Helen DeWitt, “Springtime for Hitler”, and Game Shows

Related: Helen DeWitt

As discussed in her interview with Bookforum’s Morten Høi Jensen, Helen DeWitt cites Mel Brooks’s 1968 film The Producers as inspiration for her second novel Lightning Rods. She says:

It had been 18 months since my first agent told me she could get an advance so I could finish writing Samurai; instead I had had well over a year of unsolicited advice. I couldn’t look at the book, thought I would never write again. And this funny voice started talking in my head. I love the innocent bad taste of The Producers—I think “Springtime for Hitler” is a work of genius—and this had something of the same feeling about it. I discovered recently that Mel Brooks also created Get Smart, and that his breakthrough was to have the hero of a sitcom who was not very bright; this seemed to offer similar comic potential.

If you’ve read Lightning Rods, you’ll immediately see the connection. Although the novel isn’t as over-the-top as the video above (and really, what is?) it definitely offers a healthy dose of satire. As the New York Observer’s Molly Fischer put it: “The subtle absurdities and indignities of office life don’t interest Ms. Dewitt. It’s the always-selling, all-American, self-perpetuating love of innovation that Lightning Rods more effectively mocks.”

As with any well-executed work of satirical art, there’s a tendency to take the page-to-page plot a little too seriously, to forget that something is being spotlighted and perhaps glorified precisely in order to be mocked. And so it’s important to set-up the satire, to set the right tone, which Helen does early in the book when she lets readers deep into the screwy fantasy world of Joe, whose sexual fantasies involve a bizarre game show that reminds me of those old Chuck Barris-produced shows like “The Dating Game”, “The Gong Show”, or “The Newlywed Game".

To wit:

Another fantasy was about a game show with three contestants with their upper bodies sticking through a hole in a wall. In the first part of the game, one contestant was penally challenged from behind. Panelists had to guess which. The contestants got points if the panelists guessed wrong. An inset in the screen showed the thrusting buttocks of a man giving the contestant the old Atchison Topeka. In the second stage of the game, any number could be involved, from zero (though this had never happened in the whole time he’d been watching the show), right on up to a full house (this was actually surprisingly common). The panelists had to guess how many, and which ones.

How’s that for setting a proper tone?