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‘Heil Honey, I’m Home!’ — the secret history of the scandalous Hitler sitcom you never saw

“Of all the shows I’ve done and made, this one gets the most comment. And yet, it’s never really been seen or aired,” said the veteran British TV writer Geoff Atkinson.

He was speaking about “Heil Honey, I’m Home!,” a comedy series that aired a single, infamous episode in the United Kingdom on September 30, 1990. As the title implies, the show was a sendup of 1950s-era American sitcoms, with a twist: It followed the domestic squabbles of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun and their dealings with a pair of intrusive Jewish neighbors, Arny and Rosa Goldenstein. Comedy ensued — or at least, was meant to.

Though the public never saw more than the show’s pilot, which aired to some 175,000 satellite subscribers, it’s become the subject of a bizarre cultural fascination in the 30 years since its debut.

And at the center of that fascination is a single question: How did such an outrageous idea even make it to TV in the first place?

“Heil Honey, I’m Home!,” Atkinson said, was a remarkably easy pitch for the then-nascent British Satellite Broadcasting network’s Galaxy station, which was launched in March of 1990. He sold a first series — what we in the U.S. call a season — on the strength of a partial script, and filmed eight episodes.

While the show earned a bit of outcry from the press and the Board of Deputies of British Jews before its premiere, its rollout was largely smooth. One reason for its easy path was that the Brits had a long-established affection for transgressive comedic takes on Hitler. John Cleese had taken the piss out of the tyrant both in “Monty Python,” as a “Mr. Hilter” running for local office in England, and in “Fawlty Towers” as a goose-stepping caricature at a dinner service. The series “Allo ‘Allo!,” set in a cafe in occupied France, mocked Nazis for 10 years, to great acclaim. And in America, home of the sitcom format Atkinson was skewering, the long-running series “Hogan’s Heroes,” set in a German prisoner-of-war camp, was an improbable hit.

Popular belief has held that “Heil Honey” was received with shock, and cancelled instantly. But according to Atkinson, what killed the show wasn’t outrage but a corporate takeover. In October 1990, after the pilot aired, BSB told the LA Times that 13 more episodes were on the way for the new year. But then in November, the flailing BSB merged with its rival satellite service, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television. Galaxy’s signal, along with most of its programming, was dead by December 2, 1990. While BSB had been willing to risk a “Honey Mooners”-style sitcom about Hitler’s home life, Sky was more interested in movies and sports rights than courting controversy. The show’s cancellation, Atkinson said, was “a slow death” made up of a series of unanswered calls.

Because only the series pilot aired, Atkinson said the show’s artistic credibility was never truly put to the test. A first season is always exploratory, he said, and when a series is potentially inflammatory, having the space of a few episodes to develop the ideas and work out any kinks is all the more vital.

It’s clear that “Heil Honey, I’m Home!” could have used that space. The pilot — framed as the recently-discovered work of a fictional American TV producer from the 1950s — suffers from conceptual overload, torn between being a riff on the subversive-if-fluffy gender politics of shows like “I Love Lucy” and a takedown of Hitler and all that he signifies. That odd mix is introduced in a familiar sitcom setup: The boss is coming to dinner, except in this instance, the “boss” is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who’s bringing by the Munich Agreement, the infamous appeasement document that aimed to avert the outbreak of war. Threatening the successful meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain are the Goldensteins. As Hitler (Neil McCaul) says, in a Ralph Kramden-like accent, “I don’t want those putzes to know about Chamberlain. You saw the way they were when the Mussolinis were over here.”

Eva (Denica Fairman), of course, spills the beans to Rosa (Caroline Gruber), who decides the visit marks a swell opportunity to set her dowdy niece up with the PM. The Goldensteins make camp in the Hitler apartment; Eva and Adolf scheme to get them drunk so they’ll pass out before Chamberlain arrives; after a series of hijinks, including a conga line, Hitler, bested by his Jewish neighbors, is made to sign the “peace in our time” document, which he’d hidden in the fridge. (Arny discovered it while getting chips and dip.) After signing the papers, Hitler, portrayed as an easily ruffled idiot, says “Now am I a nice Führer or what?”

Atkinson chose to set the entire series in 1938 — the time of appeasement — because he thought it marked something of a probationary period for the Reich: Hitler couldn’t be seen to attack the Goldensteins outright and they had a rare chance to outdo him. He aimed for his Hitler to be intent on keeping up appearances. As Eva says, “You want it to get out that Adolf Hitler insults his neighbors?”

That framing is ahistorical. By 1938, Hitler had already annexed Austria. Rather than hiding his cache of tanks and planes, like the dictator in the series, he was years into openly reviving his military in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. As for insulting his neighbors? Well, by 1938 Hitler had overseen over 400 new regulations limiting the lives of the Jews in the territory he controlled, so if there had been real-life Goldensteins, their kind treatment wouldn’t have been a concern — and Hitler certainly wouldn’t have been carpooling with Arny to the Reichstag.

But Atkinson wanted viewers to suspend their disbelief for a sense of justice served: A world in which the Jews living down the hall could make Hitler look the fool. In the show creator’s vision, Hitler is an excitable, thin-skinned despot living in a humble flat, clad in an argyle sweater and only able to calm himself by closing his eyes, hugging his arms and dreaming of conquering Poland, Sudetenland and France — a fragile combination that lets his witty neighbors earn some cheap shots at his expense, and carry the day.

“The notion of a Jewish couple being allowed to dance rings around Hitler, it’s not true, and their perils were enormous,” Atkinson said, “but allow us the freedom to just destroy him for half an hour.”

Like many Brits, Atkinson conceived of the Nazis as ripe objects for fun, citing their goose-stepping and, most preposterously, their leader, who, while preaching Aryan purity, had few of the features he praised to his _Volk_.

In the “Monty Python” sketch “Mr Hilter and the North Minehead by-election,” a group of terribly-aliased escaped Nazi leaders including “Mr. Hilter,” (Cleese), ”Bimmler” and “’Ron Vibbentrop” make their home in Somerset. The sketch, which sees the Nazis pitching their same old thinly-veiled ideas in a small coastal English town — think “boncentration camps” — wins laughs by showcasing the displaced Nazis as facile and unimaginative. They’ll always win some acolytes, the sketch suggests — some of the local population is quite taken with their ideas — but equally, they’ll always be fundamentally absurd.

That satire succeeds where “Heil Honey” fails, because the latter satirizes the sitcom format more than Hitler himself. The show’s critiques of Nazism are superficial and flout the reality of its subject’s true menace for the sake of one-liners. When the show starts to lampoon ideas as fundamental as Hitler’s belief in race science or his expansionist ambitions, its set-up and punchline arrangement can’t help but feel glib. It’s captive to the limitations of its cheery ‘50s trappings.

That arrangement also compromises the role of the Goldensteins. Broad and Borscht Belt-y, it’s not that the characters are particularly offensive — they’re played by two Jews — but their proximity to their greatest foe creates a degree of discomfort too great to be meaningfully spun into comedy. It’s telling that none of the show’s comedic antecedents made Jews — or Hitler’s hatred of them — so central to their premise.

As the show’s production moved past the pilot, Atkinson said, the writers struggled with the question of how to make the Goldensteins appear less naïve about their circumstances, while also not alluding to the darker side of their predicament. There was no “off list” about subjects to avoid, he said, but as a rule of thumb the explicit persecution of Jews were never considered for inclusion in jokes or stories.

“There’s a sense of ‘this is very unfunny’ when you deal with the real harsh realities of what life was like,” Atkinson said. “I think we probably didn’t get that line quite correct.”

“Heil Honey, I’m Home!” might not have been the subject of much public outrage. But behind the scenes, there were some indications of upset.

A recent retrospective in the Telegraph claimed that some theatrical agents wouldn’t send their actors to audition for the show, although the article didn’t cite specific sources for the claim. Adding to pre-production wrinkles was the fact that the show was originally scheduled to premiere close on the heels of one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, a choice that would likely have invited more controversy. “It was actually going to be broadcast an hour after Yom Kippur ended at dusk,” a BSB spokesperson told the Telegraph. “But we thought we’d better be ultra-careful.”

Atkinson left the writer’s room after a few episodes, owing to creative differences with the showrunner, but maintains that the director and cast believed in the series.

Today, almost no one involved in the show, apart from Atkinson, is willing to speak about the project. Three core cast members declined requests for interviews. Neil McCaul’s manager wrote in an email that his client had “no wish to revisit” the series. A request for comment sent to director Juliet May’s representative yielded no response.

Were it not for the pilot episode’s sudden appearance on YouTube in 2012, “Heil Honey” might have remained a blink-and-you-missed-it televisual oddity defined by its failure and novelty. With millions of people now granted easy access to the show, a stigma against it was reenergized along with an incredulous interest. Most critics who revisit the show cite its existence as fundamentally misconceived and wrongly claim that it was cancelled before it could get to the bit where Hitler tried to kill the Goldensteins. (Atkinson said that plotline was never part of his plans.)

Yet there have been some kinder treatments as well. In a high-profile reassessment last fall, the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria screened the pilot as part of an evening on satirical films about dictators and killers, praising the show’s “singularly irreverent vein.”

For all the postmortems, it’s hard to imagine how the show might have ever worked. But Atkinson, encouraged by recent Hitler satires like “Jojo Rabbit” and the German comedy “Look Who’s Back,” is optimistic about its contemporary prospects.

“I suspect if you could get it right there’d be a big audience, because it’s the same as laughing at Trump,” Atkinson said, a conflation that he aims to test with his latest project — a Trump musical in which the American president dies in the end. (He has a contingency ending for the possibility of Trump winning reelection, an eventuality which the writer in him — if not the person — hopes may happen.)

30 years on, “Heil Honey” may be the work he wants to revisit most.

“I think that’s the only sadness, is that we weren’t able to be judged on something that we really felt had done it,” Atkinson said. “Though I acknowledge it’s not as simple as saying ‘Well if everyone had seen it they would have loved it.’ It was a work in progress.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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