Happy belated birthday to Mel Brooks who turned 86 yesterday. To celebrate please enjoy the following:
You’re welcome. (Yeah, I know it’s printed backwards–Hebraic, don’tcha know?–and sideways: Tilt your head dammit, tilt your head.)
When I saw History, there were hisses and walkouts during this number, and the film has been attacked as a disgrace by reviewers in the press and on TV. I bet nobody hissed or walked out on Candide. When Prince and Bernstein do it, it’s culture; when Brooks does it, there’s a chorus of voices saying, “He has gone too far this time.” Earlier in the film, the dancer Gregory Hines, who makes a breezy film debut as Comicus’ Ethiopian pal, Josephus, tries to convince the slavers who are sending him to the circus to be eaten by lions that he’s not a Christian but a Jew. With his loose-limbed body–his legs seem to be on hinges–he does a mock-Jewish dance, and then a shim-sham, and the racial humor didn’t appear to bother the audience. But during the Inquisition, when nuns toss off their habits, and a giant torture wheel to which pious Jews are attached is spun in a game of chance, there were mutterings of disapproval. Yet it’s Brooks’s audacity–his treating cruelty and pain as a crazy joke, and doing it in a low-comedy context–that gives History the kick that was missing from his last few films. The Inquisition is presented as a paranoid fantasy, with Jews as the only victims, and when Torquemada whacks the knees of gray-bearded old men imprisoned in stocks–using them as a xylophone–you may gasp. But either you get stuck thinking about the “bad taste” or you let yourself laugh at the obscenity in the humor, as you do at Bunuel’s perverse dirty jokes. The offensive material is a springboard to a less sentimental kind of comedy.
If Mel Brooks doesn’t go “too far,” he’s nowhere–he’s mild and mushy. It’s his maniacal, exuberant compulsion to flaunt show-biz Jewishness that makes him an uncontrollable original. At his best, he is to being Jewish what Richard Pryor is to being black: wildly in love with the joke of it, obsessed and inspired by the joke of it. What History needs is more musical numbers with the show-biz surreal satire of the Inquistion section; it’s the kind of satire that makes the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup a classic farce. Brooks goes wrong when he pulls back to innocuous loveability–when he has Gregory Hines say to him, “You’re the first white man I even considered liking.” (Now, if that had been “the first Jews…”) Hines’ dancing–the movie could have used more of it–deserves better than a suck-up line.
When Brooks has a hot streak on a TV talk show, you can see his mental process at work, and amazing things just pop out of his mouth. He can’t get that rhythm going on the screen with prepared gags. Some movie directors can give their material that surprise. Altman has often done it, and in Hi, Mom! DePalma did it, with a highly inflammatory race-relations subject. But Brooks isn’t a great director–far from it. He’s a great personality though, and he moves wonderfully; his dancing in his Torquemada robes is right up there with Groucho’s lope. Wearing a little mustache and with his lips puckered, Brooks as Louis XVI bears a startling resemblance to Chaplin in his Monsieur Verdoux period. I kept waiting for him to do something with this resemblance, but he didn’t. Was he unaware of it? Lecherous Louis did, however, make me understand why women at the French court wore those panniers that puffed out the sides of their skirts; we see those ballooning bottoms through his eyes. (Brooks may be wasting his talent by not appearing in other directors’ movies while he’s preparing his own.) As a director-star, he has the chance to go on pushing out the boundaries of screen comedy, because, despite the disapproving voices in the press and on TV, he can probably get away with it. Like Pryor, he’s a cutie.
Too bad for us, Mel’s movies never got better, but he sure did score a hit with the play version of The Producers.
Don’t be stupid, be a schmarty…
Been a fun week, folks. Hope you guys have a great weekend.
That’s what Mel Brooks yelled at a nun one day when he was walking down 57th street (get Kenneth Tynan’s book, “Show People” or “Profiles” for his great piece on Brooks).
How did you first react to ‘My Favorite year’ ?
Brooks: I said, “Wait a minute, you’re singing my song. What is this – the story of a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn and a guest star on Your Show of Shows? I lived this life.” I looked at Joe Bologna and I said, “That is Sid Caesar.” There’s a certain primitive energy that Joe Bologna and Sid Caesar share, a very basic animal energy . Eat. Go. Sleep. The first thing I wrote for Sid was about a jungle boy who’s been captured and taken to New York City as an experiment to see how he will survive in the big city. He’s interviewed by Carl Reiner. “What do you eat, sir?” “Pigeons. Crave pigeons, go in park, many pigeons in park. Eat pigeons.” “What do you fear?” “Buick, Big, yellow, very danferous. Wait, wait till lights, eyes go out – smash in grille, all night, with club. Kill Buick.” Joe Bologna has the same thing going int he movie.”Send the girl some steaks,” he says, “I’ll send her some steaks.” Nothing romatic, no flowers. To make up with a writer, he sends some tires’ his borther owns a tire store. But they’re very real. I love all the tlittle touches int eh movie. I love when Peter O’Toole realizes that he’s going to be working in front of a live audience. That is the essence of the movie – when he says, “I’m not an actor , I’m a movie star.” There’s a big difference.
Cliff hipped me to a terrific interview with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner at the Onion’s AV Club:
AVC: Carl, you’ve said in other interviews that you’re against analyzing comedy. Why is that?
CR: Well, people have a comic bent or an angularity to their thinking, and those are the people who make jokes. And it’s usually people who were in an environment, when they were young, where jokes were at a premium, or at least considered important to a life. My parents always listened to the comedy radio shows, we went to the comedy movies, and my parents appreciated comedy. So kids listen and follow what their parents like.
AVC: Do you think comedy is something you can teach somebody?
CR: No. There are people born with intelligence; you’re not born with a funny bone. If you’re just a normal thing, the palette is there; it just depends on who puts the paint on the palette, and what they put on the palette when you’re very young. And then when you’re a little older and go to the movies by yourself, then you start making choices, and it’s usually honed by choices you made very early in your life.
MB: Where are you?
AVC: I’m in Chicago.
MB: I was always treated with love and respect and joy in Chicago.
When I was a kid, I looked through my dad’s extensive library of books and through his record collection. Most of the books didn’t appeal to me because they didn’t have pictures. There was a history of burlesque that was titillating, a book about the history of the Academy Awards, and two of the Illustrated Beatles books; otherwise, his books didn’t interest me until much later. The record collection was mostly made-up of Original Cast Recordings from Broadway shows, and folk music joints, from Burl Ives to the Weavers. My mom had some Simon and Garfunkel and Judy Collins lps in the mix, and there was a copy of A Hard Day’s Night, but that was as rockin’ as it got.
What was left? A handful of comedy records–Why Is There Air? and I Started Out as a Child by Bill Cosby, Vaughn Meader’s First Family record, the 2000 Year Old Man, and the 2013 Year Old Man, by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. My twin sister, Sam, younger brother, Ben, and I listened to the Cosby and Brooks-Reiner records until they were practically worn-out. We can quote them without thinking. Every time I get off the phone with my sister we say, “Goodbye…I hope I’m an actor,” a throw-away line from Brooks in the Coffee House sketch on the first 2000 Year Old Man album.
Sometimes, before my parents got divorced, the old man would listen with us and we would wait with bated breath for the parts that made him laugh. I practically memorized what jokes got him going. He had a big, almost violent laugh that shook the room. It was exciting and scary but a relief: the old man was happy, and that was enough for us.
It’s hard for me not to think of my dad and Mel Brooks together–it is as if Mel is part of the family, just like George Carlin was. Although the old man wasn’t a great fan of Mel’s movies, he never tired of the 2000 year old man routine. Brooks has made a couple of memorable movies but his true genius is captured on these recordings, or on some of his talk show appearances. (Have you ever read the 1975 Playboy interview with Brooks? It is nothing short of hysterical.)
So I smiled this morning when I read the following interview with Brooks and Reiner in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times (they are promoting a new boxed-set of the 2000 recordings):
Q: How did you first come up with “The 2000 Year Old Man”?
MEL BROOKS: At the beginning it was pure made-up craziness and joy, and there was no thought of anybody else hearing it except maybe a couple of dear friends at a party.
CARL REINER: It was to pep up a room. We started on “Your Show of Shows,” and sometimes there would be a lull [in the writers’ room]. I always knew if I threw a question to Mel he could come up with something.
BROOKS: We had fun.
REINER: I remember the first question I asked him. It was because I had seen a program called “We the People Speak,” early television. [He puts on an announcer voice] “ ‘We the People Speak.’ Here’s a man who was in Stalin’s toilet, heard Stalin say, ‘I’m going to blow up the world.’ ” I came in, I said this is good for a sketch. No one else thought so, but I turned to Mel and I said, “Here’s a man who was actually seen at the crucifixion 2,000 years ago,” and his first words were “Oh, boy.” [He sighs.] We all fell over laughing. I said, “You knew Jesus?” “Yeah,” he said “Thin lad, wore sandals, long hair, walked around with 11 other guys. Always came into the store, never bought anything. Always asked for water.” Those were the first words, and then for the next hour or two I kept asking him questions, and he never stopped killing us.
BROOKS: It was all ad-libbed, and nothing was ever talked about before we did it. We didn’t write anything, we didn’t think about anything. Whatever was kinetic, whatever was chemical, we did it.
Here goes a sample…
From the first record: