Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew (Jewish Lives)

Image of Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew (Jewish Lives)
Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
Yale University Press
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“we should respect this iconoclastic disobedient Jew, one who used his Jewish sensibilities to pummel and reframe American comedy.”

Film critic Roger Ebert loved to tell the story about his elevator ride with Mel Brooks, shortly after Brooks released his first film The Producers in 1967. A woman entered the elevator, took one look at Brooks, and said “Sir, I have seen your film and it is vulgar!”

“Madame,” Brooks replied “my film rises beneath vulgarity.”

The Producers isn’t just beneath vulgarity. It’s stuffed with tasteless jokes. The rogue’s gallery of characters includes a lascivious theatrical producer who keeps himself financially afloat by seducing lonely widows, an ultra-flamboyant Broadway director dolled up like the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and a daft Nazi playwright bedecked in a stahlhelm helmet covered with pigeon droppings.

The whole thing climaxes in an outrageous musical number “Springtime for Hitler,” featuring showgirls wearing costumes adorned with Third Reich regalia, tap-dancing Nazis, and a swastika tribute to Busby Berkley. Beneath the vulgarity, The Producers is anchored by an affectionate bond between its two leads, id-driven producer Max Bialystok (Zero Mostel) and hyper-neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder, and yes the character is named after the protagonist in James Joyce’s Ulysses).

Ebert praised The Producers as one of the funniest comedies of all time. On the other side, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael dismissed it as “amateurishly crude.” “(The Producers) revels in the kind of show-business Jewish humor that used to be considered too specialized for movies,” Kael wrote. “Screenwriters used to take the Jewish out but now that television comedians exploit themselves as stereotypes, screenwriters are putting the Jewish in.”

Author Jeremy Dauber, professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University, turns Kael’s denouncement on its axis, making it a central idea in his new book Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew, the latest volume in Yale University Press series “Jewish Lives.” Dauber argues that by “putting the Jewish in” Brooks makes an all-out comic assault on polite—read “gentile”—society. Antisemitism, often called the oldest prejudice, has shoved Jews into the role of outsider throughout history, and all too often with devastating consequences.

But persecution is a rich source for Jewish laughter, a communal thumb-nosing at the expense of the Jew-hating culprits. It’s a comedy danger zone marshalled by insurrectionists like Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, and of course Mel Brooks.

That ethos is at the heart of Brooks’ best work, writes Dauber, “nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us . . . In short, you have to be the loyal opposition: which is as good a way of describing a certain American Jewish attitude as any.”

Melvin Kaminsky, like so many Jewish kids from his working-class background in 1930s Brooklyn, was a genuine tummler, a Yiddish word meaning “someone who makes a lot of noise,” but is better defined as dynamic nonstop jokester. Like many comics of his generation Melvin got his start ad-libbing routines for resort hotel guests in the Catskills, those Jewish vacation retreats known as the “Borscht Belt.”

Brooks joined the army in the latter days of WWII, as remnants of the Germany army slogged toward their ignoble defeat. When they shouted Nazi propaganda at the Americans, Brooks grabbed a bullhorn, firing back with his rendition of an old Al Jolson song “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye!” The bold irreverence got him reassigned as “entertainment specialist” for the USO.

Brooks knew he was show biz bound. The challenge was how to break into the cutthroat racket. Like so many of his co-religionists in the entertainment industry, Melvin Kaminsky stripped the ethnicity from his given name. The first name shortened; the surname was adopted after his mother’s maiden name Brookman. What “Mel Brooks” retained was his boundless tummler energy. He was noticed by a musician-turned-TV comedian, a few years older than Brooks, who remembered the kid from back when they both worked the Catskills.

Sid Caesar was the biggest name in television, a gifted funnyman who parlayed his genius into the weekly sketch comedy series Your Show of Shows. He wanted Brooks on the writing staff. Television execs didn’t see anything worthy in the motormouthed upstart. As is so often the case, the suits were wrong. Caesar knew it. He dipped into his own paycheck to keep Brooks around until the powers-that-be finally caught up to Caesar’s intuition.

Your Show of Shows morphed into another hit, Caesar’s Hour. The deadline for material was crushing, demanding writers who could craft quality jokes and sketches for their boss week after week. Again, Caesar’s eye for talent was spot-on. He put together a staff that today reads like a Who’s Who of American Comedy, including Brooks, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, brothers Neil and Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Selma Diamond, Joseph Stein, and Howard Morris.

Dauber makes an interesting, albeit truncated point that this cutting-edge television comedy was the domain of New York Jews. That doesn’t discount the greatness of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz or any number of sitcom talents in Hollywood. Yet half-hour shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and even I Love Lucy revolved around humorous situations within gentile families.

Caesar’s boys were from a whole different world. Brooks and his cohorts jettisoned strict sitcom formulas. They were tummlers who would do anything for a laugh. The sketches in Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour were wall-to-wall parodies driven by rapid-fire jokes. It was bold stuff, thrusting knockabout Jewish sensibilities into Eisenhower-era television comedy. There’s a lot of juice to this cultural/sociological interpretation of early television, though Dauber only touches on an idea that demands a deeper exploration.

Brooks’ initial post-Caesar’s Hour years were a mess. He worked on a failed Broadway show, then took an abortive turn at writing a Jerry Lewis film. Things finally clicked through a series of ventures that brought plenty of accolades: bestselling comedy albums with Reiner playing faux interviewer of Brooks responding in character as “The 2000 Year Old Man,” developing and voicing an Oscar-winning animated short The Critic, and co-creating a James Bond sitcom spoof, “Get Smart.” He met and married the love of his life, Anne Bancroft. All the while, Brooks worked on a novel about two shady producers scheming to make a fortune by staging Broadway a flop.

The work fell flat as a novel, then soared when Brooks reworked it into a screenplay for his directorial debut. Ebert’s praise for The Producers and Kael’s disparagement were emblematic of the film’s reception. People either loved it or hated it, often for the same reasons. The movie was crude, both in subject and execution. The direction was shoddy, the subject outrageous, the characters cruel. All of which made The Producers hilarious. Even peers in the movie industry got it. At the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony Brooks won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay beating out more respectable writer/directors like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke for 2001: A Space Odyssey and John Cassavetes for Faces. So much for “amateurishly crude.”

Most important of all, Brooks used The Producers as revenge. In 1968 the Third Reich and the Holocaust were still fresh in memory. The reality of these unthinkable horrors was too brutal for crude laughs. Yet just 23 years earlier, in his role as “entertainment specialist,” Brooks took to USO stages where he regaled war-weary troops with an unbridled impersonation of the vanquished Führer. His sendup of Hitler was crazy, preening, outrageous—and a hit. The military newspaper Stars and Stripes took notice, publishing photos of this 19-year-old solider lampooning Hitler for big laughs.

Brooks understood the difference between joking about the Holocaust and mocking Hitler. The former debased the victims, while the latter thrashed the perpetrator. There was precedent for this: in 1940 Charlie Chaplin caricatured Der Führer with his film The Great Dictator. Yet, as Chaplin later wrote in his autobiography, had the world been aware of the Nazi regime’s mass extermination of Jews, he never would have made the film.

Brooks was looking at this evil incarnate from a different perspective. His parody had dead serious motivations: Brooks’ older brother Lenny was taken prisoner by the Germans during WWII. If his captors discovered that Lenny was Jewish, he would have been thrown into the Third Reich death machine. Had Hitler accomplished his vision, Melvin Kaminsky would have never existed. Instead, he was Jew in the post-Holocaust world. Every joke Brooks cracked was spit in Hitler’s face. Leave serious rhetoric to historians. Brooks took on a life’s mission: make fun of the bastard, belittle him, destroy him. Take Jewish revenge on Hitler with no guardrails. “Brooks would not be the genius that he is,” writes Dauber, “if his work didn’t raise artistic questions at the highest level: and perhaps his testing of limits, his pushing against constraints is most powerful and profound when it comes to the questions of suitable or tasteful subjects for comedy itself.”

Anger at the oppressor, fueled by searing comedy, is leitmotif throughout centuries of Jewish humor. With the best of Mel Brooks’ work, that ethos is a mission. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brooks’ third film, Blazing Saddles. The movie had its genesis in an offbeat screenplay by Andrew Bergman, Tex X, about a Black sheriff in a small all-white Western town. The premise was loaded with potential but needed development.

At its heart, Tex X was a condemnation of American racism. Notwithstanding its serious undertones, Tex X was also spoof comedy in the vein of Caesar’s Hour. Brooks threw together a 1950s-style writers’ room infused with 1970s sensibilities. Comedy writers Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger joined Brooks and Bergman. Ideas were thrown around, with no rules of gravity allowed. But this quartet of bad Jewish boys needed an edgy Black voice in the mix, someone who understood the underpinnings of anti-racist comedy. Richard Pryor seemed like the perfect choice: He was as fearless an African American comedian as Brooks was a Jewish comedian. Pryor’s contributions to the final screenplay were significant, although daily cocaine use throughout the writing phase dulled Pryor’s sharper edges.

Blazing Saddles skewers racism through controlled chaos. Cleavon Little is perfectly cast as debonair Black Bart, the new town sheriff of Rock Ridge. Count Basie and his band show up in the middle of the desert to hail and farewell Bart, now outfitted with Gucci saddlebags, as he heads off to his new post. Gene Wilder is Bart’s sidekick, Jim, a drunk turned redeemed gunslinger. Brooks himself plays both a dimwitted governor and an Indian chief speaking mostly in Yiddish. Madeline Kahn sends up Marlene Dietrich from Destry Rides Again and Harvey Korman both annoys and is annoyed by Hedy Lamarr (“That’s Hedly!”)

Herds of cattle storm through town meetings. Everyone in Rock Ridge has the surname Johnson. The fourth wall between screen and audience isn’t just broken: it’s annihilated. A frenzied mob slugs it out at the Warner Brothers studio commissary, where another Brooksian Hitler is having lunch. Everything climaxes at Graumann’s Chinese Theater where the feature attraction is—of course—Blazing Saddles. All this plus a windbreaking moment in American film humor, wherein the natural bodily functions of consuming baked beans is on full display in a jazzy riff of cowboy farts. Fart jokes became a movie comedy standard in the wake of Blazing Saddles, but none ever matched the Brooks highpoint for this low brow.

Vital to the biting humor of Blazing Saddles is a copious use of the N-word. The obscenity gets spit out like verbal bullets—but not as a slur against African Americans. Rather, the N-word reflects back on anyone who utters it. They are fools, sucker punched by their own hatreds. Brooks jumps on the vile word with the same gusto as his Hitler takedowns. It’s shocking, uncomfortable, and yes, funny without being offensive. The Chicago Defender, one of nation’s oldest and most influential African American newspapers, praised Blazing Saddles for portraying racists as “the idiotic things they are. Bludgeoning on that order is decidingly redeeming.”

Despite the cancel culture world of 2023, Blazing Saddles thrives. Compare that to those clueless forces from both left and right, perennially calling for ban on American classics Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because of the N-word. Like Brooks, Mark Twain and Harper Lee used the slur in an honest portrayal of racism. They’ve been singled out, while there’s never been a cry to ban Blazing Saddles. Audiences understood what Brooks was doing in 1974 and we still do, nearly 50 years after the film was first unleashed.

Blazing Saddles and its frank approach to racism made a huge impression on one biracial kid, an impact that was lifelong. Years later, when presenting Brooks with a 2015 National Medal of the Arts, President Barak Obama reminisced about sneaking into a theater at age 11 to watch Blazing Saddles. The President praised Brooks for using his comic gifts to tell the larger stories of our common humanity. In return, Brooks pretended to pants the Leader of the Free World.  As Dauber writes, that delight in mischief and irreverence is what makes Mel Brooks Mel Brooks.

With the success of Blazing Saddles, Brooks was transformed into a Hollywood power player. The outsider became an insider. His production company Brooksfilms turned out respectable fair including David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Another production, My Favorite Year, was loosely based on Brooks’ tenure with Sid Caesar. As for his own films, “A Mel Brooks Movie” became a category of its own: find a genre, write some jokes, and there’s the movie. They were parody for parody’s sake, more reliant on kidding the familiar, rather than smashing open new boundaries.

Dauber makes a keen observation that Brooks turned into a caricature of himself, spoofing genres with each new film, but now eclipsed by his successors, most notably David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams in their films Airplane, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun series. Of Brooks’ last film Dracula: Dead and Loving It Dauber writes “as a matter of mercy, we shall pass over in almost complete silence.”

In its best moments Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew is an insightful look of a unique American master. But once the Brooks magic is gone Dauber runs out of material. The post-Blazing Saddles/Young Frankenstein Mel Brooks offers precious little to consider. It’s not the author’s fault: The outsider Mel Brooks operating on meagre budgets while battling studio executives is a force of nature to behold. As an insider calling the shots, Brooks just isn’t that interesting.

In 2001 The Producers was turned into a Broadway musical. Brooks came full circle. His low-rent antiestablishment film transformed into a multimillion-dollar theatrical juggernaut, winning a fistful of Tonys while making a fortune for its backers. The musical has its charms. But refinement and big budget was not an improvement to the material nor to its creator. In the opening number Max Bialystok, now played by Nathan Lane, laments “Who do you have to fuck to get a break in this town?” Brooks was hesitant about this song lyric, telling Lane “You can’t say ‘fuck’ in a musical.”

To which Lane replied: “Have we met? You’re Mel Brooks!

Brooks acquiesced, once again becoming that bad Jewish boy pushing all boundaries of good taste. Dauber makes it clear that we should respect this iconoclastic disobedient Jew, one who used his Jewish sensibilities to pummel and reframe American comedy. As the original Max Bialystok declared in 1967: “You have exactly ten seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect.”