Essay, Research Paper: Mel Brooks As Jewish Comedian

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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
the 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
more 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
synagogues." 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
coordinator 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
has 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
office 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
movie 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
recollection 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
gaien…Abee 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
army 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
with 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). 1981's History
of the World, Part I, falls somewhere between The Producers and Blazing Saddles
in 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
objectionable" 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
forgiveness….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
standing 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
movie 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
after 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
encounters. 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
performance 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
message 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
too 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
majority"(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
remarkable 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
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.

Altman, Sig. The Comic Image of the Jew. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson
UP, 1971. Blazing Saddles. Dir. Mel Brooks. With Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little.
Warner Brothers, 1974. Davies, Christie. "Exploring the Thesis of theSelf-Deprecating
Jewish Sense Of Humor." Semites and Stereotypes: Characterisitics of Jewish
Humor. Eds. Avner Ziv and Anat Zajdman. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
29-46. Doneson, Judith E. The Holocaust in American Film. Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society, 1987. Friedman, Lester D. The Jewish Image in American
Film. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1987. History of the World, Part I. Dir. Mel
Brooks. With Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn.Brooksfilms/Twentieth Century Fox,
1981. Internet Movie Database. On the World Wide Web at
(Used for cast listings of films) Novak, William and Moshe Waldoks, eds. The Big
Book of Jewish Humor. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990. The Producers. Dir. Mel
Brooks. With Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. Avco Embassy, 1968. Saper, Bernard.
"Since When Is Jewish Humor Not Anti-Semitic." Semites and
Stereotypes: Characteristics of Jewish Humor. Eds. Avner Ziv and Anat Zajdman.
Westport, CT: Greewood Press, 1993. SpaceBalls. Dir. Mel Brooks. With Mel
Brooks, John Candy and Rick Moranis. MGM, 1987. Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish
Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews. New York: William Morrow
and Co, 1992. To Be or Not To Be. Dir. Alan Johnson. With Mel Brooks and Anne
Bancroft. Brooksfilms/Twentieth Century Fox, 1983. Yacowar, Maurice. Method in
Madness: The Comic Art of Mel Brooks. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.
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