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Triumph of the Wit

April 18, 2013 – 7:22 pm35 Comments

The Producers JYM cBy Joel Lazar
This coming May I’ve decided to trounce around in front of hundreds of people as a neo-Nazi maniac with six pigeons for friends. My parents are tremendously proud. I play Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks’ smash hit, The Producers, brought to us by the esteemed and only living Jewish theatre company in Australia, JYM theatre co.  ‘Why couldn’t you study law like the rest of your class?’, the parents ask. Well I do. Nazism is a side thing.

The timing of this production is apt, the season running only weeks after Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And the question I face every Yom Hashoah is now more poignant than ever: What is the best way to eradicate the possibility of a Nazi-like ideology rising again, bent on killing the Jews or anyone else?  And how do I continue to straddle the line between “Never Forget” and “Never Again”?

There are many possible ways. Listening to survivor stories is one. In so doing, we try to understand unfathomable human cruelty. Maybe then we’ll recognise it before it rears its head again. Other ways include building shrines of remembrance and museums, or creating meaningful educational trips to the skeletons of ghettos and concentration camps. All of these have value. Some are more successful than others at helping us understand the brutality of the Nazi war machine.

So what of humour? What role does humour play in this story, if any?

When Brooks was interviewed about the making of The Producers, he lamented that ‘Jewish organisations were outraged’. They argued, ‘how can you make jokes about Hitler? The man murdered 6 million Jews.’ Firstly, he responded, the show makes not one reference to concentration camps or the Holocaust. And importantly, Brooks’ father was a German Jew and his mother a Ukranian Jew, both undoubtedly familiar with the terrors of Nazism. Brooks even fought the Nazis in the 78th Infantry Division of the U.S. army. He too knew the face of Nazism. He cannot be accused of insensitivity on grounds of existential or emotional distance. So why the Nazi wise-cracks? Because, says Brooks, ‘with comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths’. To destroy a myth is to defeat it at its own game of imagination. Humour then is a mighty opponent, capable of stripping the great Hitler façade bare, kicking it off stage in its soiled underpants.

David Slucki, in his 2012 article “Too soon? The case for Holocaust humour”, argues that Holocaust humour does not necessarily trivialize the event (as many would argue), rather it is

“…part of the landscape of Holocaust remembrance. It has a role to play…Not all [examples] are in good taste. But to dismiss humour altogether as part of how we remember the Holocaust is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The question is not if the Holocaust can be funny, but how, and within what ethical parameters.”

In that vein, I believe that a show like The Producers serves a number of noble purposes.

Firstly, most ways we try to eradicate the memory of Hitler and challenge Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism are simply too kind. Retorting to a Holocaust denier or neo-Nazi: ‘How dare you! Do you know how many Jews died in the war? How many families were torn apart?’, bestows upon an irrational viewpoint a rational outlet. It’s an undeserved compliment. Reasonable dialogue belongs to the domain of reason. As a vile form of irrational prejudice, Nazism transcends reason and it deserves no conversation. How suitable then that humour, in many ways a human expression that transcends reason, should posthumously destroy Nazi memory.

Secondly, whilst the true essence of humour is difficult to decipher, we know it arises in contexts of the disjointed, incongruous or unexpected. For example, we might laugh at a cartoon of three corrupt MPs dressed as The Three Wise men in the nativity scene. It’s out of place and mildly funny. So when we split ourselves laughing at a maniacal neo-Nazi who loves pigeons and Bavarian dancing; or an ostentatious prancing Hitler; or the dazzling gold sequins of show girls, arms adorned with oversized swastika arm bands, we begin to realise the power of humour. It highlights the absurd juxtapositions between the monstrous and the noble. That way we never forget what monsters look like.

Thirdly, that The Producers was written by a Jew, performed on stages across the Western world and is now being produced by an Australian Jewish theatre company, is the most life-affirming victory over Hitler of which I can conceive.  It says not only that we survived. It declares: We live. We thrive.

So when I take the stage on May 11th with six harmonising pigeons and the cast and crew of JYM theatre co., I’ll be quite content that every asthma-puffer-inviting, paper-bag-sucking, cardiac-arrestingly funny joke  is one more smudge on Deh Fuhrer’s stupid name and all of his stupid Nazi friends.

The Producers season shows from May 11 – 25 at the Phoenix Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at www.jymtheatre.com. They’re selling fast!

Joel Lazar is a cast member of The Producers and an aspiring comic who will never quit his day job.

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35 Comments »

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, Byalistock and Bloom, assume away and say woops ……
    and what about the threesome conversation with G-d as the landlord looks up to heaven and tells G-d not to listen to Max Byalistock….

    One of the greatest details about this ( by far the greatest ) Jewish commedy par excellence is that throughout the entire script there is not ONE single Yidish or Yidish inspired woyd. Check it bcs I did, as I have, of course, the entire script – you can buy it at that little shop on Liverpool St., close to Darling Harbour -.

    Aparently Peter Sellers was offered the Liebkind ( my dear Liebkind, they are laughing at your beloved fuhrer )and turned it down. Anyways, Sellers saw an avant-premierre of The Producers in private and went nuts, rollink on the floor. Later he appeared on a Michael Parkinson show dressed up like Liebkind, immitating the character throught the whole interview session.
    The other tit bit is that Leo’s part was offered initially to none other than Dustin Hoffman who accepted it only to turn it down as he was also offered soon after the main part in The Graduate and had to film it in LA ( The Producers was done in NYC ), only to do The Graduate with…………..Mel Brooks’ wife , Anne Bancroft, who was Italian!!! Mel Brooks, when asked what did his mother say when he told her that he was marrying an Italian, said that he could not understand a word as his Mother sounded badly muffled having stuck her head in the kitchen oven.

    I was born in Dusseldorf
    And that’s why they call me Rolf.

    Don’t be stupid, be a smarty,
    Come and join the Nazi Party !! ( the voice in the movie is actually Mel Brooks’ who wrote the entire stuff, except for Leo’s last plea in court who was written by Gene Wilder himself )

    …do yourse guys reckon I like that movie !!!???

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, Byalistock and Bloom, assume away and say woops ……
    and what about the threesome conversation with G-d as the landlord looks up to heaven and tells G-d not to listen to Max Byalistock….

    One of the greatest details about this ( by far the greatest ) Jewish commedy par excellence is that throughout the entire script there is not ONE single Yidish or Yidish inspired woyd. Check it bcs I did, as I have, of course, the entire script – you can buy it at that little shop on Liverpool St., close to Darling Harbour -.

    Aparently Peter Sellers was offered the Liebkind ( my dear Liebkind, they are laughing at your beloved fuhrer )and turned it down. Anyways, Sellers saw an avant-premierre of The Producers in private and went nuts, rollink on the floor. Later he appeared on a Michael Parkinson show dressed up like Liebkind, immitating the character throught the whole interview session.
    The other tit bit is that Leo’s part was offered initially to none other than Dustin Hoffman who accepted it only to turn it down as he was also offered soon after the main part in The Graduate and had to film it in LA ( The Producers was done in NYC ), only to do The Graduate with…………..Mel Brooks’ wife , Anne Bancroft, who was Italian!!! Mel Brooks, when asked what did his mother say when he told her that he was marrying an Italian, said that he could not understand a word as his Mother sounded badly muffled having stuck her head in the kitchen oven.

    I was born in Dusseldorf
    And that’s why they call me Rolf.

    Don’t be stupid, be a smarty,
    Come and join the Nazi Party !! ( the voice in the movie is actually Mel Brooks’ who wrote the entire stuff, except

  • Vivienne Porzsolt says:

    IMHO, humour is the highest form of resistance and triumph.It diminishes monsters to laughing stocks. Humour was a key form of survival in the concentration camps, indeed throughout Jewish history under oppression. We need to be serious, not take ourselves seriously.

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Both my parents ( and the rest of their families ) went through the hell of the Shoah and never, I repeat NEVER did they mention humour, nor did I find ANY traces of humour in the vastness of cocentration camps historc evidence, as a form of resistence and survival.

    Ms Porzsolt, I have no idea where you are coming from……….

  • Sam says:

    Ottoman I am with you on the concentration camp humour. I have read some first hand accounts especially Victor Frankl. Nice try Ms Porzsolt, but as usual you are wrong.

  • TheSadducee says:

    The issue of Holocaust and humour is obviously very complex and fraught with danger because of the emotional and sensitive content however it does occur relatively frequently in the mainstream – I can think of 2 examples recently – Ballard’s on Triple J and Rivers’ on her fashion show on tv.

    Intriguingly Ballard attempted to explain himself in terms of Mel Brooks and other comedians and later apologised, while Rivers took a much more upfront approach suggesting that the humour reminds people of the event and that it is needed because many people don’t even believe the event occured at all and she has refused to apologise.

    Both incidents have been criticised and defended by different points of view – I guess the issue is really when/if it is acceptable to make reference to the Shoah through humour?

  • Reality Check says:

    You are all missing the point. The Producers doesn’t even mention the Holocaust, it’s a mockery of the Nazis. And as Joel said, how can you have a logical discussion or debate on Nazism: it’s ideas are absurd, and the best way to address it is with ridicule. Humour is in a DNA, it’s got us through many difficult times, and there have been many: too many.

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    See, Reality, this is where you lose the plot. Just put on whatever makes you think straight and consider and explain to us:

    – how does tragedy, pain, persecution beget laughter, ha !!??

    – how did the Nyilas, for instance, who butchred my family for instance in Nagyvarad, Kolozsvar and Budapest elicit funny lines from those about to be murdered !!!???

    Jewish humour ( and we do not hold monopoly on it, anyway ) was not generated by pain and suffering. Its typical content of social and personal critical observation/comment has a completely distinct origin and I shall let you smart guys figure it out, but remember, as Graucho said, there is nothing wrong with being smart, just don’t overdo it !!!!

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Reality…………..and another one:

    “…how can you have a logical debate or discussion on Nazism.”

    How can you have such stuff printed !!??? but then, again, we don’t know your real identity, so you can write anything, no matter how incredibly absurd.

    PS

    Messrs Moderators I will give you my bank account details as I demand compensation for refraining from using certain very suitable terms you dont allow !!

  • Reallity Check says:

    Otto, I know better not to refer or entre any debate with you

  • Reallity Check says:

    Except to say, in a debate on Nazism Ottawa, which side would you like to argue?

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Reality……………
    is that the best refuge you can find !!!??? A totally insignificant event ( some stupid Canadian 1st ammendment type idiocy ) against the massive intellectual efforts known ( obviously not by everyone !!)in combatting nazism before , during and after its effective advent !!!???

    you are right, there is NOTHING we can exchange in this respect and, I suggest, out of respect for this site, you dessist from saying anything else, just in case you feel like caughing up some more perls.

  • Reality Check says:

    Otter, let’s see if I can argue on your level: you silly fool blah blah, blah. How’s that?

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Reality

    that is precisely what I expected of you !

    PS

    since we are still supposed to be about The Producers , there is a line by Max Byalistock which sounds like “…they’re everywhere, they’re coming from everywhere ……….”, while Leo cuddles his security blanket.

    Reality, reality is that you are not funny, wise, informative, but a convenient, readily available ridicule punch-bag.

  • Reallity Check says:

    Looks like I got it right, blah, blah, blah.

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Yes, I realise that I have been unfair with my comments to this bloke, Reality Check, and , out of respect for him, I primise to be from now on senility friendly.

  • Joel says:

    Thank you (almost) everyone for your comments; really glad to have had some extra depth added.

    Unfortunately, per usual, the views of Otto have monopolised the conversation and been poisoned with maliciousness; each extra comment eroding the integrity of this forum.

    I alert the editors to this. Again.

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Joel

    I apologise for monopolising with my maliciousmess the author of what appears to you to be those great lines, as in “blah, blah, blah “.
    Keep them in mind when on stage and struck by a memory lapse.

    ” Springtime for hitler and Germany
    Winter for Poland and France
    Blah, blah, blah, blah history
    Blah, blah, blah, blah and dance. ”

    Brake a leg !!!

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Joel

    at least I was the only one on this thread who could share in the joys of ” The Producers”.
    I take it that you are just an amateur………..

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Joel interestying piece but I often just don’t comment as I dont enjoy the personal attacks. I’m all for vigorous discussion but just don’t understand the need for insults and rudeness, and I prefer not to engage with it.

  • Reality Check says:

    Me too, Mandi. Whenever I make a contribution to a debate, I am greeted with abuse and insults from Otto. I just can’t take it any more!!!

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Hi – I wouldn’t be upset by it. It’s not like what he says carries any weight with anyone who is vaguely sensible. It’s just not enjoyable or interesting… But if you have something to say, you should say it. That form of insulting, rude comment is a form of bullying so while it’s mostly wise to walk away, sometimes it’s wiser to stand up to it.

  • Reality Check says:

    Thanks Mandi, but Otto is so much better at hurling abuse and insults than I am, I just don’t think that Im up to it.

  • ariel says:

    My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and religiously watched Hogans Heroes everday.
    He enjoyed the bumbling of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schulz (both roles played by Jews Werner Klemperer and John Bannister).

    Joel, you are living the dream. I have always wanted to perform in a production of The Producers. Good on you. Next time we meet, we will dance Der Gutentag Hopklop together!!

  • Reality Check says:

    Thank you Ariel for bringing back some reality to this discussion. As a said before, The Producers doesn’t even mention the Holocaust, what it does, as did Hogan’s Heroes, is ridicule the Nazis. Members of my family who survived the horrors of the Holocaust and lost many members of their families, also watched Hogan’s Hereos and laughted at Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schulz, not with them.

  • Reality Check says:

    Of course, the Nazis weren’t at all funny, but were very clever in getting so much of Europe to help them in their effort to exterminate European Jewry. But they failed. We are still here, and they are not, so it’s only fair that we can laugh at them. Although this is only one way of looking at this immense tragedy, since survivors can take comfort from it, it makes it valid.

  • Paul Grunfeld says:

    Reality Check

    Are you sure that the Nazis were “clever” in mustering anti Semitism with all the known consequences !!
    So, if someone wants to be clever, what does he do !!?? Takes a leaf from “Mein Kampf” !!!

    ariel, are you sure that your Grand Parents were laughing at the nazis, as Shoah survivors !!!

    Joel, are you sure that nazism cannot be addressed rationally, or at all !!!

    I believe that I read this kind of unbelivable stuff elsewhere , but 100% not on a Jewish website.

  • Reallity Check says:

    Paul, the only thing I’m not sure of is what you are getting at.

  • Paul Grunfeld says:

    Reality Check

    I am getting at the statement you made only a few lines up that “the Nazis were very clever in getting so much of Europe to help them in their effort to exterminate the European Jewry”.
    What is exactly that you are not sure ? You are not sure that you said it ? Because if you are not sure what it means, yet you made the statement, then there is something seriously wrong.

    How can you justify your participation as a responsible individual here, let alone pretend that you would be Jewish ,with such an outrageous statement.

  • Reality Check says:

    OK Paul, the Nazis were stupid. You happy now? Geez!

  • Paul Grunfeld says:

    Reality Check

    The tone and content, the flippant character of your answer does not absolve the offence, on the contrary, it makes it worse.
    It is far too obvious that we are dealing here with a much more complex more disturbing phenomenon. The “concession” made amplifies the perception of a deep lack of understanding , a serious inability to handle serious, sensitive issues.
    Your original statement is not at all redeemed.

  • Reality Check says:

    Paul, are you for real!

  • Joel says:

    In my view, paul and reality check (rc) your not quite debating the same issue. Rc said the nazis were “clever, but unlikely meant it in the way a schoolteacher says it to an impressive student who gets all the answers right. He/she meant that there was a high level if technical.and emotional sophistication and manipulation involved (with which all reasonable holocaust academics would agree. It iisnt a value judgement per se (i hardly think rc is taking his/her hat off to nazi crimes). So paul, I think rc means that despite all that-we survived. And I bring in david slucki again re rc’s comment about survivors finding comfort in the humour; namely, we cant really judge a survivor on his or her.coping mechanism. That survivor laugh at hogans heroes is most telling.

    Re rational argumentation against nazism: that so many of the architects of the holocaust where academics and doctors, torchbearers of enlightened reason if you will, says alot about the religious faith we place in reason. Rational thinking can be a devil in disguise;and its tongue lashes hotter and harder for every argument it does not loose

  • Paul Grunfeld says:

    Joel

    I am most definitely dealing with the same issue as raised by your friend Reality Check and you will agree with it in a minute.
    RC qualifies his term “clever” by attributing it to the “cleber” manner in which nazis have managed to convey anti Semitism with its tragic consequences throughout Europe. I shall not enter int the fact that the nazis did not need to “inspire” other countries in engaging in rampant anti Semitism. Each European country where Jews were persecuted had its own local anti Semitic tradition. Slovaks, Romanian Hungarians, Croatian, Bosnian and also Ukrainians were responsible for their own local nazi type parties and respective attrocities. Yet, using the term “clever” in the same context aludes to a few related notions, even if not intentional. I shall not list them. Suffice to say that, in today’s proliferation of anti Semitic communication via the mode we are all using, anything “unintended”, but unwisely used is, willy nilly, cojoined with the well known camp enjoying the exploits of anti Semitism.
    One must be very careful with what one says in a place available to ANYONE. I am not satisfied that Rality Check is always aware of the necessary language and direction of ideas expressed. This is just one, very flagrant example of that.

    Re your rattempt at explaining the notion of the uselessness in addressing rationally the ideology of nazism, you are clatching at the straws of a “straw man” argument.
    The argument that nazi ideology was conceived in a structure that served well its purposes, a false deterministic formal logical type of argumentation, is at once rendered unacceptable by the vastness of the anti nazi culture available in all spheres of human endeavour. Aren’t you at all acquinted with any such examples? The list of studies would run by now into tens of thousands. All Western Universities in the world have created SCHOOLS of studies of the nazi phenomenon and you still insist that approaching it rationally does not make sense ! I will give you one central study, “Authoritarian Personality”, but, then as I said, there are countless other such works. In a school teacher’s manner I expect you to look at some and come back to me next semester with a report.

    Marginally, the idea that oppression creates humour is very valid, but, once again , must be used carefully. From Ovid to Goldoni to Voltaire and to any modern authors, humour has been a perfect tool. The notion, however, that the oppressed finds the oppressor humorous, as in “funny”, is totally false. Again, look at ridicule as a means, distinct from what you propose and you shall find the right path.

  • Otto Waldmann says:

    Yep Mr. Lazar it sure looks like Paul Grunfield has a few points there.

    I am now enjoying the splendours of Venice, but found a minute to say my piece.
    As a trained historian ( what about you or our friend Reality Check !!??) I have spent in excess of FIFTY years studying the nazi phenomenon. Adorno’s study into fascism, “Authoritarian Personality” has been the “bible” of the necessary and well documented history discipline into the causes and manifestations of fascism/nazism, I fully agree.
    It is aparent that you have avoided this important academic field.
    My friend “Reality Check” seems to belong to the same “school” of thought. This must be the reason we do not encounter satisfactory comments from both of you in relation to the importannce and essence of nazism. If anything, let ME tell both of you and whoever joins in the same vein, that THERE IS NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT NAZISM. True, ridiculing a subject does not make the real SUBJECT funny. Funny is Mr. Mel Brooks who created characters, including yours on stage, who were given lines otherwise never conceived/uttered by any nazi. Remember your character who screams in the middle of the show ” The Fuhrer never said “baby’ !!”. Same goes for “Hogan’s Heroes”. Klink does wear a nazi uniform but never, I repeat NEVER does he utter any nazi phrase in a malicious, offensive manner. That is why Werner accepted and played the character and the same goes for Schultz. Here you have the distinction.
    Here is the crux/difference

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