Mel Brooks: Dis­obe­di­ent Jew

  • Review
By – February 27, 2023

The ques­tion that Amer­i­can Jews have so often asked about enter­tain­ers — Are they Jew­ish?” — was nev­er need­ed when Mel Brooks became famous. From his Oscar-win­ning short, The Crit­ic (1963), and the var­i­ous ver­sions of his Gram­my-win­ning 2,000 Year Old Man (1950s and there­after), through his por­tray­al of a Yid­dish-speak­ing Native Amer­i­can in Blaz­ing Sad­dles (1974), down to his own recent auto­bi­og­ra­phy, All About Me! (2021), the mul­ti-tal­ent­ed Brooks (for­mer­ly Melvin Kamin­sky) has milked his eth­nic­i­ty for well over six decades. He has nev­er seemed to tire of let­ting it bub­ble to the sur­face. In Mel Brooks: Dis­obe­di­ent Jew, Colum­bia University’s Jere­my Dauber, a Yid­dishist him­self, places Brooks in the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the Dias­po­ra, explor­ing how a mar­gin­al­ized iden­ti­ty can, through a dis­tinc­tive and illu­mi­nat­ing slant, enter into the mainstream.

Dauber presents Brooks pri­mar­i­ly as a par­o­dist, most famous for his musi­cal (the Spring­time for Hitler” sequence in The Pro­duc­ers (1967), his West­ern (Blaz­ing Sad­dles) and his hor­ror flick (Young Franken­stein (1974)). Through­out his tenure in show busi­ness, he mas­tered sev­er­al media, includ­ing tele­vi­sion scripts and long-play­ing records. As a satirist, how­ev­er — as one oblig­ed to know the fab­rics of the social and polit­i­cal world — Brooks was at his weak­est. For exam­ple, Dauber quotes him as insist­ing that ridicule is the most effec­tive weapon against Nazism. This claim, which the author does not con­test, is bizarre com­ing from a for­mer com­bat­ant on the West­ern Front in the Sec­ond World War.

What, then, can be extract­ed from this biog­ra­phy to assess Brooks’s lega­cy? His movies are most­ly col­lec­tions of gags — very often hilar­i­ous and dar­ing­ly trans­gres­sive, but also unsub­tle and sopho­moric, lack­ing a polit­i­cal edge. Too often, Brooks set­tled for the hope that Jew­ish­ness itself could some­how be made fun­ny, and his any­thing-for-a-laugh reck­less­ness was dis­con­nect­ed from the chal­lenges of inte­grat­ing plot and char­ac­ter. Some even ques­tioned his orig­i­nal­i­ty. When Pauline Kael reviewed High Anx­i­ety (1977), for instance, she lament­ed that the com­e­dy mere­ly showed that Brooks had seen the same Hitch­cock movies every­one else had. Nev­er­the­less, he’s enjoyed tremen­dous com­mer­cial suc­cess, and Dauber still vouch­es for his rel­e­vance as a Jew­ish figure.

With this work, Dauber demon­strates a prodi­gious com­mand of both pop­u­lar cul­ture and the lit­er­a­ture it has inspired. His style is breezy, his sym­pa­thies plain. And as a fan, he cuts Brooks plen­ty of slack — per­haps because, as an apoc­ryphal performer’s adage has it, dying is easy; com­e­dy is hard.”

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