The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on Mel Brooks’ theatrical comedy, “The Producers.”
While watching “The Producers,” all I could really think about was the ways that progressive, transgressive comedy becomes the cliché of tomorrow. I remember how fresh, controversial and thought-provoking the obscenity of “Mr. Show” felt in the late ’90s, the raw fusion of boundary pushing jokes with ’60s zaniness in “The Sarah Silverman Program” and the way that “Louie” has fused the urban jungle of New York City with the familiarly skewed headscape of the titular comedian. I was saddened thinking about the comedy that pushes borders now being looked back on as something hokey, repetitive or worst of all, unfunny.
Mel Brooks’ 1968 film is revered in theater circles mostly, I assume, for its slightly meta premise. It naturally led to a remake, albeit an unbearable musical one, in 2005 and has run in theaters forever. It totally makes sense why. Its a film that claims to be offensive and crass and in bad taste where really its a bold concept pushed into a slapdash slapstick caper comedy.
Part of the problem is how little there really is to the movie. This is really clearly a first movie script, with it barely lasting to 84 minutes and much of that running time is devoted to Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel engaging in really broad slap stick. Brooks excelled at writing genre parodies where he had less of a need to write characters and needed to just write jokes. The whole thing plods through every scene that doesn’t feature jokes about Hitler. I was consistently reminded of pop culture aficionado Nathan Rabin’s description of Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror.” We’re waiting for them to bust out that machine gun leg and when they do, it is going to be glorious.
I’m personally sort of mystified by what comes after that. As the eponymous producers prepare to reap in the profits from their sure fire flop, the musical moves into its second act, in which L.S.D., played by Dick Shawn, plays Hitler as a bizarre combination of a mincing homosexual stereotype with an amalgam of hippy singer-songwriter traits. Hitler is all grooves and swinging hips and the crowd eats it up for no discernible reason. Its not clear if Brooks is making fun of musicals, their audiences or the ridiculousness of it all but it just doesn’t land.
Its abundantly clear that Trey Parker and Matt Stone learned a lot from the first song of “Springtime for Hitler.” Combining the most garish clichés of the classic musical with the ridiculous excess of fascism and a portrayal of Hitler as an overall just misunderstood guy is hysterical, if solely because of the combination of form and lyrics. The overall surreal stylings of the second act lessen the impact of the dissonance of form and function.
When “The Producers” clicks, its almost unbearably funny but everything else is stuck in a movie that feels like a relic. There are lisping gay theater stars, unnecessarily long static scenes, strange shifts of momentum and tone and a bit of a predictable cop-out ending but that’s not what I’m going to remember of the whole thing. Its a fun film in retrospect but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh a lot more at “Spaceballs” when i watched it minutes later.
Next Class: The Summer of Whedon is coming to a close so it looks like we’ll be exploring the least deserving spinoff show since “Joey,” the LA supernatural kung-fu noir of “Angel.”