Mel Brooks has just turned 92, and, as far as anyone can tell, he is unaltered. He has blue-gray eyes and a rakish smile; his hair is white and full; the voice remains powerfully hoarse, with traces of Louis Armstrong’s music filtering through the guttural tones. When Brooks gets excited, that voice bursts out of him like a tiger bursting out of the bush. At other times, he murmurs rapidly, teenage-style, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” No one is ever likely to miss a Mel Brooks joke, since he speaks, sometimes roars, with great precision. His normal speaking voice—not the Yiddish-accented voice of the comedy routines—could be called classical Brooklyn, the sound I remember as a New York kid from encounters with taxi drivers, baseball fans, and teachers. Those men had a definite flavor, and they meant to be understood.
Edward Said spoke of a “late style” in certain artists—a changed consciousness near the end, a practice of concision, definitiveness, and in some cases rejection of convention and even of the audience itself. A Brooks later style, I suppose, is always possible: One can imagine him at 100 bantering in Shakespearean Yiddish with robots. But his style now, in his 90s, is the same as it was decades ago when he was making such madcap-profound films as Young Frankenstein and appearing with Carl Reiner in the world-historical comedy routine The 2,000 Year Old Man. I have seen him twice in the past few months, in Los Angeles and then in New York, and he remains prodigal in expression, memory, and imagination.
Most recently, on May 8, I caught his act at, of all places, New York’s formidable Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. “Those are German Jews,” I warned him in advance, meaning that they wouldn’t laugh as easily as Russian-descended Jews. I needn’t have worried. Brooks turned the vast, fretted hall into an intimate space. On the dais, he sat for short periods in a club chair, holding back as if exhausted, and then jumped up (“Does he have steel springs in his legs?” my wife marveled) and paced back and forth on the synagogue’s narrow stage, ranging over his life and experience, acting out his stories with arms, hips, shoulders. His comedy is inseparable from physical energy. A few weeks earlier, in his office at the Culver Studios in Los Angeles, he moved back and forth in his desk chair, but at a certain point he stood up and remained standing, shooting out songs and stories, restaurant and hotel advice, questions of every sort, all with the restless hunger for new information of a man entering, not exiting, the stage of life.
In Los Angeles, Brooks was enjoying the success of a shortened version of Young Frankenstein. His obsession with Mary Shelley’s novel, and with the various Hollywood horror-fantasy versions of the myth, culminated in his 1974 film, Young Frankenstein, with Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein’s ambitious grandson and Peter Boyle as the monster. (They dance “Puttin’ on the Ritz” together, in white tie and tails.) On Broadway, in 2007, Brooks and the director Susan Stroman mounted a musical version of the material, a show that Brooks now calls “lugubrious.” It was only moderately successful, so he cut about 40 minutes, bringing the entire evening (with intermission) down to about two hours, and that version has been playing at the Garrick Theatre in London since last September. Was it hard to edit himself? “I did it in a couple weeks. I knew what to do.” He cut three songs and added a new one. (Singing) “It could work! My grandfather wasn’t wrong. You could re-animate dead tissue.” He finds it hard to believe “It Could Work” wasn’t in the original show, since it’s the “Rain in Spain” moment, the song that makes the musical a hit. In imitation of Dr. Frankenstein, he seems to have reanimated his own dead show.
In the 1970s, he said he wouldn’t do stand-up in the future, since the last thing he wanted was to wind up, as he put it, “a white-belted, white-shoed, maroon-mohair-jacketed type” headlining in Las Vegas. This vision, I suspect, was always a warning to himself more than an actual possibility. In any case, he now speaks of his reborn enjoyment of performing onstage. In recent years, nattily dressed, he has been selling out such places as the Kennedy Center, the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, and Radio City Music Hall. In these outings, he is accompanied onstage by his producer and manager, Kevin Salter, a 40ish-year-old WASP from the Northwest with an encyclopedic knowledge of Brooks and his work. “De facto manager,” Salter told me. “No one really ever manages Mel Brooks.” Salter feeds him questions and cues certain memories. “There are some greatest hits,” Salter said, “but he would quickly become bored if I asked him the same questions each show. He’s best when nothing is planned.” At one of his recent appearances, Brooks asked for questions from the audience. An urgent inquiry went as follows: “What do you wear: Briefs or boxer shorts?”
“I’m just a Jew comic!” Brooks said to me at the beginning of our talk in Los Angeles, as if to ask, Why are you interested? But this comic has stormed through 75 years of show business, working in almost every medium imaginable (Borscht Belt, television, comedy albums, movies, musical comedy, one-man shows), and he may have contributed as much as anyone, in his manic style, to the formerly shaky but now sturdy arc of Jewish survival and success. That’s something of a mouthful, and I should quickly add that Brooks doesn’t talk that way himself. Instead, he’ll say, “I’m just an entertainer … One of the best, mind you.” Or, when I go high on him, he’ll say, “You may be right … maybe.”
But consider: Brooks the vulgar slapstick parodist has always been, at the same time, a serious man—a clown with an aggressive streak of anger. Sure, on demand, he can do an excellent imitation of, say, stand-up ace Henny Youngman. (In double tempo: “My wife used to tell me, you don’t take me anywhere, I want to go somewhere I’ve never been, so I took her to the kitchen.”) He appreciates jokes and styles so old that the sheer outdatedness of the material is itself funny; Brooks’s work has always been, among other things, a show-business museum that never stops renewing itself.
His genius, though, is not for ancient one-liners or for nostalgia. His genius is for such ambitious forms as the all-encompassing comedy routine and the genre-quoting and genre-annihilating epic movie, including Blazing Saddles (1974), a Jewish Western with a black hero; Young Frankenstein (1974), a film that expands the metaphysical ambitions of horror; History of the World: Part I (1981), a lewd corrective to historical piety; and Spaceballs (1987), a slapstick mock-out of the alleged profundities of the Star Wars series.
Throughout his work, large projects and small, Brooks displays an endless fascination with such primal experiences as fear and cruelty, accident and death. His view of life is essentially pessimistic, though he has the startling and reviving habit of springing laughter out of calamity. The 2,000 Year Old Man comedy routine, which he did for years with Carl Reiner as his earnest interlocutor, ranged all over human experience, which is to say all over human vulnerability and disaster. On one occasion, Reiner asked him, “How do you differentiate between tragedy and comedy?” and Brooks answered, “If I’ll cut my finger, that’s tragedy. … Comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die.”
“Did you lift that line from David Hume?” I asked him.
“David Hume! David Hume!”
The philosopher famously wrote, “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Brooks happily denied stealing the line while appreciating the likeness of sentiment. His variant accomplishes two things. It alters philosophy (Hume’s attack on the sufficiency of reason) into a first-rate joke, and it adds a nasty perception of human nature: We are not only self-interested, we also enjoy the bad fortune of others. And in Brooks’s world there is much bad fortune to enjoy. In 1975, during an enormous interview in Playboy (itself a classic text), Brooks said that back in Williamsburg, if you were a boy, “corner shtick” was the thing you had to be good at:
You had to score on the corner—no bullshit routines, no slick laminated crap. It had to be, “Lemme tell ya what happened today … ” And you really had to be good on your feet. “Fat Hymie was hanging from the fire escape. His mother came by. ‘Hymie!’ she screamed. He fell two stories and broke his head.” Real stories of tragedy we screamed at. The story had to be real and it had to be funny. Somebody getting hurt was wonderful.
The character of the 2,000 Year Old Man, going way back, notes that most human achievements are derived from fear. Transportation began this way: “An animal would growl, you’d go two miles in a minute.” Singing began as terrified screams and evolved into “A lion is eating my foot off! Somebody call the cops!”
Fear is the spring, comedy the release, though not always the kind of release that brings simple bliss. Audiences hoping for safe spaces—especially Jewish audiences—can be rudely jostled by Brooks’s wilder moments. The musical number “Springtime for Hitler,” first unleashed in the movie version of The Producers (1968), of course turned Nazism into merry choreography—boys and girls singing and dancing in S.S. uniforms and regalia. The joke was something more than a joke. Those who had seen Broadway shows in the ’50s and ’60s knew how closely Brooks adhered to the shape and sound of Broadway style. The audience for musical comedies was heavily Jewish, so the wit was partially aimed at them and at Jews in general—an audience inclined to feel itself a victim of history.
“Did you think, Oh my God, these people are going to have a fit?”
“They loved it. They knew what I was doing. … However, I got letters, I must have gotten 100 letters from rabbis, students, scholars, and I would write back to every single one, and try to explain to them, the way you bring down Hitler … you don’t get on a soapbox with him … but if you can reduce him to something laughable, you win. That’s my job.”
Brooks hit emotional pay dirt by teasing the sensitivities of the Jews, and he did it even more aggressively 13 years later in History of the World: Part I. That movie, an alarming pastiche-masterwork panned by several critical stiffs, including me, might be called a celebration of barbarous behavior throughout the ages—in the caves, during the Roman Empire, during the Spanish Inquisition, in the court of Louis XVI. Brooks again made musical comedy out of Jewish suffering—this time the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, with strung-up bearded Jews tormented by a singing-and-dancing Grand Inquisitor (Brooks in a monk’s hood) while merry nuns, also giving Jews a hard time, shed their habits and dive into a pool one after another like Esther Williams’s swimming chorines. The pacing is brisk, insistently upbeat; “The Inquisition” is perhaps Brooks’s bounciest tune.
One could say that staging the Inquisition as a gleeful production number can be justified by history: The 15th-century auto-da-fé, in which heretics, nonbelievers, and Jews (some of them Christian converts) were burned to death, was, after all, a public spectacle meant to entertain as well as to appall. Brooks’s staging does both. The larking sadism still makes one wince—the joke hasn’t lost its sting—but in the end the effect is liberating: Brooks pushed the gloom of Jewish history over the brink into black comedy. The Jews had survived; the Nazis and the inquisitors were sufficiently dead to laugh at. “Being alive works alongside comedy,” he said to me. “Vive! Vivre! The joy of life ... comedy is central to it. … [Comedy] is the realization of being alive.”
“I’m lucky,” Brooks said to me in his office. “Gertrude, my mother’s mother, left Russia, left Kiev, and Abraham on my father’s side left Danzig, and they brought their children to Henry Street [in the Lower East Side], where Max and Kitty met, and then they made us,” by which he meant his three older brothers and himself. Brooks was born in 1926 in Williamsburg as Melvin Kaminsky. He never knew Max, who died of kidney disease when Brooks was 2. The absence has always been frustrating. (“I wish I could have pepped him up with my career. I could have entertained him.”) His mother, Kate Brookman, raised all four boys by working in the garment district. She had arrived from Russia when she was 3, landing among the Irish in New York. In 1970, Brooks told an interviewer, “She speaks no known language, but she speaks it with an Irish accent.” His descriptions of his Brooklyn childhood suggest silent comedy—a boy chased by neighborhood thugs, struck by teachers, but surviving, black-and-blue, laughing and making others laugh.
He knew how to save himself. At Temple Emanu-El, he told the audience that all the other Williamsburg kids, “unbeknownst to them but knownst [he savors the word] … knownst to God, were heading for the garment district.” But by 14, Brooks was heading for “the mountains”—the mighty Catskills—with its innumerable lodges and its constant demand for amusement. It was the most provincial of provinces but a place where a ruthless discipline of performance created a generation of entertainers. One of Brooks’s early bits was to show up poolside in a long dark coat and bowler, bearing two suitcases. “Business is terrible! I can’t go on!” he howled, and threw himself into the drink. Many Brooklyn Jews raised in the Depression didn’t know how to swim, and when Brooks was lucky he would get pulled out by a large Gentile person guarding the pool.
In the tea room at the Butler Lodge in Hurleyville, New York—a medium-sized Borscht Belt outpost—one of the ladies said to him, “Melvin, you stink, but we love you.” It was sufficient encouragement. A few years later, he wound up writing gags and skits for the legendary comic Sid Caesar, whom he had first met in the Catskills during World War II. By 1950, Brooks was in Caesar’s writers’ room, which eventually included such luminaries as Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen, all of them laboring for the great man’s TV shows and specials: most famously Your Show of Shows, which ran from 1950 to 1954, and then Caesar’s Hour, which ran from 1954 to 1957.
The two shows provided the finest examples of satirical skit-making in the history of television. Caesar did “life”—portraits of an ordinary Midwestern businessman, or a famished husband dragged by his wife to a virtuous health-foods restaurant. And he did archetypes with a whiff of movie reference—an army recruit in a skit called “From Here to Obscurity”; a Samurai warrior who speaks Yiddish-flavored Japanese; an imperious German in a splendid uniform who turns out to be a doorman (a nod to the great German film The Last Laugh). Brooks wrote some of Caesar’s movie parodies; he was moving toward his own later work as a genre-spoofing director.
“The 2,000 Year Old Man” was also born in Caesar’s shadow. Origin stories vary, but the Revised Standard Version, which Carl Reiner, who is now 96, has expounded several times, goes as follows: In the writers’ room, Reiner was complaining about a pretentious television program—the kind of early-’50s show that took the audience to Stalin’s kitchen or some other improbable place. He turned to Brooks without warning and said, “Here is a man who was actually at the scene of the crucifixion 2,000 years ago.”
“Oh boy … ”
“You knew Jesus?”
“Lovely. Thin. He wore sandals. He was quiet, a quiet lad. He came into the store—he never bought anything,” and so on. And then on and on forever, the skit extended, broadened, running backwards and forwards in time. From the beginning, the persona of the 2,000-Year-Old Man was that of an elderly, lower-middle-class Jew with a thick Central European accent. This gentleman was fearful of many things, but he had miraculously survived life in the caves, a relationship with Joan of Arc, a mistaken investment in Shakespeare’s lost play, Queen Alexandra and Murray (“it closed in Egypt”). Over the years, he fathered 42,000 children (“and not one comes to visit me”).
For a decade, the two men performed the act at parties. Reiner thought that only Jews would get the joke—that it was essentially private material. But by 1960, when the two at last recorded the routine for a comedy album, “Jewish” accents had become increasingly familiar in radio and TV. The record sold a million copies. (There were four additional albums, the last in 1997. The entire run can be heard on a CD compilation.) Brooks’s Yiddish-inflected comedy joined that of so many American comics—Milton Berle, Jackie Mason, Buddy Hackett, and later Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, and many others. It’s still the default mock-complaining voice of many American Jews, and, if my ear does not deceive me, it has influenced the rhythms and cadences of a particularly powerful New York Gentile (“It’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.”) who may have seen Alan King in the anterooms of his fame long ago.
It’s so familiar an American sound that it’s easy to pass over its historical and emotional meaning. The Eastern European and Russian Jews who arrived en masse (almost two million of them) between 1880 and 1924 struggled to understand a country that was entirely new to them. Manners, culture, cities, street life, the ways of making a living—it all had to be mastered, and anxiety and complaining were a defense against ignorance, a protest against the bewildering variety and abundance of a new country. Well, the 2,000-Year-Old Man, by means of his fabulous endurance, forever faces something new and dangerous, using desperation and wit to survive. He is Jewish survival, the immigrant experience repeated over and over.
His style of complaint—the entire complaining tone—in the end became funny to Brooks’s contemporaries and to their children because America was no longer a mystery, and the complaints were now happily beside the point, no more than a remembered anxious reflex. At this point, the accent appears as a historical marker, a transition point between the old world and the new. “Half the people in the neighborhood ONLY spoke Yiddish,” Brooks wrote to me later, recalling prewar Williamsburg. “It was called Mamaloshen, mother tongue, a connection to heritage and family. It’s a shame to lose those rhythms.” They certainly are lost: Putting it as gently as possible, very few eastern European Jews are moving to the States these days, and Yiddish—as well as the comedy derived from it—can only be preserved with the most determined and loving effort.
Mel Brooks comes to his office in Culver City from Monday to Friday. He writes every day (on unlined paper, with pencil) both at home and in the office, and bounces ideas off Kevin Salter. “He is endlessly gauging the level of my reaction,” Salter told me in an email. “Titter or guffaw? He loves to throw ideas back and forth. That process allows the joke to build. Then he arrives at the cherry on top of the sundae.” On Fridays, Brooks has lunch in Beverly Hills with his former buddies from 20th Century Fox (Alan Ladd Jr., Michael Gruskoff, Richard Donner, Jay Kanter), where he spent many productive years. At night, he goes out to dinner with friends or goes to Reiner’s house in Beverly Hills, where the two of them, as has been widely reported, watch old movies together. At these sessions, the wit has been known to fly about the room. Ever since his wife, the actress Anne Bancroft, died in 2005, Brooks hasn’t taken vacations, but last summer he spent four months in London preparing the revised Young Frankenstein and living it up at the Savoy, where he got to know the hotel staffers by name, even meeting some of their parents.
In the early ’60s, Reiner asked the 2,000-Year-Old Man the secrets of living so long a life. Brooks cited the excellence of nectarines (“half a peach, half a plum, a hell of a fruit … even a rotten one is good”) and the importance of staying out of small Italian cars. In his office, Brooks now says, “Walk a mile a day and stay alive, sing Broadway songs, you’ll live forever. And the last thing,” he added mysteriously, “is chicken chow mein.”
“Do you ever think about dying?”
“All the time.”
“What if we Jews are wrong and there is an afterlife and you get there, and God is a big strong guy, with a magnificent beard and muscular forearms, like Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses? What would you say to him?”
“The first thing I’d say is: ‘Denby was right.’ … I’m too scared. Carl Reiner is a flat-out atheist. ‘It’s a joke! There is no one. It’s made up to make people feel good.’ But I like the tribal aspect of it. It’s like a school song. [Singing] ‘We welcome to Sussex Camp, we’re mighty glad you’re here. We’ll send the air re-ver-ber-ating with a mighty cheer. Rah rah! … It’s like that. It’s fun to be part of something. That’s the best part about it. But to really believe in an afterlife, that’s a stretch. That don’t work, not for me.”
“I think you’d be angry at God.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“What if he were angry at you?”
“That’s different. [Shouting] ‘I DIDN’T MEAN IT! I DIDN’T SAY IT!’ I’d be just like a kid again.” (Imitating his grandson) “ACCIDENT! ACCIDENT!”