Ask Americans—well, Jews, well, most Jews, well, some Jews—over the age of 60 who is the funniest man on Earth? The answer is “Mel Brooks.” Brooks is the last great Hollywood Jew and when he goes—kinahora not for another 25 years—something will die with him. He might be the last great American Jew, period, some cross between a Kishinev shochet and a Williamsburg ganif, with that voice so full of wryness that the mere anticipation of what it might next utter brings a smile to our lips and comfort to our hearts.
It started in Europe, where the American-born Brooks followed his brothers into the army and ended up serving in the final advance on Germany in 1945. Mel says it was the war that really connected him to a deeper sense of his Jewish identity. In Patrick McGilligan’s exhaustive biography, Funny Man, he says, “I knew what Hitler was doing to Jews, so I really did feel this was a proper and just war.” He even tells a story of being called a “dirty Jew” by a fellow GI during training and reflexively lunging at him, proud of being “a tough Jew from Brooklyn.” By the end of his tour, he was entertaining troops with what would become his signature impression: Adolf Hitler with a comb for a tiny mustache and manic German gibberish.
Upon returning to New York, and every day hence, he has carried the torch of Jewish indignation, and pride. Publicly. This torch has created gifts for the millions, Jew and gentile, but especially a subset of us Jews for whom the jokes are not only funny but deeply personal and somehow cleansing—an unabashed embrace of being one of us.
Though he wrote for Sid Caesar throughout the 1950s and beyond, Mel’s big break came with the release of the “2000 Year Old Man” in 1960, recorded with his friend Carl Reiner. In it, Reiner plays the straight man to Brooks’ ancient storyteller, the twist being that the ancient man speaks like a Lower East Side loxmonger circa 1925. Part of what makes the conceit hilarious is that the 2000 Year Old Man’s responses to Reiner’s questions don’t often reflect the answer an ancient Israelite might give, but rather the answer that your great-uncle Sauly would. On Ed Sullivan in 1961, he waxes rhapsodic about the greatness of wax paper, “mankind’s greatest development.” When asked about the discovery of space he says, “That was good. That was nice. Finding space was cute.”
Interviewed by McGilligan, Carl Reiner is asked why it took them so long to actually perform the sketch publicly. “Would WASP America get him? ... Would Christians find the old Jew funny? Do ‘our people’ still consider the Yiddish accent to be non grata?” Whatever the Jews thought about the accent, the Christians ate it up. Including the Queen Mum apparently. As Reiner recalled, “If the biggest shiksa in the world loves it, we’re home free.”
Brooks’ films, the body of work which has made him an American icon, are hilarious, sometimes moving, always gratuitous and therefore often wildly uneven attempts to get every last bissel of his id onto the screen. And so much of that id speaks in a secret dying language. Sometimes literally Yiddish, but more than that, the sensibility of the “Ostjuden”—as the haughty Austrian Jews sometimes referred to their Eastern brethren.
In Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ Native American chief speaks fluent Yiddish, out of nowhere, with no translation for the audience. Mel just lays it on you, you don’t like it, vell, gay kaken ofn yam. By minute 14 of History of the World, Part I, a Black, Jewish, Roman slave is performing “Hava Nagila” for an enthusiastic crowd, and later, the sail of the ship the good guys escape on to the Holy Land is emblazoned with “El Al.”
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is not Brooks’ best work, but the best moments are Jewish. To wit, when the hero of the story barges into a banquet and drops a dead boar on the table of the usurper Prince John (played by Richard Lewis) he looks away and mutters, “treyf.” The scene continues as if he hadn’t said anything, but I was smacking my desk with glee.
Later, out of nowhere, Mel, as a traveling rabbi, pulls up to Robin and his merry men in full Hasidic regalia. When Robin asks who he is, he responds in a pitch perfect accent, “I am Rabbi Tuchman, purveyor of sacramental wine, and mohel extraordinaire.” The merry men greet him “Hello, Rabbi” and he tips his cap with a jaunty, “Hello boyis.” Pronounced boy-iss; which is what my father would sometimes call us, aping the old survivors he grew up around on Chicago’s West Side, and which is hilarious in this context. Rabbi Tuchman goes on to explain what a mohel does with a mini-guillotine and a carrot and decides to help the boyis get “verschnickered” on holy wine.
And there’s the screwy, moronic, sublime Spaceballs. I must have been 8 or 9 years old when I first saw it. “Dark Helmet” and “Major Asshole” speak for themselves but even at that age, I felt some ownership over “funny, she doesn’t look Druish” and all the bits with “Yogurt,” the Borscht Belt Yoda. When the heroes enter Yogurt’s cave, John Candy’s “Barf” says to the C3PO proxy, “It looks like the Temple of Doom!” Her reply, “Well, it sure ain’t Temple Beth Israel.”
The beauty of all these asides is that they’re completely unnecessary. They do absolutely nothing to further the story of these films. That’s the nature of a gift, nu?
Of course, there are more pointed choices. In his 92-minute film on the entire History of the World (Part I), Mel gives 8 minutes and 34 seconds to a showstopper about the Inquisition. A million other Jewish comedians would have thought through the history of the world, but a musical number detailing how the Jews of Spain were tortured would never have crossed their minds. But, Mel. It’s a brilliant song and dance, and shockingly specific. “I’m sitting, picking chickens and I’m looking through the pickings and suddenly these goys break down my walls! I didn’t even know them and they grabbed me by the scrotum and they started playing ping pong with my balls. Oy, the agony! Ooh, the shame! To make my privates public for a game!” I wonder how many people learned about the Inquisition, and even, if they were very curious, Sephardic Jewry, from this stinging farce?
His furious need to Judaize every piece of art is most acutely displayed in his remake of To Be or Not to Be, originally directed by Ernest Lubitsch and released on March 6, 1942, not two months after the Wannsee Conference cemented the “Final Solution” for the remaining Jews of Europe. I watched both versions and Lubitsch’s is a daring, masterful satire, with more wit than humor, centered on a married Polish acting duo of some fame living in Warsaw during occupation. They become embroiled in the plots of the Polish and British underground and hijinks ensue, using the convention of a theatrical troupe to mock the absurd nature of the Third Reich.
In the original, there is barely a reference to Jews, besides a member of the troupe named Greenberg who performs Shylock at a crucial moment toward the end, and even then, the term Jew has been stripped from the famous speech in favor of a universal “have we not eyes?” et al. Such was the state of the world in 1942, or maybe the specifically Jewish anxiety of mainstream Hollywood in 1942.
In Mel’s version, the “Jew” was put back in, and he wanted it emphasized. The adaptation was made in the house style, substituting a vaudevillian dancing Hitler for the more serious drama of the theater company in the original. One new line from this new version which summarizes his approach, “It’s good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again.”
There was also the addition of an openly gay character and a family of Jewish refugees who hide out in the theater basement. Biographer McGilligan sees the addition of the gay character, Sasha, as recompense for Brooks’ track record of unfortunate gay jokes throughout his career. At one point Sasha gives a resigned speech to Anne Bancroft’s character about having to wear the pink triangle, and later is almost “deported” by the SS before Brooks’ character manages to save him. It’s heavy-handed moralizing but nothing Mel does is ever subtle.
The addition of the specifically Jewish family of refugees is also a blunt force instrument. To Be or Not to Be isn’t going to go down as one of the great cinematic confrontations with the Shoah. But they are there. They wear the yellow star. They are terrified. And Brooks finds a way to save them through a clown car routine.
At the seminal moment of tension as the clowns run down the aisle to the theater exit through a packed house of Nazis, one old woman breaks down and freezes. Sheer terror of the Nazis stops her in her tracks, she is weeping and shaking. It seems that their cover is about to be blown until another “clown” pulls out a yellow star, slaps it on her, and shouts in a mocking voice, “Juuuuden!” which of course brings the house down. The appeal to the Nazis’ Jew hatred works, they assume it’s meant to be part of the clown act, and the “Juuuuden” escape. The moment works, it’s deeply ugly and deeply true; and very concisely, Mel makes his update yet another fuck you to Germany, or to anyone who by 1983 had started to forget, or to generalize the suffering.
Something which didn’t make it into the film but which you can look up on YouTube is the “Hitler Rap” music video Mel recorded—perhaps as an ancillary marketing tool. The underlying jam evokes Carl Carlton’s masterpiece “She’s a Bad Mama Jama (She’s Built, She’s Stacked)” crossed with early hip-hop rhythms and a slightly camp late disco style. It looks like they shot on the set of Tron. A representative lyric: “Like Humpty Dumpty over that wall, all the little countries they began to fall. Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, the troops were rockin’ and the tanks were rollin’.” It’s insane. But it leaves me feeling the same way the inclusion of the Spanish Inquisition number does in History of the World … grateful for Brooks’ massive Jewish balls.
And the relentlessness doesn’t just show up in his work. You can find Mel inserting angry Jewish invective in interviews since at least 1975, and probably before. That year he gave a massive, hilarious interview to Playboy. He uses the word Jew, or Jewish, 75 times in his answers. At one point he riffs on what he knew growing up about the Jews:
When I was a kid, I was very confused by what the Jew was in the outer world. I knew what he was in Williamsburg. He was a runner and a rat and scared as hell. But Jews in the outside world I heard different, conflicting things about. First of all, I heard that they were the Communists, overthrowing all the governments in the world. When I was in high school, I thought a Jew’s job in life was to throw over every government. The other thing I heard was that the Jews were capitalists and had all the gold and the banks and that the Jews’ job was to kill all the socialists and the radicals. So I never really figured out what the Jewish mission was. Should I kill the capitalists and take their money? No, I’d be killing Jews. Should I stamp out the radicals so that we could keep our money? No, I’d be killing Jews. Very confusing. BUT (leaps to his feet) ENOUGH OF JEWS! I WILL SPEAK NO MORE OF JEWS! IN FACT, I WILL SPEAK NO MORE OF ANYTHING!
That same month, on Carson, he is telling Johnny about the disastrous first screening of Blazing Saddles for the studio execs who greenlighted it, trying to describe how they watch films. “These are clinicians, professional people, they’re not laughing like Jews, for happiness, or Germans, for killing …” Can you imagine anyone doing anything equivalent on any late show now?
Later, Carson brings on his second guest, Susan Blakely, an actress. Mel is constantly interjecting in their interview, and interrupts again when Blakely reveals she was an army brat “born in Germany.” Mel instantly mutters “wie gehts dir heute nacht?” Blakely says, “You don’t like Germans do you?” “I hate ‘em.” She laughs. Mel says, “Oh no it’s OK, I only hate Nazis and only in black-and-white old ’30s movies, I mean a kid is a kid, you can’t yell at a kid.” Carson asks her if Mel was actually speaking German, they establish that he was. Mel offers up, “I also know ‘Heil Hitler.’” Carson laughs, but says, “No.”
The examples go on and on. His 2001 Tony Award acceptance speech for The Producers thanks “Hitler” and “a phalanx, an avalanche of Jews who have come with their talent, their money, but most of all their spirit and their love for the theater.” He wants the audience to know who made this record-breaking musical—as if they couldn’t tell. Even in victory he’s waving the flag.
When I see Mel Brooks, at age 94, still taking out that stupid comb and heiling his head off, I feel seen and loved. You see, I grew up a very particular kind of way. Lots of ghosts.
It wasn’t unusual at any given moment to hear my father singing “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles” quietly to himself, or loudly, to no one in particular. My father would often respond to simple requests with an impassioned and sarcastic, “Yes meine Fuehrer!” with the two fingers of his left hand beneath his nose, almost poking into his nostrils and his right hand held shoulder high, but weak at the wrist. Bent back just enough to make the tableau comical. “Oh vat das de Fuehrer want now?” Or he would respond to our insolence with, “How dare you talk to the Fuehrer that way?!” Anyone, or anything, could be the Fuehrer in any moment, sometimes even inanimate objects.
Rather than saying, “it’s time to go now” when we were meant to be somewhere, my father would declaim in his exaggerated impression of an SS officer, “Raus Juden! Juden, Raus!” And of course, I grew up singing a little ditty that goes, “Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutsches Band?” knowing when to come in with the “mit a bang, mit a boom, mit a bing bang bing bang boom!” I didn’t know it was from The Producers until later.
Whether or not Nazi cosplay is a normal coping mechanism for other children and grandchildren of Auschwitz I do not know. I don’t know that many. After all, ash doesn’t produce very many descendants. But in our relentless, neurotic house, this constant mockery of the Nazis was my fathers’, and later, my and my brothers’ way of coping with the vast, furious shadows inside. It also gave us a way to be close to our dad, who was clearly in pain.
In 2013, Mel told Marc Maron that Jewish humor is born of “fear.” “Fear is always lurking and it creates a pizazz, an energy, fight or flight is right there for every Jew.” In his Playboy interview, he tries to explain how his own fear of death powers everything he does:
My liveliness is based on an incredible fear of death. In order to keep death at bay, I do a lot of “Yah! Yah! Yah!” And death says, “All right. He’s too noisy and busy. I’ll wait for someone who’s sitting quietly, half asleep. I’ll nail him. Why should I bother with this guy? I’ll have a lot of trouble getting him out the door.” There’s a little door they gotta get you through. “This will be a fight,” death says. “I ain’t got time.” Most people are afraid of death, but I really hate it! My humor is a scream and a protest against goodbye.
Across nine decades, Mel Brooks has been screaming and protesting against death and making us fall on the floor in hysterics. And one result of his protest, not accidentally, was the elevation of Jewish dignity in the wake of suffering. Like Mel, a great many and various Jews spent the 20th century protesting against goodbye. Unlike the Hollywood of the 1940s, and a great many today, Mel never forgot the protesters. I can’t really think of anything more generous for them, for us, for my father and me, than Mel and his comb mustache, snarling at history with a ludicrous German accent.
Happy Birthday, Mel.
Clayton Fox is a former Tablet journalism fellow and has also written for Los Angeles Magazine, Real Clear Investigations, and the Brownstone Institute. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter.