year was 1983. Brooks was around 56. Rap music was barely a thing white people knew about. Second, Brooks unabashedly decided to headline the music video as… Hitler. Nowadays, this probably wouldn’t fly, but there was a little bit of a precedent at the time he did it in ’83.

See, he’d made this little film called The Producers in which two con-artists attempted to make a fortune by over-funding a musical about Hitler they thought would fail, except that it didn’t. And Brooks quotes one of the more famous lines from that film and the Broadway show: “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!”

Anyway… once the video gets rolling with Brooks as hero Hitler, we pack on more levels with some S&M women and some clearly gay dancing boys, the latter of which brings up one often missed trope in Brooks’ oeuvre: While it may have seemed otherwise, he was always homo-positive in his works, just like Blake Edwards. Sure, sometimes it was only via pure Camp, but look at the ending of Blazing Saddles, for one. And for another…

The film I’m bringing up here, Brooks’ To Be or not to Be, was the first Hollywood feature film to even mention the fact that homosexuals were exterminated in the death camps, and the actor who played the role of the character who revealed that information was in real life a grandfather who came out really late in life, and whom Brooks met while going to a drag show in the Valley.

But I think I did digress. Here’s the point. Sure. Brooks played Hitler in a 1983 music video. But do you know why? Simple. It was in fact to ridicule the shit out of people like him. It’s also why he made The Producers and To Be or not to Be, or anything else.

If anything, Brooks exceeded at destroying his enemies by taking on their personas. And that is something that should absolutely be allowed and not fall to cancel culture.

Only the targets of possible hateful humor should be able to judge it, and if a member of a particular identified group happens to be creating that humor with a purpose, that’s their decision.

Some of the performers on RuPaul’s Drag Race glamp it so far over the top that they bring every possible negative stereotype about gay men being flamboyant and effeminate to the table and then double down. But that’s the point, and they are presumably all representative of one part or another of the LGBTQ+ community.

Comedy can be offensive, but remember that word has two meanings. The one people think of in this context is humor that, well, offends someone, either by insulting something near and dear to them, or is definitely designed to cause anger, outrage, or emotional harm to someone from an identified group.

I’m not defending the latter by any means. In fact, exactly the opposite. But regarding the first part, a lot of people are easily offended by different things but this doesn’t merit the comedy being banned. It just tells that audience member they probably shouldn’t follow the comic.

For example, imagine a routine in which a comedian describes their day and how it went off the rails, but every single thing that went wrong was clearly absolutely their own fault. The only target of the piece is the comic telling the story. A lot of people would probably find it engaging, funny, and relatable.

But then you have those handful of people who are suddenly absolutely offended because the punchline to the whole thing is: “Then I looked at the clock and realized that it was only 10:30 in the morning. Shit!”

Yes, there are adults, believe it or not, who literally lose their shit at any kind of cursing, and it can be as extreme as the comic using “dammit” or “crap” instead, or it may only be trigged by the holy Anglo Saxon curse word supreme, “fuck.” But the reaction has nothing to do with the humor and everything to do with the person.

I mentioned previously that comedy should be offensive, and this is where the other term comes in. If you’re a football fan, have military experience, or work in PR, then you’re probably already thinking it.

Offensive can also mean to go on the attack at its most extreme, or to take action against an expected negative consequence in advance. For example, a famous celebrity may have been photographed by paparazzi in an intimate moment with someone not their spouse and realized it. The offensive action in this case would be for that celeb to just come right to the press and say, “Okay. This happened,” and then apologize for it. That neutralizes any value in the photos and blunts the scandal instantly.

But that’s not funny. The way comics use comedy offensively is to do what’s known as “punching up.” That is, going after targets with greater power and privilege than the comic and their audience.

Doing an entire routine about how stupid the bagger at your local supermarket is and yet they want a $15 an hour minimum wage? Punching down and highly offensive.

Doing an entire routine about how the CEO of that supermarket chain can’t shop in their own stores because they have no idea how groceries work, and then extending that to a series of everyday situations to show how out of touch that CEO is? Punching up, and hilarious.

“He tea-bagged the scanner in the self-check aisle because he thought it was some sort of testicular cancer screening machine.”

Remember this line from Arrested Development, delivered by the always amazing Jessica Walter as the amazingly vile Lucille Bluth: “How much could a banana cost? Ten dollars?” In eight words, this captures how out of touch with the “little” people she is, and how much she likely pays for common items compared to them, if she does the paying at all.

“A hundred and fifty dollars for a pair of panties? It’s a steal.”

And so on. The point is that you’d have to be pretty unaware to watch Brooks’ video and think that it’s an endorsement of Hitler. You’d also have to be pretty blind to not realize that Brooks rigged it to appear heteronormative while being jam-packed with homoeroticism.

Watch the video again, and pay attention to the male dancers. There’s the hidden message. In 1983, it was the very beginning of the AIDS crisis and just over a decade past Stonewall.

For the pre TQ+ LGB audience at the time, the real question was: “To be or not to be… myself?”

Image © 1983 20th Century Fox, courtesy the imdb gallery page for the film.

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