The old insult goes, “Jews run show business.” To that I say “thanks.”
Jews make up about 0.2% of the world’s population yet they have always been a loud (emphasis on the loud) and prominent voice in film, television, music, and comedy. The next eight days are Hanukkah, which is not the most important Jewish holiday, but we do get presents. For each night of Hanukkah, I will share one Jewish entertainer who has had a big impact on me. Let’s start off the festivities with Mel Brooks:
If a Mount Rushmore of Jewish comedians were ever to be constructed, Mel Brooks would most definitely be the biggest, most prominent face on there. To this day, Mel Brooks’ presence remains indistinguishable from Jewish comedy.
At the ripe old age of 87, Brooks remains as hilarious and relevant as ever. That is partly because he is as funny as ever, but also because he simply refuses to fade from the spotlight. Unfortunately, Comedy is often susceptible to aging (Cracked did a great podcast on the subject). Even classics like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Bringing Up Baby” have shown their age. Not Mel Brooks, though.
Just listen to “The 2000 Year Old Man.” Or watch “Blazing Saddles.” Both have barely aged. In the case of “Blazing Saddles,” it is still a shock that something like that could have been made when it was. In fact, it probably would have had a lot of trouble with the PC crowd of the present as well. Brooks seems to find that mixing the past into the present, as well as speaking in a ridiculous Yiddish accent, is universally hilarious.
Which Mel Brooks movie is the best depends on who you are speaking to. Brooks is one of Hollywood’s best genre satirists, and everyone from Edgar Wright to Quentin Tarantino to Dan Harmon probably owe a great thanks to him. Brooks said that he was never a big science fiction fan, yet the merchandising scene from “Spaceballs” is one of the sharpest bits of commentary on the movie business that there is.
While Brooks might not be religious, he is openly Jewy, letting every bit of the culture inform his works. That odd and exaggerated accent is a staple of nearly all of his characters. Comedians exploiting the languages and cultures that they grew up with was common when Brooks was coming of age in the comedy world (see: Sid Caesar). Brooks is just one step closer to the Old Country traditions than most people, and clearly he has never lost sight of them.
There is a reason that most Jews can recite quotes from Mel Brooks. He embodies the idea of Jewish humor: every dark place can be conquered with a good joke. The Jewish experience has always been an uncertain one, and I believe this is where all of the great Jewish comedy truly stems from. In “Blazing Saddles,” Brooks laughs in the faces of racists. In “The Producers,” he makes the Nazis look like absolute fools. In “History of the World: Part I,” he turned the Inquisition into a giant musical number. Making fun of evil is a great way to make evil less frightening.
Mel Brooks is what I think of whenever I think of the idea of an old Jewish man. He seems like the kind of person who you would see at a deli and then he would pull you over to the side and chew your ear off for hours with hilarious stories from the past. Now, if I ever were to run into Mel Brooks at Katz’s or Canter’s and he were to be so generous, I would immediately cancel all of my plans for the day, and then shut up and listen.
Fun Fact: Mel Brooks has also produced many serious films in his career. Among them are David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” and David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man.”