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A Huge Laugh

Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew

Jeremy Dauber

Yale University Press, pp. 216, $26.00


Mel Brooks has claimed that his true interest is “reality.” By reality I take him to mean the truth that lies behind social customs, false norms, everyday etiquette. Reality in this reading means what we really think and feel, not what we are supposed to think and feel. The first stage of reality, in Brooks’s interpretation, turns out to be the rejection of good taste. Jeremy Dauber, in his recent study of Mel Brooks, a volume in the Yale University Press series of Jewish lives, refers to Brooks as the “poète maudit of bad taste.”

As for that bad taste, a brief sample is on display when, in 2001, at the outset of an interview with Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes, Brooks asks Wallace, “Is that a hundred-dollar watch?” When Wallace tells him it’s a forty-dollar watch, Brooks replies, “What a cheap son of a bitch you are.” After a brief pause, he next asks Wallace, “What did you pay for your jacket?” and they are off. The bad taste of these questions is redoubled by the fact of Brooks being a Jew, a people, as the stereotype has it, obsessed by money. But, then, in the realm of bad taste, Mel Brooks, in his movie Blazing Saddles, may go down in history as the man who brought flatulence to the big screen.

Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1926, to parents of Russian–Ukrainian–Jewish heritage, Brooks later took up an abbreviated version of his mother’s maiden name of Brookman. (Another notable Kaminsky, though no relation, was David Daniel Kaminisky, later Danny Kaye.) His father died of tuberculosis when Mel Brooks was two-and-a-half years old. He had three older brothers. He was small, and soon discovered the best guard against being bullied was creating laughter that brought defenders to his side. During the Great Depression, Brooks found movies a great solace and took especial pleasure in those of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton. A boyhood friend was the brother of the great drummer Buddy Rich, and to become a drummer was Brooks’s first ambition. Most people in his extended family worked in the garment district. Not him. At the age of nine, he reports in his autobiography, All About Me, he told an uncle that “I am going into show business and nothing will stop me!”

The Jewish resorts in the Catskills, also known as the Borscht Belt, that great training ground for comedians, were where Brooks, like so many other comedians—among them Henny Youngman, Jackie Vernon, Mickey Katz, Myron Cohen, Jackie Mason—learned his trade. Playing to tough audiences, in the role of tummler, which Brooks defined as “a resident offstage entertainer, mostly after lunch,” Brooks learned early to pull out all stops. One of his schticks was to stand on the edge of a diving board, in a derby and alpaca coat, toting two cardboard suitcases loaded with rocks, crying out: “Business is no good. I don’t wanna live!” and then jump into the pool. “It always got a huge laugh,” he writes. Throughout his life huge laughs were, for Mel Brooks, the point of his being, the name of the game.

Brooks, a New Yorker and Jewish, incorporated in his manner and style both the brashness of the former and the point of view of the latter. The brashness of the New Yorker is perhaps best captured by the old joke that has a Hoosier, on the second day of his visit to New York, stop a New Yorker on the street and ask, “Can you tell me how to get to the Statue of Liberty, or would you prefer I go screw myself?” The Jewish point of view is best incorporated not by any single statement of Brooks, but by my mother when driving me as a boy around Chicago and pointing out the city’s restricted (for Jews) neighborhoods. “It’s restricted,” she would say, her voice implying how unjust this was yet also suggesting sentiments along the lines of “Who in any case would want to live among such dreary people.”

Brooks’s movies are liberally sprinkled with Yiddishisms. In Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn plays Lili Von Shtupp; in Men in Tights, Sir Robin of Loxley marries Maid Marian of Bagelle, forming the combination, of course, of lox and bagels. The word “putz” comes up; so, too, schvartze. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Mel Brooks’s movies, but it helps.

Remarking on Brooks’s Jewishness, Dauber, who is a professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia, notes that “Jewishness provided the roots of Brooks’s comedy. . . . It helped him to look backward, for his source material and otherwise, and to look forward, to stardom and artistic success—just as historical longing and utopian optimism have always been the stalwart poles of not just Jewish comedy, but Jewish identity.” Brooks’s own well-known definition of comedy has it that “tragedy is when I cut my finger . . . comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Dauber is excellent on the rise of Jewish comedy in this country from the 1950s on. A key figure was Sid Caesar, on whose writing staff Mel Brooks worked, who broadened and raised the consciousness of comedy generally. Mike Nichols and Elaine May were significant figures, as Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld would later be. Dauber tosses the Philip Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint into the mix. “Comedy is,” Dauber writes, “either about recognizing the familiar—the basis of all observational comedy . . . or cutting the epic, the pretentious, the unselfconscious down to size.” The Jewish comedians gave twentieth-century comedy their own spin. In Mel Brooks’s case he added what Martin Scorsese, when presenting him with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, called his “uniquely manic sensibility.”

Two items in Brooks’s early career were the making of him: his job on Sid Caesar’s staff and his later work with Carl Reiner on his comic skit The 2000 Year Old Man. The latter began as a bit the two men did at parties. Everyone who heard it was knocked out by it; many begged them to record it, which of course they eventually did, in four different recordings. Cary Grant is supposed to have bought scores of copies. What The 2000 Year Old Man shows, along with a highly amusing comic idea, is Brooks’s genius for on-the-spot improvisation. The recording also took Brooks out from the wings as a writer for other men’s performances and established him as a comedian in his own right. “This was a turning point for Mel,” Reiner said. “It gave him an identity as a performer for the first time.”

Brooks’s true breakthrough came through five movies, most of which were made in the Seventies: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, and High Anxiety. (In 1970 he also wrote and directed The Twelve Chairs, based on a Soviet novel by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, which was an outright flop.) These movies brought him fame and fortune, and an endless array of awards, beginning with an Oscar in 1968 for the best original screenplay for The Producers. He was well on his way to achieving his ultimate ambition to be regarded as the world’s funniest man.

Laughter was always Mel Brooks’s goal—the sentence “It got a huge laugh” recurs throughout his autobiography—and in his movies farce was his means of attaining it. Farce has its fascination, but also its limitations. “Farce does not compromise, neither is it kind,” wrote Irving Howe. “It hits below the belt. It flattens out the refinements that sensitive people value. It is a sort of fart among genres. It levels us all to an ultimate equality: man on his ass. There are few metaphysical consolations or ennobling ends in farce, certainly nothing like those we impute to comedy; there is only the putdown or the social demolition which gleefully levels the world. . . . Farce brings pleasure through humiliation—knock him down, throw him into the water, hit him again. And then, a sort of magical cancellation: Fatty Arbuckle gets up, blinking with good humor, and the world is restored.”

If his movies are ultimately farcical, farce in the form of parody, he, Brooks, insisted they were also made out of love for the genres he was parodying: the western in Blazing Saddles, the horror movie in Young Frankenstein, the Chaplin–Keaton–Lloyd era in Silent Movie, Alfred Hitchcock in High Anxiety. “I was satirizing specific genres,” he wrote, “but I was also paying tribute to them at the same time.”

Brooks also used his movies to attack the prejudices of his day. At the heart of Blazing Saddles is the fierce attack on racism. In his movie History of the World: Part I, he goes after anti-Semitism, in one portion doing a Busby Berkeley–like number on the Spanish Inquisition in which he sings and dances the lead part of Torquemada. The crudities of capitalism, with its love of money over art and love itself, is everywhere mocked. “Comedy,” he wrote in his autobiography, “brings religious persecutors, dictators, and tyrants to their knees faster than any other weapon.” Many of the things Brooks does in these movies might not, under the reign of political correctness, be allowed today.

The comparison is often made between the comedy in the movies of Mel Brooks and in those of Woody Allen. In photographs Brooks is often laughing; I have never seen Allen smile. Woody Allen’s humor is of course subtler, more introverted, much of it about Allen himself. Brooks sought a wider public. Dauber quotes Gene Wilder, who played key roles in some of Brooks’s movies, remarking: “What Mel wants is to set off atomic bombs of laughter.” Brooks himself noted: “I went into show business to make a noise, to pronounce myself. I want to make the loudest noise to most people. If I can’t do that, I’m not going to make a quiet, exquisite noise for a cabal of cognoscenti.” The name Woody Allen isn’t mentioned here, but clearly it is Allen to whom Brooks is comparing himself. I myself prefer the quieter humor in the films of Woody Allen, whom I much admired until he officially became a genius.

Still, one has to admire the amplitude of Mel Brooks’s talent. He was able to make movies that went against the grain of their day. He not only produced but wrote and directed these movies, composing some of the music and lyrics that were central to them. In later years, he began his own production company, Brooksfilms. He perfected the art of the comic talk-show television interview.

In a 1976 review of Silent Movie, Roger Ebert wrote that “Mel Brooks will do anything for a laugh. Anything. He has no shame. He’s an anarchist; his movies inhabit a universe in which everything is possible and the outrageous is probable.” Ebert added that the movie “made me laugh a lot.” Mel Brooks is now ninety-seven, and one likes to think of him still laughing and continuing to dream up what for the rest of us will be, in his words—yes, you will have guessed it—yet another huge laugh.

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