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.”