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Mel Brooks as Jewish Comedian

Mel Brooks’s membership in the elite club of Jewish comedians is essentially impossible to dispute. The question is whether or not his comedy is atypical. Satirizing Jewish history and klutzy old Jewish men is normal for Jewish comedy. However, “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party,” is something that you would not expect to hear in typical Jewish comedy (The Producers). Defined broadly, there are two forms which Mel Brooks’s Jewish humor takes. The first form is to discuss specifically Jewish topics in a funny way.

This is evident in The Producers and in the Inquisition scene from History of he World, Part I. The other form is to use certain aspects of Judaism for comedic value. This form, is typically used by Brooks’ as a means for a quick laugh as opposed to a major source of plot definition, and is most apparent in such scenes as that with the Yiddish-speaking Indian in Blazing Saddles. While exploring Brooks’s types of Jewish humor, this paper will limit its scope. Only four of Brooks’s films will be discussed in this paper-The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World, Part I, and To Be or Not To Be.

These films were chosen because the quantity of Jewish content in all of them is considerably ore than in his other films such as Young Frankenstein or Silent Movie. The four films chosen do an excellent job of portraying the complete range of the types of Jewish-related humor, which Brooks uses. To understand Mel Brooks identity as a specifically Jewish comedian it is important to understand how Jewish he actually was. Melvin Kaminsky was born as the youngest of four brothers in a crowded New York City apartment to Kitty and Max Kaminsky.

He grew up in a very Jewish area were on “Saturdays, the shops were closed, the pushcarts parked, and Yiddish replaced with Hebrew in over seventy orthodox ynagogues. ” However, Brooks himself spent his Saturdays enjoying matinees at the Marcy Theater. He married a non-Jewish woman and allowed his son, Max, to be baptized only as long as he was allowed to have a bar-mitzvah. When asked by the media if he wanted his wife to convert he replied “She don’t have to convert. She a star! ” (Yacowar 10-14).

Before discussing the films, it is crucial to identify a recurring theme in Brooks’s work-Germans and, more specifically, Nazis. He had a brief military career in World War II with very little combat experience, and he actually ended up being the entertainment oordinator for the army. Yacowar analyzes Brooks’ later feelings towards Germans as “subconscious frustration” because of his inability to actually fight the Nazis (Yacowar 17). In an interview he was asked about his obsession with Germans, and he replied: Me not like Germans? Why should I not like Germans?

Just because they’re arrogant and have fat necks and do anything they’re told as long as it is cruel, and killed millions of Jews in concentration camps and made soap out of their bodies and lamp shades out of their skins? Is that any reason to hate their f-king guts? (Yacowar 32) Brooks as mocked Germans in various works such as in Your Show of Shows and on the Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks at the Cannes film festival audio recording. Regardless, of the origin of his interest with Nazis, if one looks at enough of his work, one cannot help but notice that this theme is an obsession for Brooks (Yacowar 34-35, 48).

Mel Brooks made his first feature film, The Producers, in 1967. It is about a Jewish Broadway producer (Max Bialystock) who convinces his Jewish accountant (Leo Bloom) to finance a guaranteed to fail play with the idea that they would take the profits and run to South America. The guaranteed to fail play, “Springtime for Hitler” turned out to be a huge success. The two main characters both represent completely different Jewish stereotypes and the third area of Jewish interest in the film is the role of Germans both in the play and the ex-Nazi author, Frank Liebkind (Altman 39).

Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) is obviously not a first generation American because of his name and his accent. Although he never does anything specifically Jewish, he is still Jewish so it is relevant to look at his relationship to Jewish stereotypes. In his book, Telushkin discusses the tradition of having big and lavish bar mitzvahs, he say’s “that the Jewish tradition has few curbs to halt such excesses”(74). It is interesting to see how Bialystock chooses to live in almost poverty.

Although he is so poor that he say’s “Look at me now-I’m wearing a cardboard belt,” he also wears a reasonably nice jacket, has a leather coach, and keeps every old lady’s picture in a decent frame. Later in the film, when he gets a lot of money, he spends it on a chauffeured car, a sexy secretary, lavish offices and new clothes, rather then spending it on new ffice equipment or investing it for future financial security (Telushkin 83). Leo Bloom, the accountant (played by Gene Wilder), represents the opposite stereotype from Bialystock.

He represents the meek Jew, the Jew-as-doormat. In the beginning of the movie, he walks in on Max trying to get some money from an investor (he catches them lying on top of each other) and is so surprised and in shock that he has to be told to say “oops” (The Producers). This fits right into the stereotype of Jews as “remorseful and ashamed of their sexual desires” (The Poducers). Bialystock fulfills the other stereotype of Jewish men who have been portrayed as “sex-hungry animals” in many jokes. Blooms choice of career is also known as a Jewish career.

In the end, he, like Bialystock, ends up fulfilling one of the most basic stereotypes of Jews-he gives in to his greed (Telushkin 93). There are also many small Jewish references in the film. There is an ignorant, and very gay, director named Roger DeBris, who directs “Springtime for Hitler” and has a familiar Yiddish term in his name (Telushkin 86-87). Also, in the beginning of the movie Bialystock has a funny dialogue with his landlord and it is the only part of the ovie in which religion is involved. Bialystock: Murderer, thief, how can you take the last penny out of a poor man’s pocket?

Landlord: I have to, I’m a landlord. Bialystock: Oh lord, hear my plea: Destroy him, he maketh a blight on the land. Landlord: Don’t listen to him-he’s crazy (The Producers). When one hears the conversation, with the Landlord speaking in a Jewish accent and Bialystock calling out at the heavens, sounding like an abused Jewish mother, it is a lot funnier and the Jewish element is a lot clearer as well. Brooks’ message in this movie has been largely debated. Lester D. Freidman thinks, Bialystock and Bloom fail to find their flop because they underestimate their audience’s deadened sensibilities” (173).

Brooks is trying to point out that the shock and horror that everyone should view the holocaust in, is mainly a Jewish mindset. In the movie, he made two perfect Jews, and their perfection caused them two have a mindset that was different from the rest of the American public. Therefore, the movie is about more than a pair of corrupt showmen. It is about the segregation of Jews. Bailystock and Bloom are not yet Americans, they still carry a separate identity. In 1974, Brooks came out with Blazing Saddles which is much less Jewish than The Producers.

The movie is about a town with a corrupt Attorney General who wants take over the town. The townspeople get the governor to send a new sheriff to restore order. He sends Sheriff Bart who is a black man with Gucci saddlebags on his horse. The townspeople end up working with the new Sheriff to defeat Hedley Lamarr (the attorney general) and his band of hooligans. Jewish topics are in the film as occasional funny parts and not as major parts of the plot. The funniest and most recognizable part of the movie where Judaism is involved is Sheriff Bart’s ecollection of how his family got to the west.

According to the Sheriff, strange Indians attacked their wagon. Brooks, who plays the Indian chief, allows Bart and his family to go, he tells his tribe, “Zeit nishe meshugge. Loz em gaienAbee gezint. Which basically means, “take off. ” Some feel this is Brooks trying to get some cheap laughs by using Yiddish, but Friedman points out that it is “comically appropriate that the West’s most conspicuous outsider, the Indian, should speak in the tongue of history’s traditional outsider, the Jew” (77). Other than this reference, Blazing Saddles use of

Judaism is really little more than an occasional punch line. When Hedley Lamarr is looking for a way to get the citizens of Rock Ridge to leave, his associate recommends killing the first-born male child in every family, to which Lamarr replies-“too Jewish” (Blazing Saddles). When Mongo (a gigantic ruffian) comes into the saloon, someone in the background says “Gottenew” (Oh God! ), another Yiddish term (Yacowar 110). Not surprisingly, Mel Brooks finds a way to squeeze Germans into a movie set in the late 19th Century’s Wild West. In the finale of the movie, Lamarr recruits an army of lowlifes.

In the rmy there is a small group of German soldiers who spend much of the fistfight sitting with a Ms. Lily von Shtupp (a not so talented lounge singer) singing the same war song heard in The Producers (Blazing Saddles). Finally, the Indian on many movie promotional materials (including the video cover) has the Hebrew for “kosher for Passover” inscribed in his headband. Strangely enough, these relatively small Jewish references got the attention of the Jewish Film Advisory Committee, whose director, Allen Rivkin, spoke to a writer about the offensiveness of the Jewish material.

The writer’s response was, “Dad, get ith it. This is another century”(Doneson 128) Blazing Saddles is a movie of the second type identified. It does not deal with specifically Jewish topics. It does, however, use Jewish topics as a way of forwarding the plot and the comedy. Whether the critics were right that Brooks was just using Yiddish because he found it funny, or if he was using it because he wanted to make a point about racism and exclusion, what is most important is that he actually used Yiddish, instead of something more expected (Yacowar 110). 981’s History of the World, Part I, falls somewhere between The Producers and Blazing Saddles n its level of Jewish content (Freidman 236). The movie, is basically, a quick tour through history going from the discovery of fire to the French Revolution. Within the movie, there are two skits that are specifically of Jewish interest (Moses on Mount Sinai and the Spanish Inquisition. )

In the “Old Testament,” God identifies himself as the Lord, and asks Moses if he can hear Him. Mel Brooks, in a robe and white beard say’s “Yes. I hear you. I hear you. A deaf man could hear you. When Moses tells the people of the new laws, he says, “The Lord, the Lord Jehovah has given onto these 15 crash] 10, 10 Commandments for all to obey. ” Although Moses obviously had to be Jewish, one wonders why he had to be so klutzy a comic. In Rome, Gregory Hines, playing Josephus, a slave who is not sold in the auction, attempts to get out of being sent to the Coliseum where he would be lion food. His excuse is that “the lions only eat Christians, Christians, and I am a Jew-Jewish person. ” To prove this, he starts singing “Havah Negilah” and gets the entire crowd to join him.

He even tells the slave trader to call Sammus Davis Jr. (after calling the temple and the rabbi). Eventually, the trader looks down his pants, to prove he is not Jewish (History of the World, Part I). Empress Nympho, Caesar’s wife, is a strange cross between a J. A. P. and a sex maniac. She has a classic Jewish mother accent and uses Yiddish occasionally-“We’ll shlep him along,” for example. Towards the end of the movie, Brooks calls a courtier of Louis XVI a “petite putz” (History of the World, Part I). This is obviously a strange place to hear Yiddish, unless the intent is comic effect.

Finally, though, the “most outrageous scene, and the one that some Jews have found quite bjectionable” is the one about the Spanish Inquisition. It should be noted that Brooks’s portrayal of the Inquisition as being directed against Jews is historically inaccurate. It was really directed against heretical Christians. Because of this inaccuracy, it is safe to assume that Brooks wanted to put this scene in as a Jewish note into his film, as he did with the other films discussed. The Inquisition scene is filmed in a medieval dungeon.

It starts by introducing the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada (Mel Brooks) with “Torquemada-do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada-do not beg him for orgiveness. Let’s face it, you can’t Torquemada [talk him outta] anything,” then the music starts. One of the lines in the song is “A fact you’re ignoring, it’s better to lose your skullcap with your skull,” which is emphasized by two old Jewish men in stocks singing “oy oy gevalt. ” After a few descriptions of the actual torture which individual Jews suffered, he points out that “nothing is working, send in the nuns. The nuns perform a synchronized swimming routine in which Jews are sent down a chute into a pool to be dragged under by nuns. At the end of the scene, seven nuns are tanding on a menorah with sparklers on their heads, while the chorus, led by Torquemada, sings, “Come on you Moslems and you Jews. We’ve got big news for all of youse. You’d better change your points of views today. Cause the Inquisition’s here, and it’s here to stay. ” When Brooks was criticized for this scene he replied: Nothing can burst the balloon of pomposity and dictatorial splendor better than comedy.

In a sense, my comedy is serious, and I need a serious background to play against. Poking fun at the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, is a wonderful counterpart to the horrors he committed Friedman 236). This would make History of the World, Part I comparable to The Producers in its satire of Hitler, and makes Blazing Saddles also comparable through its satirical treatment of racism. If one still thought that Brooks made History of the World, Part I with only good intentions, one should also consider the treatment of Jews and Germans in the ending of the film.

The promo for History of the World, Part II includes scenes such as “Hitler on Ice,” and “Jews in Space,” in which Jews are in a space craft singing ” We’re Jews out in space. We’re zooming along protecting the Hebrew race. When Goyim attacks us, we’ll give em a slap. We’ll smack em right back in the face. ” It definitely seems that History of the World, Part I is a combination, (just as the others movies discussed are) of exploitation for easy laughs and of exposing the evils of the tyrants who have tormented the Jews throughout history.

In To Be or Not To Be, Mel Brooks plays Fredrick Bronski, the head actor in a Polish stage revue, around the time of the Nazi annexation of Poland. His wife, Anna Bronski (Anna Bancroft) falls in love with an Air Force lieutenant working in the Polish platoon of the RAF. The main focus of the ovie is how they make fun of, get around, outwit, and ultimately escape the Nazis. This movie is actually a remake of an older film, but it still has a distinctively Mel Brooks feel. The main target of Brooks’s satire is the head of the Gestapo, Colonel Erhardt (Charles Durning) who is a babbling fool.

For example, when on the phone, he say’s “What? Why? Where When? When in doubt, arrest them, arrest them, arrest them! Then shoot them and interrogate them. [pause] Oh you are right, just shoot them. ” Soon after this, he is led to believe that the shoot first policy led to the deaths of two useful figures and fter asking what idiot formed the policy, he got mad at Shultz, his assistant, for reminding him that he made the policy. Later on, he has this exchange with Shultz: Erhardt: What idiot gave the order to close the Bronski’s theater? Schultz: You did, sir. Erhardt: Open it up immediately.

And once and for all stop blaming everything that goes wrong on me (To Be or Not To Be). After being warned to stop making jokes about Hitler, Erhardt promises, “No. Never, never, never again, [emphasis added]” strange words to hear from a nazi. Although this movie is not about Jews, there are a few Jewish characters and ncounters. Bronski hides a Jewish family in his theater’s cellar and during the course of the movie, they’re number increases. At one point, the intelligence agent goes to the theater to find his lover, Bronski’s wife. The Jewish women hiding there tells him “You know that big house on Posen Street?

Well don’t go there, it’s Gestapo headquarters,” before actually telling where she was staying (To Be or Not To Be). At the end of the movie, they dress up all the Jews hiding in the cellar (closer to 20 than the 3 who originally hid out in the cellar) as clowns to have them run through the aisle (in the middle of a erformance for Hitler) to a truck to safety. One old lady panics in the aisle, surrounded by Nazis. To save the old lady, another clown runs up to them and pins an oversized yellow star, yelling “Juden! ,” this causes an enormous laughter from the Nazi audience.

To stall the Gestapo, Brooks dresses up as Hitler, and listens to a Jewish actor perform the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech from Merchant of Venice. To Be or Not To Be appears to be Brooks’s final way of coping with his lack of combat in WWII. While he has The Producers make a play in which they portray the Nazis comically, the ultimate essage is that the two Jews in the movie still find them to be patently offensive, and therefore, worthy of some form of respect. In To Be or Not To Be he makes the Nazis into purely comical characters, and this is a step further than Brooks went in The Producers.

However, this simply may be because at the point of To Be or Not To Be, Brooks was well into his career as an established moviemaker, so he had more freedom to be offensive. Unfortunately, To Be or Not To Be ended the golden age of Mel Brooks movies, at least from a specifically Jewish point-of-view. His later films make only small mentions of Jewish topics. An example of this is Spaceballs, a parody of Star Wars where the main characters have to save a princess from Planet Druidia (“Funny, she doesn’t look Druish”) from the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) (Spaceballs).

The only Jewish reference in the movie were playing off the theme of the Druish princess and a short scene with Mel Brooks as Yogurt, a reinterpretation of Yoda as an old, Jewish man. Brooks also renamed “the Force” from Star Wars to something more ethnic-“the Schwartz. ” Although these Jewish references may be equal to the Yiddish-speaking Indian in Blazing Saddles, it is oo big of a stretch to link a deeper meaning to them as can be done in his earlier films. In the Big Book of Jewish Humor, Jewish humor is defined as having these five qualities: 1.

It is substantive in that it is about some larger topic. 2. It, in many cases, has a point-“the appropriate response is not laughter, but rather a bitter nod or a commiserating sign of recognition. ” 3. It is “anti-authoritarian,” in that “it ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and. is strongly democratic. ” 4. It “frequently has a critical edge which creates discomfort in making its point. 5. It is unsparing-it satirizes anyone and everyone (Novak and Waldoks xx-xxii). Telushkin’s definition of a Jewish joke is much simpler. He say’s “it must express a Jewish sensibility” (16).

To Bernard Saper, a “uniquely Jewish joke must contain incongruity, a sudden twist of unexpected elements” (76). Christie Davies, points out “that people such as Jews, who belong to a minority or peripheral ethnic groups tell jokes both about the majority group and about their own group, and they may tell more ethnic jokes about their own group (and find them funnier) than about the ajority”(29-30). Are the four films discussed within these definitions? Brooks’ movies definitely fit the Telushkin test of expressing Jewish sensibility, weather it is through how he attacks the Nazis or the random Yiddish expressions that he uses.

A lot of Brooks’ humor is also incongruous. For example, having a Nazi say “never again,” fulfills Saper’s requirement. Brooks’ films have a lot of ethnic jokes in them, which deal with Jews or Jewish topics. Brooks probably put these jokes in his movies because he found them funny, therefore fulfilling the Davies test. The definition in The Big Book of Jewish Humor is harder to fit because it is in greater detail. However, the films that were discussed fit them well. Many of Brooks’s films are substantive in that he deals with racism and Anti-Semitism in almost all of his movies.

The point of his films may not be so sharp that when people see them they automatically feel bitterness toward someone, but his movies are definently not pure slapstick which fulfills the second part of the definition. Brooks never attacked Jewish leadership but his films are anti-authoritarian because he clearly attacks government officials such as the Nazis and the Grand Inquisitor. Since there is constant controversy about Brooks’ films there is always potential for discomfort to arise. Finally, Brooks leaves out nobody from his satire-Nazis, cowboys, and 15th century Spanish Jews are all satirized and made fun of in these films.

Even though some of his scenes or individual jokes are not typical Jewish humor, he is a Jewish comedian who, most importantly, makes Jewish jokes. Brooks’s movies represent the classical paradox in Jewish humor and Jewish experience between: first, the legitimate pride that Jews have taken in their distinctive and learned religious and ethical tradition and in the emarkable intellectual eminence and entrepreneurial and professional achievement of individual members of their community, and second, the anti-Semitic abuse and denigration from hostile outsiders whose malice was fueled by Jewish autonomy and achievement (Davies 42-43).

The greatest lesson that Brooks has to teach American Jews of today is the expansion of our boundaries. Through his use of Jewish humor to topics which where previously considered off-limits, he allows his viewers to cope with painful parts of history which they may not have been able to cope with in the past. Brooks describes his role as a comedian by saying, “for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one” (Friedman 171-172).

He explains that his comedy “derives from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong” (Friedman 172). Mel Brooks’s experience is very similar to that of every American Jew, and his comedy speaks uniquely to the American Jew. So, even Brooks’s most offensive work is rooted deeply within both typical Jewish Humor and the modern Jewish experience.

The greatest lesson that Brooks has to teach American Jews of today is the expansion of our boundaries. Through his use of Jewish humor to topics which where previously considered off-limits, he allows his viewers to cope with painful parts of history which they may not have been able to cope with in the past. Brooks describes his role as a comedian by saying, “for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast eaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one” (Friedman 171-172).

He explains that his comedy “derives from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong” (Friedman 172). Mel Brooks’s experience is very similar to that of every American Jew, and his comedy speaks uniquely to the American Jew. So, even Brooks’s most offensive work is rooted deeply within both typical Jewish Humor and the modern Jewish experience.

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