Mel Brooks Meets Kenneth Burke (and Mikhail Bakhtin): Comedy and Burlesque in Satiric Film

By Bonnstetter, Beth E. | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Mel Brooks Meets Kenneth Burke (and Mikhail Bakhtin): Comedy and Burlesque in Satiric Film


Bonnstetter, Beth E., Journal of Film and Video


I SHOWED MEL BROOKS'S 1968 FILM THE PRODUCERS to a group of students once and asked them what they thought was being satirically critiqued.1 When I asked the students what they thought of the criticism in the film, the resounding response I received was that there was none. The students insisted that the film is "just entertainment" and that the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence is present only for shock value. "Shock value" in film is a common phenomenon (e.g., Dumb and Dumber [1994], There's Something about Mary [1998], Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan [2006]), and students might be forgiven for assessing "Springtime for Hitler" as such. However, if The Producers is "just entertainment," as the students argued, and the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence is simply meant to be funny, then at best, laughing at the Nazis' flaunting of their power misses the point, and at worst, it is potentially anti-Semitic.

My anecdotal example points to the importance of the audience's ability to recognize and assess satiric criticism in film and television. As Naomi Rockier notes in her study on student responses to The Lion King (1994), audiences tend to view film as "just entertainment," not to be taken seriously (6). Humorous films ("comedies") can potentially compound this problem because the affective nature of such films can discourage audiences from looking beyond the laughter. However, looking beyond the laughter is crucial in satiric films because of their potential to be misread and further hegemony (see, for example, Vidmar and Rokeach; Cooks and Orbe). Audiences need to understand not only that something is acting satirically but also how it is operating, if they are to understand the satiric message and how the satirist is welding his or her power. In other words, audiences need to do more than laugh at the outrageous antics of Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat; they also need to understand how he is presenting his subjects of criticism and whether his presentation simply invites ridicule or calls for rehabilitation of these subjects. Failing to understand this and instead reducing such actions to merely "entertainment" can at best result in nonaction, a reinforcement of the social problems as individual faults rather than systemic ones, or, at worst, a reifying of racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, or otherwise hegemonic ideas.

Kenneth Burke's poetic categories and, to a lesser extent, Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnival can be used to explore two different modes of satiric discourse- humorous critical discourse that seeks to specifically criticize a person or social norm- in film. Satiric discourse can function as punitive and unsympathetic, and when it does, it fits the description of Burke's poetic category of the burlesque, a frame of rejection that "makes no attempt to get inside the psyche of his [sic] victim" and selects "the externals of behavior, driving them to a 'logical conclusion' that becomes their 'reduction to absurdity'" (54). However, satiric discourse can also operate through Burke's poetic category of comedy, a frame of acceptance that "warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity" (41). These films also display attributes of Bakhtin's carnivalesque (10); because carnivalesque texts direct laughter at all participants and flatten hierarchies (10-11), it is necessary that they operate in the comic mode. To explore this idea of satire-as-burlesque and satire-as-comedy, two films co-written and directed by Mel Brooks are examined here: Blazing Saddles (1974) and History of the World, Parti (1981). Blazing Saddles is an exemplar of satire-as-comedy; that is, its satiric criticism operates though Burke's comic frame. History is an exemplar of satireas-burlesque, and its burlesque satiric criticism is different from comedie satiric criticism. Burke's poetic categories explicitly outline different modes of humor, and therefore they are ideally suited for understanding different modes of humorous critical discourse in film.

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