Twisted ideas make the Mel Brooks musical (and movie) a classic, says Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
December 27, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
The Producers: Paul Kolnik

Why ”The Producers” is more shocking than ”Freddy”

My colleague Owen Gleiberman gives an F to Tom Green’s excruciating comedy ”Freddy Got Fingered” (in theaters) That’s a failing grade with which I heartily concur: The movie is as gross and stinky as a bucket of puke. (Twentieth Century Fox, which must be so very proud of its commitment to Green’s artistic freedom, has my permission to quote the previous sentence in an ad.)

But, for a change, I’m not here to wring my hands at the tastelessness and infantile indulgence of yet another calculated cinematic celebration of idiocy aimed at teenagers. Super specially obnoxious as it is, ”Freddy” is just this week’s product from the dreck factory, and to pay it any more attention than that is to encourage the factory owners. (Want to really discourage them? Don’t buy a ticket.)

It is, though, worth contrasting the power of shock — used well — with the impotence of shock employed primarily in the egotistical service of showing off and / or making a buck, a comparison made timely by the Broadway opening this weekend of ”The Producers,” starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Mel Brooks wrote and directed the 1967 movie, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, from which Brooks and the superb director Susan Stroman have created this dazzlingly funny musical. The notion then, as now, is a pip: A hack theater producer (Mostel on film / Lane on stage) and his mousy accountant (Wilder / Broderick) set out to make the worst Broadway musical they possibly can, a show so bad it will close on opening night. That way, the two weasels can take the money invested by their backers, claim a loss, and flee to the good life in Rio. They hit on a doozy — ”Springtime For Hitler,” a frolicking musical about the infamous Nazi dictator — and pull out all the stops on tastelessness. Much to their horror, the audience loves it. The show is a hit.

The astonishment of enjoying the spectacle of a scampering Adolf Hitler (played as a dizzy hippie in the movie and as a flamboyant theater queen on stage) is such a jolt to the senses — giddy entertainment made from one of history’s monsters! — that ”The Producers” was panned when it was first released. Cult status built slowly, as audiences grew more comfortable with the thrill of simultaneously tolerating delight and moral affront. (Sustaining that contradiction is a specialty of the auteur who made ”Blazing Saddles.”) Even now, even for audiences who come to this gloriously over the top Broadway show familiar with the movie, the sight of singing and dancing Hitlers is jaw dropping.

In ”The Producers,” Mel Brooks challenges notions of what’s shockingly, ethnically funny and what’s offensive by pushing the antics of a mass murderer — a profound subject masquerading as a lark. In ”Bamboozled,” Spike Lee challenges notions of what’s shockingly, racially funny and what’s offensive by pushing the antics of black performers in minstrel blackface.

In ”Freddy Got Fingered,” Tom Green, whose characteristically gross and outrageous MTV special about his own testicular cancer may have saved lives among the young men watching, challenges notions of what’s shocking by… masturbating a horse and an elephant.

These are activities so stupid and meaningless as to shock only the horse and the elephant in question. I think this is a colossal waste of pop cultural power. Do you?