Mel Brooks As Jewish Comedian 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 …