Welcome to “This Is a Thing,” a monthly feature that examines a piece of popular culture — a film, an album, a television special, whatever — that you won’t believe exists until you see it with your own eyes. This month: the quickly canceled British series Heil Honey, I’m Home!, which placed Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun into the world of a wacky ’50s-style sitcom. No, really.
The classic 1968 Mel Brooks comedy The Producers posits a story in which a would-be Broadway producer and his accountant discover that, under the right circumstances, one could make more money on a production that flops than one that hits. To ensure the failure of their project, they go with the single most tasteless concept they can find: a big, brassy musical about Adolf Hitler.
Watching Heil Honey, I’m Home!, you get the feeling that someone at British Satellite Broadcasting was trying to pull off the same kind of creative accounting. Here’s the setup: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun live in a Berlin apartment building. She thinks he works too much and doesn’t pay enough attention to her. Next door live Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, their Jewish neighbors. They don’t get along! Isn’t it hilarious?!?
In a word, no, it’s not. The joke here, aside from the kuh-razy sight of Hitler on a sitcom, is that you’re watching the most clichéd, trope-heavy sitcom imaginable, a mishmash of American sitcom plots and characterizations left over from the ‘50s. In fact, the opening crawl insists that this is a long-lost series, now brought to you via “a chance discovery in a Burbank backlog,” whose airing now will “vindicate” its fictional creator’s “unsung comic vision.” Not likely.
So the characters’ entrances are greeted with enthusiastic applause, their every strained punchline with hoots of laughter. There are jokes about terrible mothers-in-law. Hitler is played as a henpecked husband of the Ralph Kramden variety, forever exasperated with this crazy dame wife and her hijinks. Eva Braun is played as Alice Kramden in those scenes (“Don’t think you can smooch around me like that, Adolf Hitler!”); in her interactions with neighbor Rosa Goldenstein, there is a gossipy-girlfriend vibe reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel. The Goldensteins are presented as comic counterpoint, a kind of broad Jewish Brooklynite caricature that clangs particularly badly. The Fuhrer’s fuming interactions with his Jewish neighbors are played for big laughs, like so:
See, it’s funny because he hates the Jews! (In an apparent attempt to soften up the character’s anti-Semitism, writer Geoff Atkinson keeps having him inexplicably speak in a Borscht Belt voice and vernacular, calling the Goldensteins putzes and referring to himself as “Da Fuhrer.”)
The pilot episode’s plot is a riff on the old “bringing the boss home for dinner” standard, but with Neville Chamberlain. The thinking is pretty clear: see, we’ll draw this analogy to a real historical event, to humorous effect. But Hitler’s dialogue with Chamberlain, and about him (“Boy, you invade one little country, everyone is on your back”), serves to pound the audience with yet another reminder that, oh yes, we’re laughing along with a monstrous, evil dictator who slaughtered six million people. That is, y’know, something of a speed bump, comically speaking.
This is not to say that even something as vile as the Third Reich is incapable of fueling comedy that works; the aforementioned Mel Brooks has made an entire career of puncturing Hitler. But the success of The Producers is informative in understanding the failure of Heil Honey, I’m Home!, because in the former, the bad-taste riff on Hitler’s Germany was presented within a broader framework of people who understood it was terrible. Heil Honey is like The Producers without that framework — like going to a theater that’s just doing Springtime for Hitler, and expecting us to laugh out of the mere incongruity of Hitler in a musical.
What’s more, when Brooks makes fun of Hitler, he’s making fun of Hitler; Heil Honey is making fun of sitcoms, and Hitler just kinda happens to be there. And it should go without saying that Hitler carries the kind of baggage that dictates he can’t just happen to be there. Heil Honey is an idea that could perhaps sustain a five-minute sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (eight minutes, tops) or Saturday Night Live (after 12:30, maybe), but the idea that someone, anyone, anywhere thought that this concept could sustain a weekly series is mind-boggling. (And the Brits aren’t alone; we’ve done it Stateside too.)
Unsurprisingly, Heil Honey never aired again after its first, controversial broadcast on September 30, 1990. Galaxy, the satellite provider (part of British Satellite Broadcasting) that aired it, responded to public ire and critical scorn by yanking it immediately; the first series was intended to run for eight episodes, reportedly with a season-long arc in which Adolf and Eva try to kill their Jewish neighbors. Somehow, we’ll have to live without that bit of comic gold — but just to be safe, let’s make sure nobody tells Seth MacFarlane about it.
Heil Honey, I’m Home!’s pilot episode can be seen on YouTube (above). It, and the unaired episodes (reports vary as to if they were ever actually shot), never re-aired and have never been released on DVD. So the human race has at least done that much right.