Making Sense of Mel Brooks and His Very Jewish Antics

December 17, 2019 | Jesse Tisch
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Reviewing Patrick McGilligan’s recent biography of Mel Brooks, the man who perhaps did more than anyone to bring a distinctively Jewish edge to the mainstream of American comedy, Jesse Tisch writes:

With [another Jewish comedian], Carl Reiner, whom he had met when they both worked on Your Show of Shows, [Brooks] created the Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man, a kvetchy, old Jew based on Brooks’s real-life uncle. In 1968, he filmed The Producers, conscripting Zero Mostel for the [part of the producer and fraudster] Max Bialystock. At first, Mostel was appalled: how could he, a Jewish actor, play a scheming, vulturous Jew—an anti-Semitic stereotype? Eventually, though, he yielded to Brooks’s importunate charm. “Mel has great craziness,” he later said, “which is the greatest praise I can have for anybody.”

An enemy of solemnness, of piety and cant, of repression and restraint, he was built for overflow. Just as surely, Brooks has a counterphobic streak, veering toward danger, accident, and death. Consider the Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man, whose antic chatter about lion attacks and fried food (equally lethal, he implies) seems like an amulet against anxiety. Long before Jerry Seinfeld, it brought a distinctively Jewish voice to mainstream America. At first, Brooks worried it was too Jewish—how would it play in Peoria? Pretty well, actually: the album sold a million copies. To Gentile ears, it didn’t sound Jewish or ethnic. It merely sounded funny.

By that point, he had become “Mel Brooks,” having abandoned Melvin Kaminsky [his birth name] somewhere along the Palisades Parkway en route to the Catskills. This act of self-creation was also, of course, an act of distancing, a farewell to Jewish Brooklyn. It was, per McGilligan, a brief, ambivalent farewell; Brooks, in classic Jewish fashion, gradually returned home to his ethnic roots. After the 1950s, Brooks never assimilated or concealed his Jewishness. He was proudly, emphatically Jewish. America assimilated him.

Playing the loud, disruptive Jew seemed a compulsion for Brooks, an act of defiance. “I am a Jew. What about it?” Brooks once said on 60 Minutes. “What’s so wrong? What’s the matter with being a Jew? I think there’s a lot of that way deep down beneath all the quick Jewish jokes I do.”

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