Less Than Zero

by Leon Wieseltier | May 28, 2001

Idiocy has a time-honored link to illumination. “The prophet is a fool,” warned Hosea, “the spiritual man is mad.” The uninhibited man (I mean the really uninhibited man), the man who is not governed by norms and manners, the ridiculous man, the tasteless man, the obscene man, the man who does not think reasonably and realistically, the man who never stops laughing: The figure has taken many forms, and one of them is the meshuggene. Civilization makes craziness look like a variety of courage, of intellectual elevation. For this reason, the spiritual authority of the meshuggene (Yiddish for idiota de sapientia) has been deservedly great. Rube Goldberg, Mickey Katz, Mel Brooks: They are divine screwballs, screaming angels of relief. By making you coarse, they make you fine. By making you stupid, they make you smart. There is philosophy in their lunacy.

Those were my rueful thoughts a few weeks ago, when I left the St. James Theatre with the sickening feeling that Mel Brooks may be normal. For there is nothing radical about The Producers. It is merely the most spectacular dinner theater that Grossinger’s never produced. The outrageous thing about the show is how little it outrages. (“I always had the biggest hits./The biggest bathrooms at the Ritz./My showgirls had the biggest tits!”) In this regard it is the enemy of the movie, whose every frame was outrageous. I understand that some of this decline is not the show’s fault. Shock is no longer available in American culture, though American reality abounds in it. In 1968, when Brooks made a comedy of Hitler, Hitler was not yet a platitude. And time has dulled the edges of Brooks’s antic conception in other ways, too. The maniacs in his story—which is to say, every man and woman in it—now seem like lovable old friends. And “Springtime for Hitler” can be experienced only nostalgically, like one of those oldies shows at the Garden, or a Stones concert, at which you cheer wildly for your own youth and then begin to wonder in annoyance why once is never enough. It is also not the show’s fault that Zero Mostel had a previous engagement in paradise. But Nathan Lane’s big, big, big performance is just an award waiting to happen. It lacks the recklessness that is required for Holocaust comedy. And the casting of Matthew Broderick is a terrible concession to the gentiles. This, Leo Bloom? He is handsome. He is a perfect stranger to dementia. He has the appearance of a man who does not worry. He would never fall on his keys. He only squeaks. (Barukh atah adenoid. ... )

What is genuinely hilarious, by contrast, is Frank Rich’s contention that there is something subversive about this shtick of shticks, that the revival of The Producers represents an emancipation for American life. “The Producers is a surprise landslide vote,” Rich solemnly observed, “against not just political correctness in mass entertainment but the kind of show-business corporate-think that creates such bland pop culture, which is carefully laundered to offend no potential customer. ... While Mel Brooks is far more sweet-spirited than Eminem—to put it mildly—the hunger for his unreconstructed assault on the jugular is a similarly spontaneous expression of widespread discontent with the pasteurized fare that is our dull daily entertainment bread.” I wish to record that the only part of the human body on which Mel Brooks has made no assault in The Producers is the jugular. It is the delightful inoffensiveness of the show that has people jumping up and down in their seats. It has been a long time, certainly, since I have seen anything more “bland” and “pasteurized” than the central-casting faggotry of Roger de Bris and Carmen Ghia. (“I see a line of beautiful girls/dressed as storm troopers,/each one a gem,/with leather boots and whips/on their hips./It’s risqué, dare I say/S and M!”) Anyway, you do not establish the legitimacy of offensive speech by emptying it of all seriousness.

Moreover, Broadway is just Broadway. The proposition is a heresy in Manhattan, I know; but then Manhattan is just Manhattan. In the wake of The Producers, however, the religion of Broadway is flourishing again—which is exactly right, because the religion of Broadway is the true subject of The Producers. An editorial in The New York Times called “Springtime for Showbiz” instructed that “[t]here is always something sincere at heart when Broadway reflects on itself, even when Mr. Brooks does it,” and celebrated “the cruel meritocracy of Broadway ... a place where once in a blue moon a hit comes along that makes everyone in the audience feel lucky to have seats.” Success is so moving. And the spiritualization of the box office was to be found also in John Lahr’s review in The New Yorker. He began by noting excitedly that “[o]n the day after it opened, ‘The Producers’ sold thirty-three thousand five hundred and ninety-eight tickets, taking in a total of $3,029,197 (it will recoup its eleven million dollar investment—almost twelve times the cost of the movie—in thirty-six weeks); these are the biggest numbers ever in the history of Broadway,” as if this arithmetic had any bearing whatever on the quality of what transpires on stage, and he queerly concluded: “If our President won’t sign up for the Kyoto agreement to protect the atmosphere, we can still sign up for the Brooks agreement, which is sure to protect our inner environment.” (Lahr provided also an analysis of the historical significance of Brooks’s show: It has finally broken the spell of Vietnam on the Broadway musical. For “Vietnam had put paid to the musical’s thematic stock-in-trade: optimism, innocence, and abundance.” I had not realized this; but henceforth I will hold Robert McNamara responsible for the Edsel, flexible response, Vietnam, the debt crisis, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

What is this preposterous exaggeration of the significance of show business if not the world according to Max Bialystock, and also the world according to Mel Brooks? Self-love is all that is really wild at the St. James. Unlike Brooks’s movie, Brooks’s show is gaggingly sentimental, and mainly about itself. “It ain’t no myst’ry,/if it’s politics or hist’ry./The thing you gotta know is,/ev’rything is show biz”: So sings Adolf Elizabeth Hitler in his big number. Of course, it is precisely because everything is not showbiz that The Producers is so hugely funny. Without Auschwitz, not a laugh. But in an interview with Mike Wallace, Brooks made this hugely unfunny remark: “Hitler was part of this incredible idea that you could put Jews in concentration camps and kill them. And how do you get even? ... There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule. Because if you stand on a soapbox and you match him with rhetoric, you’re just as bad as he is. But if you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him.” Entertainment as the answer to evil? Oh, never mind. The man is a meshuggene. 

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books-and-arts/79690/less-zero