Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t pass their pilot and saved us all a ton of grief.
Upon viewing the pilot for the British comedy Heil Honey I’m Home, several questions come to mind. “What am I doing in Hitler’s house? Why are his neighbors Jewish? Why is he calling me ‘honey’?” All fair concerns when discussing one of history’s most vile and murderous dictators, yet the most common question of all, “Who gave this monster his own show?” seems most pertinent.
We’re still wondering. Heil Honey I’m Home is a strange case, a clever sitcom parody built on a difficult idea that proved too dark, cynical, and tasteless for primetime viewers, when it premiered in 1990. Honey dives into the deep end without a life preserver, making a hard parody of TV sitcoms out of a really, really touchy subject. The pitch was the Holocaust meets the Honeymooners, and the result is a sketch comedian’s fever dream.
Heil Honey I’m Home’s story only gets stranger in hindsight. The pilot contains this forward:
To most people the name of TV executive Brandon Thalburg Jnr. merits no more than a three word footnote in the annals of American Situation Comedy. Yet it was Brandon who, some years ago, sought to break new ground when he commissioned the series ‘Heil Honey I’m Home’ under the billing ‘not so much a sit com, more a hit com.’ Unfortunately, neither Brandon nor the series were heard of again. Until now!A chance discovery in a Burbank backlot has revealed the lost tapes of: ‘Heil Honey I’m Home.’ Tapes that we believe will vindicate Brandon’s unsung comic vision.
The setup is both simple and totally insane. Adolf Hitler stands in for Ralph Kramden, with his trusty wife Eva Braun going bam-zoom right to Berlin. His day-to-day consists of being Chancellor of Germany’s National Socialist party and hiding his plans for global domination from the Allied forces. Across the hall, two Jewish tenants, Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, Hitler’s the nosy, overbearing neighbors, make the Führer’s life a living hell. They have troubles of their own; their loveless marriage trucks along by avoiding sexual contact and visits from Arny’s mother-in-law. Does anyone on TV have a likable mother-in-law?
Every sitcom needs a redeemable protagonist, and as a model, Ralph Kramden’s a safe bet. TV’s favorite leading man, Jackie Gleason’s portrayal as the original fat, ignorant American begat Fred Flintstone, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, and now, Hitler. One of these things is not like the other.
While the first three characters, flawed in many ways, were excused for their foibles by a TV audience looking for characters that reflected their own humanity, Hitler is not a character people want to root for, unless you’re looking for that sought after racists and anti-semites aged 18-34 demographic. The pilot’s peripheral characters don’t offer anything better. Arny and Rosa’s stereotypical depiction of Brooklyn Jews is straight out of Nazi propaganda. All the characters here give the audience nothing to latch onto nor laugh about.
The show is less about Hitler, though, and more about parody, with sitcom tropes filling out much of the pilot. When Hitler comes home from a long day of work, he asks Eva what’s for dinner, but since she’s a sitcom homemaker, she gives him grief about caring about his job more than her, and because he’s a sitcom everyman, Hitler informs Eva that his British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is coming to dinner and not to mention that to Rosa Goldenstein.
So it looks like the boss is coming to dinner, and Hitler needs everything to run smoothly if he’s going to go through with his plans to invade Poland, which, obviously, everyone at home wants to happen. Eva has different plans. With Chamberlain coming to dinner, her celebrity status increases, and who better to boost her ego than Rosa. Spoiler alert: telling Rosa is a mistake. Ever the matchmaker, Rosa invites herself to dinner to set the Prime Minister up with her visiting niece, who’s a bit nebbish if not borderline insane. Hitler’s not going to like this.
Heil Honey does a good enough job matching the laugh-track led cast through a cliche. Their guffawing voices barrel through jokes, which pit the Hitlers and the Goldensteins in a battle of the sexes found in most sitcoms. The boss coming to dinner plot frames this battle with enough free space for hilarity to ensue. It’s all constructed perfectly, except for the fact that Hitler is our leading man. Left with no one to engage with, Heil Honey wanders in no direction.
After the Goldensteins crash dinner, Hitler tries to move them back out the door by feeding them drinks. As they drink, Hitler gets a call from his incompetent assistant Goebbels, informing him that the Prime Minister needs a ride from the airport. Typical Goebbels, but when Hitler gets back, he wants the Goldensteins gone! The Prime Minister’s arrival sends everything into a tailspin. Not only are the Goldensteins still drinking, but their brash mannerisms and conga lines charm the pants off Chamberlain. Meanwhile, Hitler decides upon the best way to hide the “Peace for our time” agreement document, which would stop Hitler from invading Poland. He chooses the icebox–comedy at every turn.
The sitcom parody and historical fiction don’t blend well here. Hitler’s real naughty side overshadows almost every scene, and where Mel Brooks’ The Producers makes a joke of Hitler to satirize show business, this actively asks you see Hitler as our protagonist, and, on some level, side with him.
Without a trace of satire, Heil Honey uses its cast of characters for no reason other than shock. The laborious use of Hitler’s likeness and history tries so hard to pull laughs out of just being Hitler that it’s rare if we see anything of actual value, something that can truly make us laugh. As That’s My Bush learned a few years later, people don’t see their reviled political figures as normal people with hilarious problems, they see them as reviled political figures. What’s even stranger is that this isn’t even a bad sitcom parody. The style, writing, and acting are in the pocket, but what would have been perfectly suited for SNL sketch (or more likely, a Family Guy punch in), seems overblown here. The audience simply overdoses on Hitler.
According to Wikipedia, had the show continued, we would have been treated to an eight episode first season, in which Hitler attempts to kill the Goldensteins. As hilarious as that sounds, the odds of people latching onto a show where Hitler engages in a Wile E. Coyote-like chase with a couple of Jews were slim. Executives must’ve learned from Thalburg’s mistakes; an American remake has yet to be announced.