The Producers’ Smartest Humor

I have easily seen the 2005 movie The Producers (a musical update of Mel Brook’s 1968 classic based on the Broadway play of the same name) a hundred times. I have always followed a strict policy of never apologizing for the intelligence of your jokes. If someone does not get the joke, then rightly the onus should be on them for not getting the joke. However, The Producers contains some of the smartest humor you will see anywhere. As a matter of fact, you probably need a college degree to catch some of it.

At one point, Max Bialystock asks Leo Bloom “What can we do for you, Prince Myshkin?”  Bialystock is actually making a  literary reference here. Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin was the main protagonist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th century novel The Idiot. Bialystock is not only calling Bloom a fool. Bialystock is calling Bloom a certain kind of fool. Bloom had just suffered a panic attack in Bialystock’s office. Throughout The Idiot, Myshkin is completely out of touch with reality. Myshkin is generally well meaning but still completely out of touch. Bialystock is not only calling Bloom an idiot, but also a complete lunatic. Of course, you would have to be familiar with 19th century Russian literature just to catch it.

While Bloom is deciding whether or not to go along with Bialystock’s scheme, he asks “When is it going to be Bloom’s Day?” There is an interesting bit of foreshadowing in this. In an earlier scene, there is a calendar behind Bialystock indicating that it is June. Also, Carmen Ghia answers the telephone at Roger Debries penthouse “on a Tuesday afternoon in June…”  This is interesting because it lends itself to giving the exact date.  Bloomsday is a reference to the James Joyce novel Ulysses. As a matter of fact, the Bloomsday celebration of Joyce’s novel was started in 1954. The only Tuesday afternoon in June in the 1960s which fell on June 16th was June 16th, 1964. Leo was asking when it was going to be ‘Bloomsday’ on the exact day that ‘Bloomsday’ was being celebrated in Dublin, Ireland. Bloom obviously did not know the irony of his question resulting again in Bloom’s protrayal as Prince Myshkin.

As Bloom and Bialystock are reading horrible playing, Bialystock starts reading a play that states “Gregor Samsa wakes up to realize he is a giant bug…” Bialystock shakes his heading saying “Nah… too good.” Bialystock is actually reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in which the lead character is a travelling salesman named Gregor Samsa. Samsa wakes up to realize that he has in fact turned into a giant cockroach. Kafka’s work is frequently cited as being on of the most brilliant of the 20th century. Of course, you can watch The Producers and never understand or get its higher level of humor, however it can never be accused of being a ‘dumb comedy.’ It was unfortunately vastly underappreciated at the time of its release. The even sadder part is that Brooks has now dissolved Brooksfilms. This means that the chance that we will see a film with involvement by Mel Brooks again before his passing is growing increasingly slim. This a tragedy considering that comedy has been on a trend of getting dumber rather than smarter.

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One thought on “The Producers’ Smartest Humor

  1. Thanks for explaining the “Prince Myshkin” reference, and for the “Bloomsday” reference as well. I knew that the first was a literary reference, but I completely missed the second one. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when Nathan Lane read the excerpt from Kafka’s Metamorphosis; I had to explain the joke to several friends. I read about the first couple of pages of Ulysses and HATED it, so I didn’t catch the “Bloomsday” reference, and I could not for the life of me remember where I’d heard of “Prince Myshkin”. I agree with you about the dumbing down of comedy in general. I love all of Mel Brooks work; it is, despite its kitsch and occasional “lowbrow” moments, usually actually very smart. There are several other brief references in the movie, the line “Oedipus won’t bomb if he winds up with Mom” in the song “Keep it Gay”, “Winchell’s column”, “lunch at Sardi’s”, the houseboy named Sabu(an Indian actor from the forties), the accountant firm named “Marx”(!), etc etc, that require some education and knowledge of history to really get the joke. I loved the original and am very fond of the musical version too. I’d been wondering about the Myshkin reference for a while; thanks for clearing it up!

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