I still remember the magnificent day of my childhood when my parents finally explained to me where Jewish American comedy came from: It was either from Mel Brooks or Woody Allen. Maybe this not-entirely-true but not-entirely-false equivalent was due to their own narrow-ish frame of reference, or maybe just because our local video store in Omaha didn’t have any Marx Brothers movies. But these two were held up to me as pretty much it. The twin tent poles of laughter. Woody, my parents explained, was the cerebral yin to Brooks’ gauche, extroverted yang—or, to put in terms they both might appreciate, the Kultur-mad yekke superego (Jung, Jung, Jung) to Brooks’ coarser, Borscht-Belt id (boobies, boobies, boobies). Obviously, you could enjoy both and accord them each their proper place in the pantheon of influence, but like Quentin Tarantino wrote, you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person. Sooner or later you have to come down on the side of one or the other.
As a child, I vastly preferred Brooks—and knew, although it was never said aloud, that I had somehow made the wrong choice. I didn’t care. I loved—and still loved—Woody Allen, but Mel Brooks, it seemed, was directly speaking to me. As a 6 year old, I didn’t yet know who Freud was (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality not entering the Nebraska public-school curriculum until the second grade), but I knew why it was funny that the guy who played Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors was dressed up as Darth Vader. I knew why it was funny that those Indians talked like my Bubbe in the Home after she forgot how to speak English, and that an unseen horse neighed every time someone mentioned Frau Blucher. And at an age when I was first discovering the horrors of the Holocaust through the seemingly endless supply of books detailing them in the JCC children’s library, I found it comforting (and hilarious) that someone—a grown-up (of sorts)—could make a movie that turned Nazis into grinning, tap-dancing chorus boys instead of the nightmarish, child-killing phantoms that haunted my waking dreams in a movie that also starred that man I loved who played Willy Wonka.
Which is why I was somewhat mystified yesterday, when the American Film Institute announced that Brooks would receive their prestigious lifetime achievement award. At the announcement, Sir Howard Stringer, the chairman of the AFI board—since when is a British Knight of the Realm in charge of deciding what’s what in American film?—sounded just the teeniest bit defensive about the choice, saying Brooks “is a master of an art form that rarely gets the respect it deserves, and it is the AFI’s honor to shine a bright light on laughter.”
That Brooks’ concepts and sensibility are obvious enough for a child to get is the main charge that has always been leveled at him by his critics; after all, if it’s obvious, it must not be good. But there’s always been more than meets the eye operating under the surface with Brooks’ films. His nose for talent and ability to assemble a cohesive—and hysterical—ensemble of actors (Cloris Leachman! Harvey Korman!) rivals Allen’s any day and paved the way for the similar comedic stables of fellow auteurs like Judd Apatow and Albert Brooks (no relations, obviously, since this Brooks was born Albert Einstein. This has nothing to do with anything, it just makes me laugh). Brooks is a master of parody whose best films—Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein—rank easily shot-for-shot with some of the greatest films of the genres they satirize. “To be a master of parody is to be a master of everything.” (I said that, and you can quote me.)
But where Brooks’ films were—and remain—truly revolutionary is in their treatment of women, and in particular Jewish women. Unlike the Allens and Apatows—past, present, and undoubtedly future—Brooks never prostrates himself at the altar of the shikse. The visions of Germanic blondness that are Ulla in The Producers or Inge in Young Frankenstein are themselves parody figures, a way of commenting—and sharply satirizing—the lunacy of his peers’ worshipful reverence/thinly veiled resentment of the Aryan female. There are plenty of low-cut dresses and scantily clad bimbettes in Brooks’ films, but the objectification is the joke, and the women are in on it. For Brooks, women are stars, not subjects. The prototypical Woody Allen heroine is the prototypical Mia Farrow role: a thin, intellectually insecure neurotic who meekly submits to her lovers’ demands she attend analysis three times a week in deference to his big Jewish brain, even though it’s clear—whether he knows it or not—that her only real problem is that she is dating him.
The ideal woman in a Mel Brooks film is Madeline Kahn.
It’s a message so simple a child could get it, and is ever so grateful she did. Mazel tov, Mel. And thank you.
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