Hitler sitcom creator explains most controversial TV pilot ever made
A version of this story originally appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Untold Stories issue, available to buy right here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
A man strides into his apartment and raises his right arm. “Heil, honey, I’m home!” he shouts at his wife, who’s bustling around in the kitchen.
The man is Adolf Hitler — yep, that Adolf Hitler — and this is the opening of Heil Honey, I’m Home!, a British sitcom that aired for one episode in 1990 before being canceled. It’s perhaps easy to see why: The show depicted the Hitlers casually living next door to — brace yourselves — a Jewish couple, the Goldensteins. The series attempted to spoof American sitcoms of the 1950s like I Love Lucy while using 1937 Berlin as a backdrop. Among the pilot’s high — low? — lights: The women gossiped behind Hitler’s back, the Goldensteins drunkenly crashed Hitler’s dinner with Neville Chamberlain, and Hitler even employed a thick New York accent.
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Though few watched the pilot when it aired on satellite channel Galaxy, the series has gained notoriety for its, well, challenging premise — and for being available online, on YouTube:
But U.K.-based creator Geoff Atkinson (who went on to executive-produce the Emmy-nominated HBO series Getting On) says he meant no harm. Here, he reflects on the controversial conceit.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this even happen?
GEOFF ATKINSON: I’d been writing comedy a while, and I had two vague ideas that I’d written down for fun at the time. One was this, and the other was Jesus as a 16-year-old and he’s just been told the truth about what lies in store. [Laughs] It was like Beverly Hills 91610 or whatever it is, so they’re all hanging out at the beach but obviously it’s 2000 years ago, so instead of surfboards, it’s donkeys. [Laughs] I just like big, high-concept shows that take a risk. When they work, you can carry them off with a real flair. [EP] Paul Jackson went to the channel with the [Heil Honey] pitch, and they said okay. It happened very quickly.
What were your goals in creating the show?
One was to laugh at bullies. It seems like the right thing to do; as we speak, somebody’s probably writing a Trump sitcom. I would love to write a Trump sitcom. [Laughs] Another goal was looking at the sitcom genre. This show was staged like it was the 1950s. We had to ape the American sitcom brilliantly — be American and not be American.
Was portraying Hitler as a stereotypical sitcom husband troubling to you?
I worried the argument would be “You can’t make fun of Hitler.” But he cries out for it. If you have a monster like that, and everyone says, “You can’t make fun of him,” then we’ve made him even more a monster. That’s what fascists want, to keep people in fear of them, when surely we should be debunking and destroying them.
Everyone was aware of the sensitivities; the last thing we wanted was to offend. At the time, the channel wanted something fresh, and there was a sense of “As long as it’s original and something you can defend, you should say it.” I don’t think we entirely delivered. There’s an awful lot I’d do differently…
It felt corny. What you wanted was a show that looked like a genuine ’50s show, you wanted the audience to question it but at the same time enjoy it. It’s like The Producers. They’re aghast [at the characters making a show about Hitler] and then they start to laugh. We just never got to that moment in The Producers [below], when people realize you can laugh at this stuff. We stopped short of it.
With 25 years of hindsight, I think I would have made the Goldensteins more aware of the situation. Their dilemma in 1938 is, should they leave Berlin? There’s a genuine, dramatic tension there, and I don’t think we got that. We could have underplayed the comedy with the Goldensteins and let the true drama come out a bit more.
So, in other words, no drunken conga line?
Exactly. The slapsticky stuff made it… dumb. It’s not clever, it’s not subtle, it’s not smart, it’s just dumb. What we wanted was satire.
When did you realize that this wasn’t meeting your vision?
We’d done the pilot, and when we were picked up to series, I had a sense something was not right. There were tensions backstage and people started questioning [the story], and it became more awkward. People started looking over their shoulders. I mean, it had to be brilliant to win over all the doubters, and there was a sense of mutiny on the ship. It was like flying into a storm. You were playing this game with the audience; you wanted them to dislike it and then like it. Maybe if we had a little longer [to write], we might have looked at things more. God, there are so many ifs and buts to all this, talking this through is like therapy.
When it aired, how often did you have to defend the idea?
Well, I don’t think it ever broke to the point where it was front page news. Now, there probably would be headlines and certainly heads would roll. At one point when it was going a bit horribly, I was at home talking to my wife, and my son, who was 3 at the time, looked at me and asked, “Who’s Adolf Hitler?” And I said, “Oh my God, I can’t explain.” It was like running uphill, it just left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. To know that whatever you’d given birth to hadn’t quite grown up in a way you wanted it to… it was like a problem child you brought up but was going to be around for the rest of your life.
How do you feel today about it?
I don’t resent it. It’s a problem child that at certain times gave me a lot of pleasure, so I certainly don’t think of it as a ball and chain. I think if we got it right, it would have been fantastic, and I’d rather that than yet another sitcom about a 30-something couple that hasn’t really got that much to say.
What would it look like if you did it again?
I don’t think the premise would be different. In this strange world of what do the Goldensteins do given the man next to them is a monster who wants to kill them, I still think that works for a comedy, a dark comedy. There’s a bit of me that wonders, does it help to make it as a making of, alongside the show? You could see the guy playing Hitler as himself, and you could have a much richer debate. I always thought that was a possibility, to do the show within a show.
Sounds a bit like 30 Rock, the idea of watching the behind-the-scenes comedy.
Exactly. You could put the explanation and more of a defense into what they’re doing.
You mentioned doing a sitcom about Trump. What do you think is comedy’s role in skewering politicians?
I’ve watched Saturday Night Live, and I love it. They’re great and they’re also obviously provoking Trump. The fact that he can be bothered to comment and say it’s rubbish means it’s working. We’ve got the same thing here with our government. You need to laugh at them. In a way, [comedies] make the government stronger. If a comedian could bring the government down, then it was probably not much of a government.
I have to say, I’m surprised you haven’t made YouTube take down the pilot of Heil Honey or anything, considering how much you wish you could change.
I’ve never thought that they should. I’ve certainly never felt embarrassed by it because I know the motives were good. If we were trying to make fun of what happened in the Holocaust, we’d deserve [the hate]. I never felt we were trying to belittle that at all.
But to not get it right, that was frustrating. It was fun, but it came at a price, and I wish I could do it again. If as a result of it [being available online], Netflix phoned and said, “Okay, you can do six more episodes,” I would be the happiest person in the world. [Laughs.]