Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks' humor springs from Jews' outsider status and history of persecution.

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Comic riffs about always being afraid, feeling pursued, defend­ing yourself through humor, connecting suffering with comedy, and sensing personal difference characterize almost all of Brooks's interviews and movies.

Flash forward to the April 1991 American Comedy Awards, a show honoring Carl Reiner with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Steve Martin introduces Brooks as Reiner's "illegitimate son" and asks for a few words about his longtime friend and collaborator. Addressing the star-studded audience as "Ladies and Jews," Brooks's voice grows steadily more strident as he indignantly castigates Reiner first for not being funny and sec­ond for forcing him to assume a false identity: For 25 years he pretended that he was a Jew when he was really a gentile from Waco, Texas. (The real Waco Kid?) Finally, Brooks rips off his "false" nose, begins yelling in a Texas drawl, and vows never to utter "any more of that Jew talk."

A few moments later, a convulsed Reiner thanks Brooks for channeling into humor his deep-seated anger over having to pay homage to someone less talented. Brooks builds all his films on his indignation, attacking serious topics such as bigotry, intolerance, and greed through comedy

The Filmmaker as Peasant

For Brooks, the very fact of being Jewish provides a framework, a cultural context, for viewing the world, a perspective he never totally casts aside. Take, for example, his seemingly offhand re­sponse to Lisa Mitchell about the current (1978) trend toward sex­ual permissiveness and nudity in films: "Sex--like eating Jewish foods such as chopped liver and gefilte fish--should always be a totally private matter." Not only does his remark make the obvious equation between sex and food, but it also relates to both from a particularly Jewish point of view.

Even a gentle foray into the world of speculative thinking brings Brooks back to the past rather than forward into the future, like when he told Omni's Jeff Rovin that he could be persuaded to go to Mars if "I could get a light-as-a-feather matzah ball. You haven't been able to get one on Earth anymore, since the old Jews from Odessa and Kiev (his mother's birthplace) started to die."

In a more serious moment in 1982, Brooks related his difficulty finding funds for Frances (a Brooksfilms Production) in terms of his cultural his­tory: "You hold your hat in your hand, and you plead and cajole and beg to get a few rubles--like a peasant, a muzhik [a member of the Russian agrarian class]. It's like the way goyim relate to Jews anyway. They don't think we're serious because they don't give us land. If they thought we were serious, they'd give us land. That's the one thing they don't give us, so they think we're just transient and funny."

The comment clearly betrays Brooks's frustrations with a system that deals with him on predominately one level; it also displays his anger with the anti-Semitism faced by his forebears. Most impor­tant, however, the analogy Brooks draws--between himself as the modern moviemaker scouring Lotus Land for money and not be­ing taken seriously, and his peasant ancestors denied the right to own land and thus being marginalized--explicitly connects him to this tradition of bigotry, exclusion, and hatred.

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David Desser is the director of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former editor of Cinema Journal.