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.

Friday Free-for-All #19

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This is one of those questions I’ve known the answer to for years, and yet one which has had the parameters for actually doing it change so much in the last three months that the real answer has become something quite different.

Or, maybe not, but let’s start with the pre-plague version.

If I opened a business, it wouldn’t be so much opening my own as it would be facilitating and giving a home to something my friend Che’Rae Adams started, called the Los Angeles Writers’ Center. (LAWC.) It’s a similar idea to Playwrights Horizons in New York, although on not quite as grand a scale yet, but could get there.

In its ideal, pre-plague form, it would have served as a school, developmental center, and production/performance venue, ideally funded by grants, donors, and ticket-sales as a non-profit so that the playwrights would not have to pay tuition while the performers would be paid.

As the idea developed, I realized it would also be the perfect place to fold in ComedySportz L.A. as a second tenant in a building with multiple performance venues, allowing them to have their shows and classes as well, but as a subsidized part of the LAWC.

To go full-on insanely ambitious, those venues would be in a mixed-use commercial/residential property adjacent to a Metro station, but here’s the catch: none of those residences would be luxury properties, and none would be for sale. Instead, they would be available as very low- or no-cost rentals to the artists involved with the company below.

Income that wouldn’t accrue to the non-profit but which would cover operating expenses of the residential and commercial areas of the building would come from the very carefully selected commercial tenants resident on the first one or two floors, designed to cater to our audiences, staff, students, teachers, and artists-in-residence.

Our major goal would be diversity and inclusion, with the primary intent of presenting work written, created, and performed by artists from the BIPOC and LGPTQ+ communities. And while this doesn’t mean that we would never do Shakespeare, it does mean don’t be surprised if you see a production of Richard III set in Feudal Japan with an all-Asian cast, The Tempest recast as an African folk tale, The Scottish Play set as a struggle between native Indians and the Raj, or a First Nations and Native take on Romeo & Juliet.

But no, you would not be seeing an all-white version of The Wiz, thank you. Never, never, never, never, never!

On the other hand, a lesbian version of A Streetcar Named Desire or a gay version of A Doll’s House (with Nora as a twink who’s finally over it) or a transgender, pansexual take on Guys and Dolls could be very interesting.

But all of those are new stagings, re-imaginings, and adaptations. The real purpose and fire of the LAWC would be original works by new voices (new by exposure, not by age — we’re diverse in that way, too) developed via a collaboration of the writers, actors, directors, and dramaturgs of the LAWC, along with a series of readings to get audience feedback.

The ultimate goal is to keep creating seasons to present in our own theater.

Well, it was. The question now is whether and when live theater — or any live event in a venue that holds more than a hundred people — is ever coming back. And, if it does, is the staging going to have to be something new, different, and never before explored?

Will live theaters essentially become a stack of private boxes set in a tower of circles all the way around the stage, enclosed in glass with sound piped in, and occupancy limited to up to six members of the same household who have shown proof?

And how would that effect relative costs it tickets were per box instead of per-person? I’m sure that single theatre fans would pretty quickly revolt.

Do we instead reduce all theaters to 99 seats or less but have multiple shows per day in order to get enough people in? Or would that be too abusive to the casts, as well as forcing them to risk longer exposure times?

Do we turn all theaters into elaborate versions of Pepper’s Ghost, in essence turning the cast into real-time “holograms” to protect them from the audience and vice versa, basically using a 19th century stage trick?

Does being cast in every show from now on out require fourteen days in complete quarantine before rehearsals even start, and how is that paid according to union rules?

Are Noh theatre and Commedia dell’arte about to make a comeback because of the masks?

Too many questions, not enough answers.

I’d still like to make this business happen. I just don’t know what form it would take in the near future.