"One of the purposes of art is to make things right
that are eternally wrong." -- Mel Brooks
“Comedy is a red rubber ball and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively." -- Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks (né Melvin Kaminsky) is a New York-born writer, director, actor, songwriter, comedian and producer whose work is noteworthy for its auteur flair. Among Brooks signatures are:
a fixation on his Jewishness
the representation of the Other (Jewish, African-American, handicapped, sexual preference, etc.)
Germans, especially Nazis
the use of humor, including slapstick and farce, to showcase serious subjects
an emphasis on sex and the scatological
satirizing generic expectations
irreverent view of Christianity, including Catholicism
incorporating music, often written by Brooks himself, that is anachronistic and/or out of whack with what's going on in the narrative
tends to work with the same cast and crew
Brooks admits to a kinship between his Jewishness and his comedic film work, with the former providing a framework for the latter. Most, if not all, his comedies contain Jewish motifs and concerns (such as the Holocaust), and these echo "a recognizable Jewish tradition that integrates his personal history with his peoples suffering" (Desser and Friedman, 105). As Brooks has stated, "(M)y comedy...comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you dont fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though youre better and smarter, youll never belong" (Zimmerman 57).
Among the Jewish allusions in Brooks films are frequent Yiddishisms, with terms such as shmuck, putz, farblunged and shtupp in Blazing Saddles; a musical bit on the Inquisition, with Brooks as a crooning Torquemada, in History of the World Part I, which also ends with a fake trailer for a film called Jews in Space; Brooks again, this time playing Rabbi Tuckman, a mohel (a religious figure who performs circumcisions) wielding his instrument a little too freely in Robin Hood: Men in Tights; Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, two actors with distinctively Jewish personae, as failed swindlers in The Producers who meet up with a director named Roger DeBris (bris is the Hebrew word for circumcision); the Princess Leia-like character in Spaceballs is a Druish (read Jewish) princess; and two characters in High Anxiety dress up as an old Jewish couple, spouting Yiddish-inflected English, in order to make a getaway. Its even been claimed that Brooks early film The Twelve Chairs (1970), which is set in Czarist Russia and is seemingly devoid of Semitic references, has a Jewish sensibility, since it reflects "an ancient Jewish respect for literature" a la Dostoevsky (Holtzman, 255). That might be stretching the point, though one of the musical numbers in the film (which Brooks wrote hes written the songs for most of his films) expresses a decidedly Russian-Jewish perspective: "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst." The lyrics echo the feelings of Russian Jews in the late 1800's, who were either persecuted or killed in pogroms or drafted into a 20-year stint in the Czars army.
Antipathy toward Germans
Why do Nazis show up so frequently in Brooks' films as the butt of his funny bone? One reason, of course, is his antipathy for Germans, which he has not been loath to keep to himself:
"Me? Not like the Germans? Why should I not like Germans? Just because they're arrogant and have fat necks and do anything they're told so long as it's cruel, and killed millions of Jews in concentration camps and made soap out of their bodies and lamp shades out of their skins. Is that any reason to hate their f**king guts?" (Yacowar, 17).
What Brooks has done, though, is to channel his feelings of anguish and horror towards historical bigotry into comedy. As he has stated, "when the tall, blond Teutons have been nipping at your heels...you find it enervating to keep wailing. So (instead) you make jokes. If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?" (Siegal, 266).
Brooks acted on this belief well before he began making movies. As a soldier during World War II, he never engaged in direct combat against the Nazis. Although at one point he had the perilous job of deactivating land mines ahead of the Allied infantrys arrival, he was apparently disappointed that he was never able to confront Hitlers troops face to face. Brooks closest contact with the enemy was aural rather than physical: Towards the end of the war, after Germanys defeat at the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi soldiers set up a loudspeaker to blare propaganda at Brooks and his fellow G.I.s. In retaliation, Brooks set up his own loudspeaker and "serenaded" Hitlers elite forces with a boisterous version of Al Jolsons "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye." Brooks probably realized the irony of forcing the Third Reichs troops to listen to a popular American tune, especially one sung by a Jewish performer, over and over again.
This maneuver, though, did not assuage Brooks feeling that he should have done
more, since characters in all of his comedies come face to face with Germans (Desser and
Friedman, 118-9). Indeed, including laughable portraits of Huns is one of Brooks
auteur signatures. Germans show up in Blazing Saddles (Lili von Shtupp is a send-up
of Marlene Dietrich, and in one of the films many anachronisms, Nazi soldiers become
mercenaries in the West); Cloris Leachman has Teutonic roles in High Anxiety (Nurse
Diesel) and Young Frankenstein (Frau Blucher)); theres a pseudo coming
attraction in History of the World called Hitler on Ice; The Producers
features a Broadway musical called Springtime for Hitler; Spaceballs shows Nazis
lurking on other planets; and in Brooks remake of To Be or Not to Be, set in
Poland during the German occupation, Brooks plays an actor who must impersonate three
different Nazis, including Der Führer himself and a Third Reich officer nicknamed
"Concentration Camp Charlie" (Desser and Friedman, 119).
Use of Comedy
Looking at the Nazis from a humorous perspective was not a Brooks innovation; Allied troops frequently dropped cartoons that poked fun at Hitler behind enemy lines. Nevertheless, treating a serious subject with humor lends itself to controversy. After all, anyone in Germany circa WWII who made anti-Hitler jokes could get the death sentence. In addition, some people have criticized Roberto Benigni, the writer/director/star of the award-winning Italian film Life is Beautiful, claiming that its insulting to make a comedy about the trauma of the Holocaust (Desser and Friedman, 120). Brooks, though, claims that "the more serious the situation, the funnier the comedy can be... the greatest comedy plays against the greatest tragedy" (Yacowar, viii). Thus, Brooks comedies "set off atomic bombs of laughter" (Yacowar, 65). Also, people may find a comedic treatment of a touchy subject more palatable than if it were proffered in a serious manner. Think about how Brooks, in infusing Blazing Saddles with comedy, e.g., poking fun at prejudice, engages us a lot more than if it were a serious treatise on racism and the ostracism of outsiders. As the filmmaker himself has noted, the Holocaust
is probably the great outrage of the
twentieth century. There is nothing to compare with it. So what can I do about it? If I
get on the soapbox and wax eloquently, itll be blown away in the wind, but if I do Springtime
for Hitler, itll never be forgotten. I think you can bring down
totalitarian governments faster by using ridicule than you can with invective
Genre Turned Inside Out and Upside Down
Brooks also provokes laughter though his subversion of various film genres. Blazing Saddles makes mincemeat out of the classic Western, as well as poking fun at movie musicals; Young Frankenstein mocks monster movies; Spaceballs tweaks the first three Star Wars films; Robin Hood: Men in Tights parodies costume dramas about the swashbuckling hero of Sherwood Forest; High Anxiety sends up some of Hitchcocks thrillers; and History of the World spoofs biblical and historical epics. In addition, Brooks invokes movie musicals by including improbable musical numbers in most of these films. For instance, in Young Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, clad in tuxedos, perform a soft-shoe rendition of "Puttin on the Ritz."
Brooks no doubt became comfortable spoofing film genres during his years as a writer for Sid Caesars television comedy, Your Show of Shows. Brooks came up with parodies of musicals, dramas, gangster pics, and foreign films. This penchant for subverting generic formulas also surfaced during Brooks stint as a writer for the mid-sixties, hit t.v. series Get Smart, a running spoof of James Bond pictures.
The filmmaker has stated that he parodies genres because he likes "a background to work against" (Yacowar, 2). He tends to select backgrounds where white, middle-class males dominate, perhaps because they provide the ideal backdrop for exposing and criticizing the dominant culture.
Representation of the Other
Brooks films evoke a deep-seated sense of being uncomfortable in the American WASP mainstream, which "values tall, blonde beach boys and traditional Christian upbringing...someone who drives a white Ford station wagon, eats white bread, vanilla milkshakes and mayonnaise" (Desser and Friedman, 122). Blazing Saddles, for one, is a frontal assault on racist attitudes. Here the primary focus is on racial bias, with the white citizens of a small Western town refusing to accept a black sheriff, i.e., a man of color in a position of power. But Brooks also points to discrimination against Native Americans and Jews, with pointed (albeit fleeting) references to Asians, Arabs, Mexican and the Irish. However, there is also an unexpected representation of Otherness here: flatulence. Also, several of his films, including Blazing Saddles, joke about homosexuality, but it is difficult to say whether he is pointing to gays as a faction of the Other or poking fun at them for their sexual preference.
One overt characteristic of Brooks' work is his penchant for sexual humor. Whether it's the "Gov" (played by Brooks himself) in Blazing Saddles, canoodling with his "beloved secretary," dressed anachronistically in a Playboy Bunny-type outfit, Maid Marian's Everlast chastity belt in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, or the enormity of the monster's "shvantzstucker" in Young Frankenstein, non-PC sexual innuendoes abound. No doubt they are another way to both shock and entertain viewers. It also goes hand-in-hand with the following category:
Scatology and Vulgarity
Brooks oeuvre is replete with ribald references. "Youve been accused of being vulgar," one interviewer claimed. "Bullshit!" retorted Brooks (Siegal, 266). His champions have euphemistically referred to Brooks as Rabelaisian, while detractors dismiss his vulgarity as simple bad taste (Desser and Friedman, 115).
Nowhere is Brooks propensity for bathroom humor more in evidence than in Blazing
Saddles. First, there are lyrics to one musical number, intoned by churchgoers in a
hymn-like fashion: "This town is turning into shit." Then there is bartender Anal Johnson, who has a cleanliness fixation, and local schoolmarm Harriet
Johnson. Unlike the refined teachers in classic Westerns who bring civilization to the
West, Harriet accuses the governor, William J. LePetomane, of being "the leading
asshole in the state." Even the governors name is scatological. Francophiles may
recognize Le Petomane as the stage name of a revered, turn-of-the-century music hall
performer who "entertained" audiences with his melodious farts.
("Peter" is French for to fart.) However, the films most overt scatology
occurs in the passing-gas-around-the-campfire scene. According to Brooks
Farts are a repressed minority. The mouth gets to say all kinds of things, but the other place is supposed to keep quiet. But maybe your lower colons have something interesting to say. Maybe we should listen to them. Farts are human, more human than a lot of people I know. I think we should bring them out of the water closet and into the parlor... Shakespeare said hold the mirror up to life; I held it a little behind and lower (Yacowar, 102-3).
Its obvious that Brooks, who waged a bitter battle with Warner Bros. to keep the
campfire sequence in the film, sees farts as "outsiders ghettoized in the bathroom"
(Desser and Friedman, 116). For him they are on par with people classified as
outsiders because of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference, as well as the
physically or mentally challenged. It supplies Brooks with a weapon to puncture
pretension, a way for him to confront widely-held American beliefs, including the mythic
view of the West which we tend to accept as gospel, despite its untruths, e.g., the West
was a "wellspring of democracy" (Desser and Friedman, 127). Brooks has explained
that its important to him to communicate values in his films: "One of the
purposes of art is to make things right that are eternally wrong. And the job of the
artist is to paint a picture of life as truly and honestly as he sees it, and add that
extra dimension of hope, and of fantasy, and of dream" (Kristal, 28).
Irreverence Toward Organized Christianity
Brooks' comedies express an irreverent view of Christianity is due to the filmmaker's belief that it has for centuries fostered much of the world's anti-Semitism, and few Christian leader helped Jews during the Holocaust (Desser and Friedman, 129-130. In Blazing Saddles, for example, "the white God-fearing people" of Rock Ridge gather piously in their town's church, but they physically threaten their new sheriff when he turns out to be a black man. In Blazing Saddles, for instance, he has a mercenary boast of "stampeding cattle...through the Vatican."
History of the World, Part II is chock-full of anti-Christian barbs. In the latter film, there's a hapless waiter who keeps distracting Jesus during the Last Supper by evoking the Lord's name in vain every time he drops something. Brooks also satirizes the brutality heaped upon so-called Crypto-Jews during the Inquisition -- certainly one of the darkest chapters in Church history -- by having the head inquisitor (played by Brooks himself) do a musical number: "The Inquisition! What a show! The Inquisition! Here we go! We're on a mission to convert the Jews...It's better to lose your skullcap than your skulls."
In fact, Brooks expressed concern about this particular scene before this comedy was released in 1981:
"I don't know how audiences are going to like the Spanish Inquisition sequence... I have three Jews, each on a wheel. Torquemada pulls the handle and the wheels spin around. If three rabbis come up, you win a lot of money. I mean it's very dangerous to put Jews on racks and have Catholics torture them, and get laughs" (Cooper).
Brooks also mocks Christianity because of personal experiences. For example, the funny man has cited how he was addressed during his stint in the Army: "''Jewboy! Out of my way, out of my face, Jewboy!'" (Wallace). He also uses humor to poke fun at religious fundamentalists whom he decries for "using God as a weapon" (Cooper). In Blazing Saddles, Rock Ridge's religious leader, Reverend Johnson, is a cowardly figure, in Brooks' first film, The Twelve Chairs, one of the main characters is a greedy and conniving Russian Orthodox priest, and there's a harebrained minister in Spaceballs.
Despite Brooks' penchant for lampooning organized Christianity, he himself has long been married to actress Anne Bancroft (née Anne Italiano). While Bancroft has frequently played Jewish characters, in fact she had a strict Italian-Catholic upbringing (Desser and Friedman, 130).
Music has long been important to Brooks: "I love music first; my second love is Anne Bancroft (his wife of more than 35 years)" ( Evans). As a kid growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression, young Mel had his
ear glued to the radio. I knew the lyrics of all of 1935's biggest hits
and loudly sang them all day long as I happily danced along the sidewalks.
Actually, I was a pretty good singer, on pitch and usually able to hit all of
the top notes, and I always got 'em at family parties with my imitations of
Jolson singing "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" (mentioned above, as the tune he repeatedly
sang to German troops) and Eddie Cantor doing "If You Knew Susie" (Brooks).
Brooks was taught to play drums by legendary drummer Buddy Rich, and he sometimes sat in on Rich's sessions. (It's hard to imagine Brooks remaining that quiet.) In the 1950's, when he auditioned to write for the television megahit "Your Show of Shows," he did an original musical number, " "Here I Am, I'm Melvin Brooks" (Howard).
In his films, Brooks uses music as subversively as
any other element. He typically employs music in two ways: First, he
takes standards, such as Cole Porter's tunes, and inserts them into his
narratives in unexpected ways. For example, there is the tap dance
performed by Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, dressed in tuxedos, in front of
an audience of scientists, to the Porter classic "Puttin' on the Ritz."
And in Blazing Saddles, Porter's sophisticated "I Get a Kick Out of You"
is sung, improbably and anachronistically, by a group of African Americans
working on the railroad in 1874.
Second, Brooks often writes his own words and music, as in The Producers. Two finaglers are staging "the worst play of all time," a tasteless musical romp penned written by a crazed Nazi, and it opens with an outrageous number called "Springtime for Hitler." The lyrics feature lines such as, Don't be stupid, be a smartie; come and join the Nazi party." In History of the World Part II, another outlandish Brooks tune, "The Inquisition," represents an entire historical era.
Whether original or classic numbers, music in Brooks' films provide an additional layer of parody. But this does not mean that Brooks isn't serious about music: "I'm at ever recording session, and I listen to every note. You see, I know that I'm going to be dead and it's going to be there after me. Those little notes are etched into my tombstone, and I want to make sure that they are perfect. I don't mind spending an hour getting a 30-second cue perfect" (Howard).
The Brooks Troupe
Brooks' films often feature the same cadre of performers. For example, Dom DeLuise appears in six, Harvey Korman has roles in four, Madeline Kahn shows up in four; Gene Wilder has major parts in three and co-wrote Young Frankenstein with Brooks; Cloris Leachman and Ron Carey also appear in three; and Marty Feldman is in two. Some of the smaller roles are often filled with Brooks' regulars, including funnyman Rudy De Luca, who appears in seven of Brooks' comedies; Ronny Graham, who has parts in four; Howard Morris, a co-writer on Your Show of Shows, who is in three; and Kenneth Mars who is in two. Brooks also practices nepotism: wife Anne Bancroft is a frequent costar (look for her uncredited cameo in Blazing Saddles' church scene); Carol DeLuise, wife of Dom, plays the schoolmarm in that film; and Gene Wilder's wife, Gilda Radner, also shows up very briefly in the church sequence. Brooks himself shows up in most of his comedies, and his parts range from costar (High Anxiety) to cameos (the voice of an injured cat in Young Frankenstein). In a few of his films, notably History of the World, Part II and Blazing Saddles, Brooks plays more than one role.
If you doubt that Brooks is an auteur filmmaker, study some of the films hes produced. A lot of people have been surprised, given Brooks broad comedic talents, to learn that his production company was responsible for making the serious period piece The Elephant Man. On closer inspection, however, its easy to discern the link: The diseased and misshapened John Merrick is just another in a long line of outsiders, representatives of "the Other" whom Brooks loves to showcase on screen.
Brooks, Mel. "The Music
Man in Mel Brooks." New York Times. April 15, 2001.
Arthur. "Blazing Anxieties: Mel Brooks Is Just a Little Bit Crazy."
Mademoiselle. August, 1981.
Desser, David and Lester D. Friedman. American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and
Trends. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Evans, Frank. "Mel Brooks Blitzes
Broadway with The Producers." MusicWorld. June 13, 2001.
Holtzman, William. Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks.
Garden City: Doubleday, 1979.
Howard, Jeffrey K. Mel Brooks
Interview, 1997. Film Score Monthly. August
Kristal, Marc. "Brooks Bookshop." Saturday Review 9. July-August,
Siegal, Larry. "Playboy Interview." Playboy, October 1966.
Interview with Mel Brooks, "Mel Brooks on Anti-Semitism. CBS News.
April 20, 2001.
Yacowar, Maurice. Method in Madness: The Art of Mel Brooks. New York: St.
Martins Press, 1981.
Zimmerman, Paul. "The Mad Mad Mel Brooks." Newsweek, February 17, 1975.
A New York Times article on Brooks, written by the man himself just before the opening of the Broadway adaptation of his film The Producers, is included here
Web sites that
relate to this handout:
A Salon interview with Brooks, where he reminisces about making the film is here.
Only for lovers of bathroom humor: A serious look at the "French Fartisse," Joseph Pujo, aka LePetomane