This is a guest post by Spencer Blohm.
Today, one of the most celebrated comedians in the nation, Mel Brooks, turns 87. During his career Mel has paved the way for many new comedians and genres of comedy (parody films anyone?). Recently Mel was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute and showed the crowd he has no signs of slowing down. Let’s take a look back at how his faith and culture influenced arguably the most famous Jewish comedian in the world.
For the self-described “spectacularly Jewish” comedian Mel Brooks, Judaism isn’t just a faith; it’s the lens through which he sees the world, and the source of the sense of indignation that forms the basis for his hilarious films. Brooks’ approach to telling jokes makes clear that while, historically, suffering has been such an ingrained part of the Jewish experience, it has brought with it the knowledge that comedy can relieve some of the pain and terror that are the ever-present legacy of intolerance.
For instance, despite the sensitive topic of Nazis and Hitler within much of the Jewish community, Brooks has always found ways in his films to take jabs and make jokes at the expense of Nazis, racists, and closed-minded people of all stripes, reducing them to caricatures whose words and deeds lose their power to hurt us. While some may question the taste level of such jokes, Brooks has stated that it is his mission in life to reduce Hitler to such an absurd figure that no one could possibly take him or his ideas seriously.
It seems that at least part of what Mel Brooks does with his humor is attempt to empower his Jewish audience by using his frustration with feeling marginalized in society, and his cultural memory of outright oppression, to forge amazing comedy instead of bitterness and hatred. On the surface of such pain, it isn’t easy to find any humor, but what Brooks does is look at this through a different context that can acknowledge the ridiculousness inherent in bigotry and the insuppressible power of comedy to mitigate it. It takes a brave person to write a play and movie about a musical titled Springtime for Hitler, let alone a Jewish writer, but by taking something that is a very painful topic for many and reducing it to a farce he takes away the power of evil and returns it to those who would be its victims.
So, in honor of this Jewish and American icon’s 87th birthday, I give you a collection of Mel’s reflections on his life and being Jewish, as told to a variety of publications and interviewers over the years:
- “Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, 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.”
- “I love gentiles. In fact, one of my favorite activities is Protestant spotting.”
- “I just thought comedy was Jewish. I didn’t think there was anything else. I was amazed if someone was funny and they weren’t Jewish.”
- On Oedipus Complex: “With the Greeks, who knows? But with a Jew you don’t do a thing like that even to your wife, let alone your mother.”
- “Yes, I am a Jew. I AM a Jew, what about it? 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 that I do.”
- “I lived with my mother intimately for 22 years and never saw the furniture. On every piece of furniture was a sheet to keep the dust off.”
- “Even in English, Jews talked different. Gentiles have Rs. Jews were not given Rs by God. Gentiles said, “PaRk the caR.” Jews said, “Pahk the cah.”
- “If you’re Jewish, you have a small smile on your face. Because you know the rest are wrong and you don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
Finally, Mel Brooks had many Jewish references in his films, but maybe none more eccentric than in the teaser trailer to History of the World Part II (the unreleased “sequel” to Brooks’ film, History of the World Part I):
Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment blogger for Direct4TV.com who has an intense love of comedy. In his free time he likes to perform his faux standup routine for his cat, Lou, who is arguably his toughest critic. He has yet to receive any applause.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)