Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

The ‘Cinematic Zionism’ of Mel Brooks

August 3, 2012 1:17 pm 4 comments

Mel Brooks. Credit: Angela George.

Mel Brooks shows no outright sense of shame or victimhood in his humorous films, but his Jewishness is there without ambivalence, according to experts.

“There is a simple pride and comfort in his Jewish skin,” Gabriel Sanders, director of public programs at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, told JNS.org. “It’s cinematic Zionism.”

As a heat wave continues to blanket the New York area this summer, film buffs are taking advantage of a free series of comedies at the Jewish heritage museum called “Mel Brooks on Film: The Spoof is in the Pudding.”

Featuring six award-winning films from the 1970s and 80s, the series runs through Aug. 8. Brooks’ parodies and satires are cult favorites and box office hits, and Brooks is one of only a handful of performers that have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award.

Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, NY, his father’s family consisted of German Jews from Danzig while his mother’s family were Ukrainian Jews from Kiev. His father died of kidney disease at 34, when Brooks was only 2 years old.

In John Wakeman’s book World Film Directors, Brooks explained his reaction to his father’s death. “There’s an outrage there,” Brooks said. “I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face.”

Over the top and often like the punch in the face Brooks described, the humor in his films is muscular self-confident, as opposed to Wood Allen’s neurotic style.

“We had a Woody Allen series last year and that was successful, so we wanted another iconic Jewish director,” Sanders told JNS.org. “It’s been interesting to see how different the two are. Brooks’ preoccupation with Nazis is not unique to just one of his movies. It’s not only Nazis he goes after, but the powerful.”

In 2001, Brooks told U.S. News & World Report that he was never crazy about Hitler. “If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win,” Brooks said. “That’s what they do so well, they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter, they can’t win. You show how crazy they are.”

The Jewish heritage museum’s series includes comic gems such as “Silent Movie,” “History of the World Part I,” “High Anxiety,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “To Be or Not to Be.”

According to Wakeman, after World War II, Brooks started working in various Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs as a drummer and pianist. Another Williamsburg resident, Buddy Rich, taught Brooks how to play drums and he started earning money that way at age 14.

Mel Brooks in "Young Frankenstein." Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Kaminsky changed his professional name to “Mel Brooks” after being confused with the well-known Borscht Belt trumpet player Max Kaminsky. After a regular comic at one of the nightclubs was too sick to perform one night, Brooks started working as a stand-up, telling jokes and doing movie-star impressions. He also began acting in summer stock in Red Bank, NJ, and did some radio work. He eventually worked his way up to “tummler” at Grossinger’s, the most famous of the Catskill resorts.

Sanders invited Leonard Quart, professor emeritus of cinema at the City University of New York (CUNY) Grad Center and contributing editor of Cineaste, to give a talk before the Brooks film series opened.

“Brooks’ films are never subtle. They cartoon, parody, have no use for good taste, and are laugh-out-loud-funny,” Quart told JNS.org. “He has no use for sacred cows.”

Quart said Brooks’ films use Yiddishisms freely but, more importantly, are deeply embedded in a sense of Jewish victimization and oppression.

“He sees comedy as a relieving of the pain of historical intolerance and of being an outsider,” Quart said. “The films make us laugh and sometimes make sharp satiric points about racism, politics, and religion. Yes, they are zany comedies, but they also can provide trenchant commentary on social mores and history.”

Eventually Brooks found more rewarding work behind the scenes, becoming a comedy writer for television. In 1949, his friend from the Borscht Belt days, Sid Caesar, hired Brooks to write jokes for the NBC series The Admiral Broadway Revue, paying him $50 a week. In 1950, Caesar created the revolutionary variety comedy series, “Your Show of Shows,” and hired Brooks as a writer along with Carl Reiner, Neil and Danny Simon, and Mel Tolkin.

Brooks never forgot what Caesar did for him and cast him in his film, “Silent Movie.”

“When we showed ‘Silent Movie’ the other night, he’s merciless with big money. Much of the movie has Mel going around to different stars trying to get them to be in his silent movie. He makes fun of them. He really is a kind of equal opportunity comic,” Sanders said.

Still, some may claim that Brooks’ films continue to push the boundaries of good taste. Quart agrees with this claim. “Yes, he can be vulgar, scatological, and outrageous. But for me, his films are too innocent, even sweet-natured, to draw blood, even though Brooks believes ‘comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.'”

To most, however, Mel Brooks’ films remain relevant.

“How do we define comedy’s relevance? If it’s able to make us laugh, escape our lives, and, at its best, make astute sharp social and psychological points, it’s relevant. I wouldn’t say all of Brooks’ work meets those criteria, but he does meet some of them,” Quart said.

4 Comments

  • charlie johnson

    He is probably the most well loved Jew among ordinary Americans.I doubt that he had many enemies. I believe he served in the US Army in Belgium in WW2 where he was sent to defend the country as an infantryman as he was originally a musician or entertainer.Those kind are few and far between in these times. Some of these guys show up from a far away country and fit right in.Brooklyn has changed a lot since the sixties. There was a lot of good people there.

  • So, since Zionism is not Judaism, where does this author get off mingling the two as if they were the same?

    • Anyone that thinks that Judaism and Zionism are not inherently connected, is fooling themselves. Anti-Zionist Jews are lost souls that prefer to fight for others before their own.

  • I have always had trouble with The Producers, the end result/net effect of which is still to trivialize the Shoah. Then again, I’m not consistent: I’ve laughed many, many a time at iterations of the Downfall Internet meme applied to liberal American politics.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Sports Israeli Fans Mob, Dance With Basketball Player Amar’e Stoudemire at First Jerusalem Team Practice (VIDEO)

    Israeli Fans Mob, Dance With Basketball Player Amar’e Stoudemire at First Jerusalem Team Practice (VIDEO)

    Israeli basketball fans mobbed Hapoel Jerusalem’s newest player, American pro Amar’e Stoudemire, dancing around and with him during a practice open to the public. On Friday, the team posted a video on Twitter of the happy romp with fans jumping around Stoudemire, while chanting in Hebrew. Unfamiliar with the lyrics, Stoudemire pumps his fist in the air. The basketball player, who has Jewish roots on his mother’s side, also waved a flag emblazoned with Hapoel Jerusalem’s logo. The former New York Knicks forward retired from the NBA […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    The Israeli version of the famed American Burning Man music festival is the “ultimate revenge on Hitler,” according to a column in Playboy magazine on Thursday. In his column, Jeff Weiss also took note of the fact that Midburn — a five-day bacchanal in the Negev Desert, self-described as an event celebrating “a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression” — began on June 8, the day of the Sarona Market terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which left four people dead. Weiss asked rhetorically, “What could needle the mustached […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →