I laughed at some of the gags in Mel Brooks' "The Producers," but I also felt uncomfortable with many of the portrayals. I wrote this in my notebook: “Gay minstrel show.”
Toward the end of the first act in “The Producers,” now playing at The Muni, the title characters seek out the worst theater director in town.
It’s part of their plan to stage a tremendous flop, which the duo thinks will allow them to pocket most of the money they’ve raised for the show.
They wind up in the apartment of Roger De Bris and his male “common-law assistant,” Carmen Ghia. The place is decorated in early Liberace, with candelabras and garish pastels. Ghia is portrayed as effeminate and catty, wearing tight pants and a loose shirt. The dim-witted De Bris enters in a sparkling evening gown.
De Bris’ creative team comprises a man in leather and several other gay stereotypes, and they all begin singing the director’s artistic vision for the show: “Keep It Gay.”
“No matter what you do on the stage / keep it light, keep it bright, keep it gay,” De Bris sings.
All the gay characters flit about the stage, employing every sissy stereotype in the book, from limp wrists to lisps to men in drag. As the song progresses, a group of men clearly meant to recall the Village People join in the dancing.
I laughed at some of the gags, but I also felt uncomfortable with many of the portrayals. I wrote this in my notebook: “Gay minstrel show.”
Part of me wondered how such a scene would look with, say, black stereotypes. Unquestionably unfunny.
Questionable caricatures of minorities have a long history in American pop culture.
In “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), white actor Mickey Rooney plays Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese man who lives in Holly Golightly’s apartment building.
When Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) wakes Yunioshi by leaning on the door buzzer, he stumbles around his apartment, bumping into things like a cartoon character. He finds his thick black glasses, puts them over his artificially slanted eyes and heads for the corridor.
“Miss Gorightry!” Rooney shouts down the stairs, his words distorted by the huge false teeth distending his upper lip. “You cannot go on-ah keep ringin’ my bell. You disturb-uh me.”
In “Holiday Inn” (1942), Bing Crosby dons blackface to sing a tribute to Abraham Lincoln — as in, Abraham “I freed the slaves” Lincoln.
When Crosby enters the stage at the inn, the whites of his eyes and his lips radiate from his blackened face. He wears white muttonchops down each check to accentuate the effect.
Crosby sings: “When he growed up, this tiny babe / folks all called him Honest Abe.”
The camera cuts to a black woman in a kitchen, sitting with a child on each knee. She sings: “When black folks was in slavery, who was it set the darkie free?” “Abraham,” the kids respond. “Abraham!”
Questionable characters still appear from time to time. In her review of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which opened last week, the AP’s Christy Lemire wrote about a pair of robots named Mudflap and Skids: “These are shockingly crass and unfortunate black stereotypes, jive-talking fools who can’t read and bumble their way from one mishap to the next.”
Blackface. False teeth. Limp wrists.
If the comparison between gay stereotypes and those of African Americans and Asian Americans seems a stretch, it’s not difficult to imagine audiences were equally unfazed in 1942 and 1961.
In the last year, American voters have been asked to decide whether gay people should have the right to get married, or are even entitled to so-called civil unions, marriages in all but name.
We’ve seen the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to American public office, win the praise of critics and moviegoers in the film “Milk.”
Later this year, Springfield Theatre Centre will present “The Laramie Project,” about Matthew Shepard, who was killed because he was gay.
“The Producers” is funny. It’s light entertainment with a central joke that involves skewering the Nazis — who can argue with that?
And gays are not the only target of writer Mel Brooks: the elderly, blondes, Jews, police officers and others are all in his sights.
Criticizing satire is tricky business, and surely some of you are thinking I’m a sopping wet blanket. As I suggested in my review, I’m tempted to say that the gay stereotypes were so out of control that they go beyond being offensive.
Yet, a show in which every openly gay character is a ridiculous caricature seems a joke too far.
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or firstname.lastname@example.org.