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Philip Roth and Mel Brooks Talk Art and Religion

A Television Critics Association panel hosts two titans

Adam Chandler
January 15, 2013
Philip Roth(Time Life/ Getty)
Philip Roth(Time Life/ Getty)

The Television Critics Association, which apparently exists, hosted a panel over the weekend featuring Philip Roth and Mel Brooks on their careers and lives. The discussion came in advance of two PBS documentaries, one on each man, which will be aired later this spring. In the 90-minute discussion, for which Roth was beamed in via satellite from New York (and Brooks showed up a little late), the two men talked specifically about the religious designations frequently ascribed to their work.

The two men spoke separately, but both addressed the issue of whether or not they considered themselves “Jewish” writers. Both said no. “I don’t write in Jewish, I write in American,” Roth said. He said he considers himself a “regionalist” when it comes to his work. “Bellow and Faulkner were regionalists, they write about the place they come from. So did Joyce,” said Roth. “I write about the locale I come from, and that particular locale was full of Jews, including me and my family.”

Brooks started out with a Jewish joke of sorts: “I’m not such a comedy giant, I’m 5-foot-6″, he said. “There are guys who aren’t as funny, but they’re taller.” He said growing up he once heard his mother talking to his friend about a woman leaving her husband. “She said: ‘How could she leave him? He was so tall,’ ” Brooks recounted. “This is the way Jews think.”

But on a more serious note, he agreed with Roth. “I think I missed the Jew boat by one generation,” he said. “When I worked in the Borscht Belt in the mountains, I spoke in English. A generation before me, they spoke in Yiddish,” he said. “I think it’s New York comedy, it is urban, it is sophisticated, it is street corner comedy.”

Roth also discussed his new love of retirement.

“Every morning I get up, go to the kitchen, get a large glass of orange juice and then go back to bed for half an hour,” he said. “After that, I go back to bed for half an hour. I’m doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier.”

Sounds like fun. But, you know, let’s hope the routine gets old. For more on Roth’s retirement, check out David Hadar’s excellent piece from November.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.