Mel Brooks As Jewish Comedian

.. 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. Bibliography 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 http://www.msstate.edu/movies.

(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.