When I was younger, I thought Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I was absolutely uproarious. And it is.
Who can keep a straight face watching Roman Empress Nympho, played by the late, great Madeleine Kahn, rating her potential orgy partners' penis size? And what about the glitzy musical number during the Spanish Inquisition, complete with harmonized Rabbis and synchronized-swimming nuns? It is pure parodical gold.
But watching the movie more recently, my first view in over a decade, I was struck by something that never occurred to me in my younger, less politically aware days: the at-times offensive role gays play in History, and what it means about the true nature of comedy.
The movie, you might recall, opens with the dawn of man and his neolithic woes: lack of fire, dinosaur attacks, the birth of the first art critic. Then comes marriage: a cave man hitting a woman over the head before dragging her back to his lair. And then comes gay marriage: the same exact scenario, only with two men.
This scene makes 'History' seem progressive beyond its years: few comedians were using their craft to highlight the innocuous nature of same-sex relationships, and the potential oppression inherent in marriage. As the film -- and fictional time -- moves on, however, gay characters take on a distinctly negative air.
From the Stone Age, Brooks and his rotating troupe jump ahead to the Roman empire, where Dom DeLuise reigns as emperor, all the while tormenting his servant, a character who's clearly a homosexual and referred to as a "little fag."
Later, during the French revolution,
Count Da Money Count de Monet (!) and his flamboyant attendant Bearnaise, played by actor Andréas Voutsinas, who also played gay in the original 1968 The Producers, have this exchange:
Bearnaise: I don't like your cuffs!... I don't like your cuffs! I don't like your cuffs! A man's cuffs should be even with the tip of his "pee-pee." Yours are all the way down to your balls!
Count de Monet: At least I have them!
The implication, of course, is that Bearnaise, as an ostentatiously gay man -- the only kind -- lacks balls.
One can easily imagine gay rights activists would skewer 'History' if it were produced today, as they did late last year, actor Vince Vaughn and director Ron Howard were lambasted for including the line "Electric cars are so gay" in their movie, The Dilemma, which opened yesterday.
"When 'gay' is used as a pejorative in such a public way for millions to see and laugh with, it legitimizes and propels the many taunts that gay people endure," said GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios at the time of the protest.
Under pressure from Barrios' group, Anderson Cooper and many others, The Dilemma's producers agreed to pull the line from the trailer, although refused to excise it entirely, all in the name of comedy.
But Brooks' History can be forgiven a few cheap shots because it was written in a different time, right? And Voutsinas, best known for his directing work on the stage, may have been gay (I can't find confirmation one way or another), a fact that could make his portrayal of Bearnaise more palatable for a politically sensitive audience. These factors should be taken into account, sure, but the true difference -- the real reason 'History' can be judged kindly -- may be more complicated than that.
Consider the movie Bruno, about the misadventures of Sacha Baron Cohen's gay fashionista character. I don't know about you, but I thought it was an atrocious movie, partially because Cohen's portrayal crossed the line from jocular to offensive in no time at all. Any potential empathy I may have felt for Bruno was lost in the sea of crudity. The movie was, quite simply, dumb, something 'History' ain't, and that's where the real meat of comedy becomes more clear.
History can be allowed a bit of low-brow humor because it ultimately has more brains than brawn. As Brooks said of his style, "I have bad taste with a deep fount of intellectuality."
We can overlook questionable quips in History because the movie's too much of an ingenious gem -- "Don't get saucy with me, Bearnaise!" -- to be tarnished by some slight imperfections. It has one of the most important ingredients of an effective comedy: a brain.
To help prove my point, here's a great scene with Bea Arthur ruminating on the nature of philosophy. Hint: it's all bullshit.