A history of Mel Brooks as a ‘disobedient Jew’
In new biography, Jeremy Dauber breaks down how the comedian and director just couldn’t help being a loving iconoclast skewering the establishment
JTA — Jeremy Dauber subtitles his new biography of Mel Brooks “Disobedient Jew.” It’s a phrase that captures two indivisible aspects of the 96-year-old director, actor, producer and songwriter.
The “Jew” is obvious. Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1926, Brooks channeled the Yiddish accents and Jewish sensibilities of his old neighborhoods into characters like the 2000 Year Old Man — a comedy routine he worked up with his friend, the writer and director Carl Reiner. He worked Jewish obsessions into films like 1967’s “The Producers,” which features two scheming Jewish characters who stage a sympathetic Broadway musical about Hitler in order to bilk their investors.
Brooks’s signature move is to inject Jews into every aspect of human history and culture, which can be seen in the forthcoming Hulu series “History of the World, Part II.” A sequel to his 1981 film, “History of the World, Part I,” it parodies historical episodes in a style he honed as a writer on 1950s television programs such as “Your Show of Shows,” whose writers’ rooms were stocked with a galaxy of striving Jewish comedy writers just like him.
The “Disobedient” part describes Brooks’s relationship to a movie industry that he conquered starting in the early 1970s. In a series of parodies of classic movie genres — the Western in “Blazing Saddles,” the horror movie in “Young Frankenstein,” Alfred Hitchcock in “High Anxiety — he would gently, sometimes crudely and always lovingly bite the hand that was feeding him quite nicely: In 1976, he was fifth on the list of top 10 box office attractions, just behind Clint Eastwood.
Dauber describes the parody Brooks mastered as “nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us, culturally speaking; between affection for the mainstream and alienation from it.”
Dauber is professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University, whose previous books include “Jewish Comedy” and “American Comics: A History.” “Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew” is part of the Jewish Lives series of brief interpretative biographies from Yale University Press.
Dauber and I spoke about why America fell for a self-described “spectacular Jew” from Brooklyn, Brooks’s lifelong engagement with the Holocaust, and why “Young Frankenstein” may be Brooks’s most Jewish movie.
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “History of the World, Part II” comes out March 6. “History of the World, Part I” may not be in the top tier of Brooks films, but it seems to touch on so many aspects of his career that you trace in your book: the parody of classic movie forms, the musical comedy, injecting Jews into every aspect of human civilization, and the anything-for-a-laugh sensibility.
Jeremy Dauber: I agree. There’s the one thing that really brings it home, and it’s probably the most famous or infamous scene from the film. That’s the Spanish Inquisition scene. You have Brooks sort of probing the limits of bad taste. He had done that most famously in “The Producers” with its Nazi kickline, but here he takes the same idea — that one of the ways that you attack antisemitism is through ridicule — and turns the persecution of the Jews into a big musical number. It’s his love of music and dance. But the thing that’s almost the most interesting about this is that he takes on the role of the Torquemada character.
As his henchmen sing and dance and the Jews face torture, the Brooklyn-born Jew plays the Catholic friar who tormented the Jews.
That’s right. And what’s the crime that he accuses the Jews of? “Don’t be boring! Don’t be dull!” That’s the worst thing that you can be. It’s his way of saying, “If I have a religion, you know, it is show business.”
His fascination with showbiz seems inseparable from his Jewishness, as if being a showbiz Jew is a denomination in its own right.
One of my favorite lines of his is when he marries [actress] Anne Bancroft, who of course is not Jewish. And he says, “She doesn’t have to convert: She’s a star.” If you’re a star, if you’re a celebrity, you’re kind of in your own firmament faith-wise, and so it’s okay. Showbiz is this faith. But it is very Jewish, because show business is a way to acceptance. It’s a way that America can love him as a Jew, as Mel Brooks, as a kid from the outer boroughs who can grow up to marry Anne Bancroft.
You write early on that “Mel Brooks, more than any other single figure, symbolizes the Jewish perspective on and contribution to American mass entertainment.” On one foot, can you expand on that?
Jews understand that there’s a path to success and that being embraced by a culture means learning about it, immersing yourself in it, being so deeply involved in it that you understand it and master it. But simultaneously, you’re doing that as a kind of outsider. You’re always not quite in it, even though you’re of it in some deep way. In some ways, it’s the apotheosis of what Brooks does, which is being a parodist. In order to be the kind of parodist that Mel Brooks is, you have to be acutely attuned to every aspect of the cultural medium that you’re parodying. You have to know it inside and outside and backwards and forwards. And Brooks certainly does, but at the same time you have to be able to sort of step outside of it and say, you know, “Well, I’m watching a Western, but come on, what’s going on with these guys? Like why doesn’t anyone ever, you know, pass gas after eating so many beans?”
You have this great phrase, that to be an American Jew is to be part of the “loyal opposition.”
That’s right. Brooks at his best is always kind of poking and prodding at convention, but loyally. He’s not like the countercultural figures of his day. He’s a studio guy. He’s really within the system, but is poking at the system as well.
You wrote in that vein about his 1963 short film, “The Critic,” which won him an Oscar. Brooks plays an old Jewish man making fun of an art film.
On the one hand, he’s doing it in the voice of one of his older Jewish relatives, the Jewish generation with an Eastern European accent, to make fun of these kinds of intellectuals. He’s trying to channel the everyman’s response to high art. “What is this I’m watching? I don’t understand this at all.” On the other hand, Brooks is much more intellectual than he’s often given credit for.
For me the paradox of Brooks’s career is conveyed in a phrase that appears a couple of times in the book: “too Jewish.” The irony is that the more he leaned into his Jewishness, the more successful he got, starting with the “2000 Year Old Man” character, in which he channels Yiddish dialect in a series of wildly successful comedy albums with his friend Carl Reiner. How do you explain America’s embrace of these extremely ethnic tropes?
Brooks’s great motion pictures of the late 1960s and 1970s sort of track with America’s embrace of Jewishness. You have “The Graduate,” which came out at around the same time as “The Producers,” and which showed that someone like Dustin Hoffman can be a leading man. It doesn’t have to be a Robert Redford. You have Allan Sherman and all these popular Jewish comedians. You have “Fiddler on the Roof” becoming one of Broadway’s biggest hits. That gives Brooks license to kind of jump in with both feet. In the 1950s, writing on “The Show of Shows” for Sid Caesar, the Jewishness was there but in a very kind of hidden way. Whereas, it’s very hard to watch the 2000 Year Old Man and say, well, that’s not a Jewish product.
What he also avoided — and here I will contrast him with the novelist Philip Roth — were accusations that he was “bad for the Jews.” Philip Roth was told that his negative portrayals of Jewish characters were embarrassing the Jews in front of the gentiles, but for some reason, I don’t remember anyone complaining even though the Max Bialystock character in “The Producers” can be fairly described as a conniving Jew. What made Brooks’s ethnic comedy more palatable to other Jews?
“The Producers” had a lot of pushback, but for a lot of other reasons.
I guess people had enough to deal with when he staged a musical comedy about Hitler.
Exactly. But the other part is that his biggest films are not as explicitly Jewish as something like Roth’s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I actually think “Young Frankenstein” is one of the most Jewish movies that Mel Brooks ever made, but you’re not going to watch “Young Frankenstein” and say, wow, there are Jews all over the place here.
What about “Young Frankenstein,” a parody of classic horror movies, seems quintessentially Jewish?
The script, which is a lot of Gene Wilder and not just Mel Brooks, is really about someone saying, “You know, I don’t have this heritage — I’m trying to fit in with everybody else. My name is Dr. FRAHNK-en-shteen.” And then people say, “No, this is your heritage. You are Dr. Frankenstein.” [Wilder’s character realizes] “it is my heritage, and I’m embracing it. And I’m Frankenstein. And you may find that monstrous but that’s your business.” It’s about assimilation and embracing who you are.
And of course, Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein is unmistakably Jewish, and even when he plays a cowboy in “Blazing Saddles.”
Right. Again, by the mid-’70s, you know, you have Gene Wilder and Elliot Gould and Dustin Hoffman, all Jews, in leading roles. “Young Frankenstein” ends up being a movie about coming home and embracing identity, which is playing itself out a lot in American Jewish culture in the 1970s.
I guess I have to go back and watch it for the 14th time with a different point of view.
That’s the fun part of my job.
You talk about what’s happening at the same time as Brooks’s huge success, which is, although he’s a little younger, the emergence of Woody Allen. You describe Brooks and Woody Allen as the voice of American Jewish comedy, but in very different ways. What are the major differences?
Gene Wilder, who worked with both of them, says that working with Allen is like lighting these tiny little candles, and with Brooks, you’re making big atom bombs. The critical knock against Brooks was that he was much more interested in the joke than the story. And I think with the exception maybe of “Young Frankenstein” there’s a lot of truth to that. The jokes are phenomenal, so that’s fine. Allen pretty quickly moved towards a much more narrative kind of film, and so began to be seen as this incredibly intellectual figure. In real life, Allen always claimed that he wasn’t nearly as intellectual as everyone thought, while Brooks had many more kinds of intellectual ambitions than the movie career that he had. There is a counterfactual world in which “The 12 Chairs,” his 1970 movie based on a novel by two Russian Jewish novelists and which nobody talks about, makes a ton of money.
Instead, it bombs, and he makes “Blazing Saddles,” which works out very well for everybody.
Although he does create Brooksfilms and produces more narrative, serious-minded films like “The Elephant Man” and “84 Charing Cross Road.”
Right, and decides that if he puts his name on these as a director, they’re going to be rejected out of hand. There is a shelf of scholarship on Woody Allen, but if you look at who had influence on America in terms of box office and popularity, it’s Brooks winning in a walk.
You also mention Brooks and Steven Spielberg in the same sentence. Why do they belong together?
Partly because they had huge popular success in the mid-’70s. Brooks is a generation older, but they are hitting their cinematic success at the same time. And they are both movie fans.
Which comes out in their work — Brooks in his film parodies and Spielberg in the films that echo the films he loved as kid.
Until maybe his remake of “West Side Story,” Spielberg is not really a theater guy in the way that Brooks is, when success meant to make it on Broadway. When Brooks was winning all those Tonys in 2001 for the Broadway musical version of “The Producers,” it may have been almost more meaningful for his 5-year-old, or 7- or 8-year-old self than making his incredibly popular pictures.
You also write about Brooks being a small “c” conservative, a bit of a square. Which I think will surprise people who think about the fart jokes and the peepee jokes and all that stuff. And by square, I mean, kind of old showbizzy, even a little prudish sometimes.
I think that’s right. There’s a great moment that I quote at the end of the book where they are trying out the musical version of “The Producers,” and they want to put the word “f–k” in and Brooks is like, “I don’t know if we can do that on Broadway,” and Nathan Lane is like, “Have we met? You’re Mel Brooks!” He’s a 1950s guy.
Another place where this kind of conservatism comes in is when you compare him to other comedians of the 1950s and ’60s — the so-called “sick comics” like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl who were pushing the envelope in terms of subject matter and politics. He wasn’t part of that. He was part of Hollywood. He was trying to make it in network television.
There is an interview in that era when he complained that people who are writing for television are not “dangerous.” Meanwhile, he himself was writing for television. But I think it’s fair to say that “The Producers” was really something different. You didn’t have to be Jewish to be offended by “The Producers.” But as we were saying before, he is more of the loyal opposition, rather than sort of truly out there. He’s not making “Easy Rider.”
“The Producers” is part of Brooks’ lifelong gambit of mocking the Nazis, I think starting when he would sing anti-Hitler songs as a GI in Europe at the tail end of World War II. Later he would remake Jack Benny’s World War II-era anti-Nazi comedy, “To Be or Not to Be.” And then there is the quick “Hitler on Ice” gag in “History of the World, Part I.” Brooks always maintains that mocking Nazis is the ultimate revenge on them, while you note that Woody Allen in “Manhattan” makes almost the opposite argument: that the way to fight white supremacists is with bricks and baseball bats. Did you come down on one side or the other?
To add just a twinge of complication is the fact that Brooks actually fought Nazis, and also had a brother who was shot down in combat. So for me to sit in moral judgment on anybody who fought in World War II is not a place that I want to be. What’s interesting is that Brooks makes a lot of these statements over the course of a career in which Nazism is done, in the past, defeated. Tragically, the events of the last number of years made white supremacy and neo-Nazism a live question again. When “The Producers” was staged as a musical in the early 21st century, people could say, “Okay, Nazism’s time has passed.” It’s not clear to me that we would restage “The Producers” now as a musical on Broadway, when just last week you had actual neo-Nazis handing out their literature outside a Broadway show. It would certainly be a lot more laden than it was in 2001.
Time also caught up with Brooks in his depiction of LGBT characters. Gay characters are the punchlines in “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles” in ways that have not aged well. But you also note how both movies are about two men who love each other, to the exclusion of women.
There’s an emotive component to him about these male relationships. Bialystok and Bloom [the protagonists in “The Producers”] is a kind of love story. One of the interesting things is that as it became comparatively more comfortable for gay men to live their truth in society and in Hollywood, there was an evolution. In that remake of “To Be or Not to Be,” there is a much more sympathetic gay character who’s not stereotypical.
What other aspects of Brooks’s Jewishness have we not touched upon? For instance, he’s not particularly interested in Judaism as a religion, and ritual and theology rarely come up in his films, even to be mocked.
It’s not something that he’s particularly interested in. To him, being Jewish is a voice and a language. From the beginning of his career the voice is there. What he’s saying in these accents is that this is Jewish history working through me. It is, admittedly, a very narrow slice of Jewish history.
The first- and second-generation children of Jewish immigrants growing up in Brooklyn neighborhoods that were overwhelmingly Jewish.
It was a Jewishness that was aspirational. It was intellectual. It was a musical Jewishness. It was not in the way we use this phrase now, but it was a cultural Jewishness. It was not a synagogue Jewishness or a theological Jewishness. But of course he is Jewish, deeply Jewish. He couldn’t be anything else. And so he didn’t, and thank God for that.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.
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