Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew (Jewish Lives)

Image of Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew (Jewish Lives)
Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
Yale University Press
Reviewed by: 

“‘Mel Brooks, more than any other single figure of the twentieth century, symbolizes the Jewish perspective on, and contribution to, American mass entertainment.’”

Jeremy Dauber sees Mel Brooks as a uniquely Jewish-American entertainer. “’Mel Brooks, more than any other single figure of the twentieth century, symbolizes the Jewish perspective on, and contribution to, American mass entertainment.’”

Dauber’s goal is to relate Brooks’ interaction with comedic peers, “a roll call of American twentieth century comedy culture.”

Melvin Kaminsky was born in Brooklyn in 1926, to first-generation Jewish parents, Kitty and Max. Max died when Mel was a toddler, leaving him and three older brothers. His mother and older brothers worked, while Mel roamed the streets and movie theaters of 1920s, 75 percent Jewish Brooklyn.

After his bar mitzvah, Mel decided he’d become a drummer. “’I am going into show business and nothing will stop me.’” He played weddings and bar mitzvahs as “Melvin Brooks,” shortened from his mother’s name, Kate Brookman, and moved on to the Catskills’ “Borscht Belt.”

He became a tummeler—“someone who makes sure that everyone is having fun,” and soon filled in for an ailing comic. He also met Sid Caesar.

In 1944, Brooks joined the wartime service, ultimately as a tummeler and a corporal, first in Europe and then, in 1946, at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Brooks shadowed Sid Caesar, eventually writing for him on a new medium for the late 1940s—TV—to, then, a predominantly Jewish audience. Brooks continued to write through the early 1950s.

After writing for Caesar, and some marital infidelities, his first wife filed for divorce in 1960. Around that time, perhaps the act Brooks is best known for, The 2,000 Year Old Man (with Carl Reiner) became famous at a party for 200, “at Mamma Leone’s in New York.” The routine evolved into a popular record, eventually nominated for a Grammy.

He met his next wife, Anne Bancroft, at a show rehearsal. In typical Brooks’ humor regarding their different religions, “She don’t need to convert. . . . She’s a star!”

Springtime for Hitler, Brooks’ controversial next work renamed The Producers, was deemed a “train wreck in the making” by the New York Times, though he won an Oscar for best original screenplay, the same year Bancroft aced with The Graduate.

Next up was Blazing Saddles, “conceived in the crucible of the civil rights movement . . .” Brooks’ (bold for 1970s Hollywood) goal here was to have a Black sheriff, homosexuality, Jews, and farts, in a comedic Western.

Following in 1974 was Young Frankenstein, introduced to Brooks by Gene Wilder, star of both Blazing Saddles and this new work. Co-stars would be Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn (also in Blazing Saddles) and Teri Garr—with women’s sexuality a pervasive theme in both works.

A slew of hits followed in the ’70s, including Silent Movie and High Anxiety. Though Brooks wanted to reveal his intellectual side in films, “the critics would take offense . . . the bean-farting wacko from Blazing Saddles was going to put his grimy paws on it.”

More movies followed in the ’80s, often with Brooks’ prevailing theme of Jews versus Nazis, including Spaceballs from 1987, a parody of Star Wars, and later with The Producers as a triumphant Broadway musical, earning Brooks the EGOT honor (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards).

In Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew, Jeremy Dauber adeptly recounts Brooks’ slow and steady rise to fame. However, to this reviewer it appeared to be more of a scholarly treatise—almost thesis-like—than a biographical study in ethnic/Jewish comedy. A warning to the reader: If you don’t know Yiddish, have a dictionary nearby.