Mel Brooks shows no outright sense of shame or victimhood in his film comedies. His Jewishness shows through without ambivalence, according to experts.
“There is a simple pride and comfort in his Jewish skin,” Gabriel Sanders, director of public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, said. “It’s cinematic Zionism.”
As a heat wave blanketed the New York area for more of the summer, film buffs are taking advantage of a free series of comedies at the museum called “Mel Brooks on Film: The Spoof is in the Pudding.” Featuring six award-winning films from the 1970s and 80s, the series runs through Aug. 8.
Brooks’ parodies and satires are cult favorites and box office hits, and Brooks is one of only a handful of performers who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award.
Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn. His father’s family were German Jews from Danzig; his mother’s family were Ukrainian Jews from Kiev. His father died of kidney disease at 34, when Brooks was only 2 years old.
In John Wakeman’s book World Film Directors, Brooks explained his reaction to his father’s death. “There’s an outrage there,” Brooks said. “I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems – like a punch in the face.”
The humor in his films, often over the top and in fact sometimes like a punch in the face, is muscular and self-confident, as opposed to Woody Allen’s neurotic style.
“We had a Woody Allen series last year and that was successful, so we wanted another iconic Jewish director,” Sanders said. “It’s been interesting to see how different the two are. Brooks’ preoccupation with Nazis is not unique to just one of his movies. It’s not only Nazis he goes after, but the powerful.”
In a 2001 U.S. News & World Report interview, Brooks said, “If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win. That’s what they do so well, they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”
The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s series has included such comic gems such as “Silent Movie,” “History of the World Part I,” “High Anxiety,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Blazing Saddles.” The last film to be screened is “To Be or Not to Be.” (For details, go to page 33.)
According to Wakeman, after World War II Brooks started working in various Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs as a drummer and pianist. Another Williamsburg resident, Buddy Rich, taught Brooks how to play drums, and he started earning money as a drummer when he was 14.
Kaminsky changed his professional name to Mel Brooks after being confused with the well-known Borscht Belt trumpet player Max Kaminsky. After a regular comic at one of the nightclubs was too sick to perform one night, Brooks filled in for him, telling jokes and doing movie-star impressions. He also began acting in summer stock in Red Bank and did some radio work. He eventually worked his way up to being a tummler at Grossinger’s, among the most famous of the Catskill resorts.
Sanders invited Leonard Quart, professor emeritus of cinema at CUNY’s Graduate Center and contributing editor of Cineaste, to give a talk before the Brooks film series opened.
“Brooks’ films are never subtle. They cartoon, parody, have no use for good taste, and are laugh-out-loud-funny,” Quart said in an interview. “He has no use for sacred cows.”
Quart said Brooks’ films use Yiddishisms freely. Beyond that, they are deeply imbued with a sense of Jewish victimization and oppression.
“He sees comedy as a relieving of the pain of historical intolerance and of being an outsider,” Quart said. “The films make us laugh and sometimes make sharp satiric points about racism, politics, and religion. Yes, they are zany comedies, but they also can provide trenchant commentary on social mores and history.”
Eventually Brooks found more rewarding work behind the scenes, becoming a comedy writer for television. In 1949, a friend from their Borscht Belt days, Sid Caesar, hired Brooks to write jokes for the NBC series The Admiral Broadway Revue, paying him $50 a week. In 1950, Caesar created the revolutionary variety comedy series, “Your Show of Shows,” and hired Brooks as a writer along with Carl Reiner, Neil and Danny Simon, and Mel Tolkin.
Brooks never forgot what Caesar did for him, and cast Caesar in “Silent Movie.”
“When we showed ‘Silent Movie’ the other night, he’s merciless with big money. Much of the movie has Mel going around to different stars trying to get them to be in his silent movie. He makes fun of them. He really is a kind of equal opportunity comic,” Sanders said.
Still, some may claim that Brooks’ films continue to push the boundaries of good taste. Quart disagrees. “Yes, he can be vulgar, scatological, and outrageous. But for me, his films are too innocent, even sweet-natured, to draw blood, even though Brooks believes ‘comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.'”
Mel Brooks’ films remain relevant to today’s viewers, Quart said.
“How do we define comedy’s relevance? If it’s able to make us laugh, escape our lives, and, at its best, make astute sharp social and psychological points, it’s relevant.” he said.
Joint News Service