Mel Brooks is Jewish the way water is wet.
It just is. He just is.
He’s also funny; inherently funny, cleverly funny, broadly funny, tastelessly funny, just plain funny.
And he’s been around being Jewish and funny for a long time now; Melvin Kaminsky was born in 1926. He’s 97 years old.
Jeremy Dauber, the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia and the director of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies in the Germanic languages department there — and who is not 97 years old — grew up in Teaneck. He’s studied Jewish humor, among other Jewish cultural expressions, and on October 12 he’ll be at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly to talk about his latest book, “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew.” The book is part of the Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series; the talk is part of the JCC’s JCC U series. (See below.)
Dr. Dauber’s thesis is that Mel Brooks is “the most important American Jewish humorist, which makes him both the face of Jewish comedy in America and so very important in the history of American comedy.”
Brooks certainly isn’t the only Jew to have become successful as a comedian — “there are so many luminaries in the history of American comedy who are Jewish. There’s Woody Allen and Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld,” who are just a small part of a very long list, Dr. Dauber said. “But Mel Brooks is important not just because of his box office popularity, but because of the particular nature of his comedy.
“Part of the American Jewish story, especially in the 20th century, is trying to become part of mainstream America,” he continued. “Nobody epitomized that more than Mel Brooks. Nobody epitomized more that complication of being part of the society and at the same time not being part of it. Nobody was better at showing how alienated they were from it than Mel Brooks, and he did it best through parody.”
Take, for example, one of his best-known films, “Blazing Saddles,” Dr. Dauber suggested. “Here is the great American story of the Wild West, the great American myth. And Mel Brooks looks at it, as a part outsider, and says, ‘I love it, but also there are all these things in it that aren’t part of the Western as we tell it. I will make jokes by telling what’s not in it.’
“That’s part of the parody.
“The most famous scene is the flatulence scene,” Dr. Dauber said delicately. In westerns, “everyone sits around the campfire and eats beans, but we don’t see what often comes afterward.” Gas. The scene of the grizzled cowboys sitting around the campfire passing massive amounts of gas, with the noises that accompany it and the smells that result from it, has become iconic, Dr. Dauber said. “It’s really funny, and it’s become famous.”
Take “Young Frankenstein,” he continued. That retelling of Mary Shelley’s story “is very faithful in its own way to the Universal Studios horror movies that Mel Brooks grew up loving, but what he does is say, ‘I’m going to look at the story and make it about reclaiming your own identity. I will make that argument to the audience.’
“Although there are no Jewish characters in that movie at all, in some ways it is Mel Brooks’ most Jewish movie.
“There are some more explicitly Jewish scenes in other films,” he continued. “The most famous is the one in ‘Blazing Saddles,’ where he casts himself as a Native American chief and speaks Yiddish in that role. The idea is that there is a hidden — but not very well hidden — ethnicity inside some of these stories.”
Some of that approach comes from Brooks’ “apprenticeship with Sid Caesar on ‘Your Show of Shows,’” the variety hit that ran when both television and its stars were young, and whose writers, other staffers, and players were overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) Jewish.
It’s not entirely clear how non-Jewish audiences saw the ethnicity hiding behind (or peeking out from) the American-ness, but “I think that many of them were increasingly comfortable with Jewishness, and with ethnicity in general, and saw it as part of the mainstream,” Dr. Dauber said.
Mel Brooks was a leader in the mainstreaming of Jewish culture into American culture, but he was not alone. (You can’t be a leader with no followers.) It’s not accidental that he became increasingly prominent a few years after the mainstream success of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opened on Broadway in 1964. “After that, you have people like Allan Sherman,” the brilliant musical parodist who might be best known now for “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda” but who wrote many other songs as well, “and Mel Brooks doing the 2000 Year Old Man, and then people like Dustin Hoffman and Elliott Gould becoming big movie stars.
“Brooks is very much part of that movement, by putting Yiddish-speaking characters who look like the people he grew up around in Brooklyn on the screen.”
Dr. Dauber plans to talk about “how everyone compares Brooks with Woody Allen, but he was vastly more popular. Allen’s movies were very well received among the cognoscenti, but in terms of box office, Brooks was far more successful. And although he had a first marriage that did not go so well, then he had a very long, happy, and well-known marriage.” (Also, of course, Mel Brooks did not weather a huge scandal as Woody Allen did, and his life, so far, has been scandal-free.)
Mel Brooks was married to Anne Bancroft from 1964 until she died in 2005. “He was a doting husband, and her death was a huge blow for him, and it marked a comparative withdrawal from public life,” Dr. Dauber said.
Anne Bancroft was Italian, not Jewish. “Mel Brooks famously said that ‘she doesn’t need to convert. She’s a star,’” Dr. Dauber said. “This was hard on the heels of a much more famous star, Elizabeth Taylor, converting.” (That was in 1959, after the death of one of her Jewish husbands, Mike Todd, in 1958, and before she married her next one, Eddie Fisher, later in 1959.) “That said something about how Brooks wanted to be loved and accepted as part of the American story,” Dr. Dauber said.
He’ll tell a lot of stories about Mel Brooks during his talk at the JCC, but he said that this is one of his favorites.
Before he started performing publicly, Brooks and his then-boss, Carl Reiner, developed a comedy bit, the 2000 Year Old Man, which basically was a party piece for them. Brooks was the very, very old man, and Reiner would interview him. They ad libbed, and both they and their friends loved it. They’d sometimes tape it. “They did it for a Hollywood crowd, and Cary Grant, who was there, said a little while later that ‘I played it for a friend of mine, and she liked it.’
“So Brooks asked, ‘Who is the friend?’ and Grant said, ‘Oh. She’s the queen of England.’
“The story goes that they said, ‘If it’s good enough for the queen of England, it’s good enough for the rest of us.’”
Is that story true? Who knows? Should it be true? Of course! And Dr. Dauber will have many, many more of them.
Dr. Dauber’s talk is the second in the day’s JCC U presentations
Who: Dr. Jeremy Dauber
What: Will talk about his book, “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew”
When: On Thursday, October 12, from 12:45 to 2
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
Why: As part of the JCC U
Who: Writer Richard Hurowitz, author of “In the Garden of the Righteous,” will talk about his book with Dr. Thorin Tritter.
What: The book is about heroes who rescued Jews from the Holocaust, “at a time when the moral choices were stark, the threat immense, and the passive apathy of millions predominated.”
When: On Thursday, October 12, from 10:30 to noon.
Where: At the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
Why: As part of the JCC U
How much: $38 for JCC members, $45 for nonmembers
For information or to register: www.jccotp.org/programs/lectures-learning/, or go to jccotp.org click on Adults, and then click on Lectures and Learning. Or call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454 or Marisa Dolkart at (201) 408-1496.