My favourite quote from any entertainer comes from Melvin James Kaminsky, aka Mel Brooks: “I’m the only Jew who ever made a buck offa Hitler.”
Brooks has been making me laugh, and beautifully offending the righteous, since I was a young boy in 1966. That’s the first year I saw the hilarious television series that was his brainchild, Get Smart.
He followed that up with the movie The Producers in 1967. It is still the funniest film I have seen, but it could not have been made by a gentile, then or now. The story line: A timid Jewish accountant does the books for a brash Jewish Broadway producer and after a shaky start they decide to produce a play that is so vile it is guaranteed to flop on the first night…and sell about a million or so percent of it.
The play? Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden. The result: a smash hit and ruin.
He followed this up with movies Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles in 1974, High Anxiety in 1977 and many others. Not all of them worked but, hey, nobody’s perfect.
Brooks, bless him, is 91 and still firing on all cylinders.
He has just turned, kosher issues notwithstanding, a sow’s ear into a silk purse with his rewrite of his musical version of Young Frankenstein. Unlike the musical of The Producers in 2001, which was a Broadway hit, Young Frankie flopped in New York.
Now the new-look YF is wowing them in England and made its West End debut on October 10.
But that’s not why I invoke Brooks. It was a throwaway line from him on BBC Radio’s Today programme about political correctness being the death of comedy that caught my attention. He believes PC would have prevented irreverent western Blazing Saddles from being made today.
“It’s not good for comedy,” he said. “Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks.
“Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behaviour.”
Hear, hear. But the sad thing is that Brooks is correct. There are so many elements in Blazing Saddles (a movie about a black sheriff foisted upon a redneck Old West town) that would offend the PC wowsers, not the least of them liberal use of the dreaded N word.
The N word is so taboo that it can’t be written. Without it, Blazing Saddles would not have worked. Rednecks use the term all the time. That doesn’t make it right. It just makes it real.
The same thing applies to Fawlty Towers, possibly the greatest TV sitcom made. Try making it today. When things go wrong, no gags about it being Manuel’s fault “because he’s from Barcelona”. The old major dropped the N word (which is what silly old army types from a different era did). That’s out. Basil and Sybil smoked. Cut! Think of the kiddies.
Some years ago, it was decided to do an American version of Absolutely Fabulous. Central characters Edina and Patsy smoke cigarettes. Cut! They snort cocaine. Cut! They are more often drunk than sober. Cut!
Needless to say the American Absolutely Fabulous never saw the light of day. By the time you cut out the fags, cocaine and booze, there was so script left.
I remember an eon ago when John Cleese, the writer and star of Fawlty Towers, was interviewed on TV by Michael Parkinson. Cleese said that a particularly obnoxious American producer surprised the life out of him by encapsulating comedy in a sentence.
I can’t find the exact quote, but this is pretty close: “Show me a sitcom about St Francis of Assisi and you’re looking at a flop. Show me a 15-second skit where a bird shits on St Francis’s head and we have a hit.”
One notable exception who has slipped under the PC radar is Seth MacFarlane, whose Family Guy is as funny today as it was when it first graced the small screen in 1998. It has managed to offend everyone. I believe MacFarlane has managed to do this and get away with it because the show is animated. But Family Guy with real people? Cut!
Just when did the collective world lose its sense of humour? I don’t believe it has. The good folks of our planet far outnumber the bad ones. It’s just that the baddies are so ridiculously vocal that it sounds like there are billions of them.
So many people, like me, still watch reruns of Fawlty Towers and enjoy countless viewings of The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. And we laugh. My how we laugh.
Of course, these classic shows should not be remade. It’s up to the new generation of comedy writers to go for it. And if a Spaniard, an Irishman, a Chinese or an Australian has to have the occasional clip around the ears by a drunken and stoned oaf, then so be it.
Life is funny, folks. Embrace it, farts and all.
Trivial footnote: Polar bears have black skin.
Bernie Leo is a former editor of the Shanghai Daily, where his humorous weekly columns gained a big following.