The “Disobedient” part describes Brooks’ relationship to a movie industry that he conquered starting in the early 1970s.
Jeremy Dauber subtitles his new biography of Mel Brooks Disobedient Jew. It’s a phrase that captures two indivisible aspects of the 96-year-old director, actor, producer and songwriter.
The “Jew” is obvious. Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1926, Brooks channeled the Yiddish accents and Jewish sensibilities of his old neighborhoods into characters like the 2000 Year Old Man — a comedy routine he worked up with his friend, the writer and director Carl Reiner. He worked Jewish obsessions into films like 1967’s The Producers, which features two scheming Jewish characters who stage a sympathetic Broadway musical about Hitler in order to bilk their investors.
Brooks’ signature move is to inject Jews into every aspect of human history and culture, which can be seen in the forthcoming Hulu series History of the World, Part II. A sequel to his 1981 film, History of the World, Part I, it parodies historical episodes in a style he honed as a writer on 1950s television programs such as Your Show of Shows, whose writers’ rooms were stocked with a galaxy of striving Jewish comedy writers just like him.
The “Disobedient” part describes Brooks’ relationship to a movie industry that he conquered starting in the early 1970s. In a series of parodies of classic movie genres — the Western in Blazing Saddles, the horror movie in Young Frankenstein, Alfred Hitchcock in High Anxiety — he would gently, sometimes crudely and always lovingly, bite the hand that was feeding him quite nicely: In 1976, he was fifth on the list of top 10 box office attractions, just behind Clint Eastwood.
Dauber describes the parody Brooks mastered as “nothing less than the essential statement of American Jewish tension between them and us, culturally speaking; between affection for the mainstream and alienation from it.”
Dauber is professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University, whose previous books include Jewish Comedy and American Comics: A History. Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew is part of the Jewish Lives series of brief interpretative biographies from Yale University Press.
Dauber and I spoke about why America fell for a self described “spectacular Jew” from Brooklyn. Here are the highlights.
ONE ON ONE WITH THE AUTHOR
JTA: History of the World, Part II came out March 6. History of the World, Part I may not be in the top tier of Brooks films, but it seems to touch on so many aspects of his career that you trace in your book: the parody of classic movie forms, the musical comedy, injecting Jews into every aspect of human civilization and the anything-for-a-laugh sensibility.
Dauber: I agree. There’s the one thing that really brings it home, and it’s probably the most famous or infamous scene from the film. That’s the Spanish Inquisition scene. You have Brooks sort of probing the limits of bad taste. He had done that most famously in The Producers with its Nazi kickline, but here he takes the same idea — that one of the ways that you attack antisemitism is through ridicule — and turns the persecution of the Jews into a big musical number. It’s his love of music and dance. But the thing that’s almost the most interesting about this is that he takes on the role of the Torquemada character.
JTA: As his henchman sing and dance and the Jews face torture, the Brooklyn-born Jew plays the Catholic friar who tormented the Jews.
Dauber: That’s right. And what’s the crime that he accuses the Jews of? “Don’t be boring! Don‘t be dull!” That’s the worst thing that you can be. It’s his way of saying, “If I have a religion, you know, it is show business.”
JTA: His fascination with showbiz seems inseparable from his Jewishness, as if being a showbiz Jew is a denomination in its own right.
Dauber: One of my favorite lines of his is when he marries [actress] Anne Bancroft, who, of course, is not Jewish. And he says, “She doesn’t have to convert: She’s a star.” If you’re a star, if you’re a celebrity, you’re kind of in your own firmament faith-wise, and so it’s OK. Showbiz is this faith. But it is very Jewish, because show business is a way to acceptance. It’s a way that America can love him as a Jew, as Mel Brooks, as a kid from the outer boroughs who can grow up to marry Anne Bancroft.
JTA: You write early on that “Mel Brooks, more than any other single figure, symbolizes the Jewish perspective on and contribution to American mass entertainment.” Can you expand on that?
Dauber: Jews understand that there’s a path to success and that being embraced by a culture means learning about it, immersing yourself in it, being so deeply involved in it that you understand it and master it. But simultaneously, you’re doing that as a kind of outsider. You’re always not quite in it, even though you’re of it in some deep way.
In some ways, it’s the apotheosis of what Brooks does, which is being a parodist. In order to be the kind of parodist that Mel Brooks is, you have to be acutely attuned to every aspect of the cultural medium that you’re parodying. You have to know it inside and outside and backwards and forwards. And Brooks certainly does, but at the same time you have to be able to sort of step outside of it and say, you know, “Well, I’m watching a Western, but come on, what’s going on with these guys? Like why doesn’t anyone ever, you know, pass gas after eating so many beans?”
JTA: You have this great phrase, that to be an American Jew is to be part of the “loyal opposition.”
Dauber: That’s right. Brooks at his best is always kind of poking and prodding at convention, but loyally. He’s not like the countercultural figures of his day. He’s a studio guy. He’s really within the system but is poking at the system as well.
JTA: You wrote in that vein about his 1963 short film, The Critic, which won him an Oscar. Brooks plays an old Jewish man making fun of an art film.
Dauber: On one hand, he’s doing it in the voice of one of his older Jewish relatives, the Jewish generation with an Eastern European accent, to make fun of these kinds of intellectuals. He’s trying to channel the everyman’s response to high art. “What is this I’m watching? I don’t understand this at all.” On the other hand, Brooks is much more intellectual than he’s often given credit for.
JTA: For me, the paradox of Brooks’ career is conveyed in a phrase that appears a couple of times in the book: “too Jewish.” The irony is that the more he leaned into his Jewishness, the more successful he got, starting with the 2000 Year Old Man character, in which he channels Yiddish dialect in a series of wildly successful comedy albums with his friend Carl Reiner. How do you explain America’s embrace of these extremely ethnic tropes?
Brooks’ great motion pictures of the late 1960s-1970s track with America’s embrace of Jewishness. You have The Graduate, which came out at around the same time as The Producers, and which showed that someone like Dustin Hoffman can be a leading man. It doesn’t have to be a Robert Redford. You have Allan Sherman and all these popular Jewish comedians. You have Fiddler on the Roof becoming one of Broadway’s biggest hits. That gives Brooks license to kind of jump in with both feet.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and Managing Editor for Ideas for the JTA. Read more of this interview at JTA.org.