It’s Good To Be The King (Of Parody)

‘Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew’: An enormously fun academic assessment of a singular career

Mel BrooksLast month, as reviewed here, Hulu debuted Mel Brooks’ limited series, History of the World, Part 2 (the long-awaited-but-never-actually-expected sequel to his 1981 film, History of the World, Part 1). Now Yale University Press has just published the intriguing (and highly entertaining) “interpretive biography” Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew, by Jeremy Dauber. Both provide an opportunity to assess, reassess, and continue assessing this living comedy time tunnel between the Catskills and TikTok.

Mel Brooks is a nothing short of a tiny, raspy miracle. It’s hard to think of any other creator (outside of perhaps a few aging rock stars) who has innovated a signature style that translated into massive commercial success, continued delivering for six decades, come back from multiple plummets, and is still working at the top of their game.

And this type of longevity is almost unthinkable in comedy, so dependent on its specific cultural moment. Other than perhaps George Carlin and Mark Twain, no one else has braved and beaten so many shifts and made it to 2023, still beloved and definitely not cancelled.

Still, as author Dauber notes in his introduction, he was surprised to find how few tomes actually have been penned about someone with such a long and influential career in a high-profile industry. Two notable entries are Seesaw, a work from the 1970s that splits focus between Brooks and his late wife/collaborator, actress Anne Bancroft; and Funny Man, a more recent work that concentrates on his directing work.

But to get in the spirit of a book with the word “Jew” in the title, “Why is this Brooks book different from all other Brooks books?”

Predominantly, because it’s part of Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series, which has looked at a wide range of notables, from Karl Marx to Groucho Marx, through a specifically Jewish lens.

So what does that mean? This is not “just” the usual recitation/dramatization of the events of a Famous Person’s career. To be clear, Dauber does that – with clarity, wit, and smartly curated zoom-ins to significant episodes and fast-forwards past the rest.

However, the book also has some larger gefilte fish to fry. It tracks Brooks’ creative endeavors, early attempts, setbacks, triumphs, and career pivots along the axis of “How did Judaism and Jewish culture clash with, meld with, and change or get changed by 20th century pop culture?” Brooks clearly forged his own unique path through this jungle, and a quite different one from a Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, or Jerry Seinfeld. Which is why Dauber avoids a big-picture approach, and instead hews carefully to the specific twists and turns in the case of Brooks v. Goyim.

But don’t let academic imprint and framing fool you. This book is also enormous fun!

Dauber is a Columbia professor and something of a “polynerd” who has written extensive works about the history of America comedy and comic books, and is currently turning his pen towards horror movies. He’s also someone who clearly loves and enjoys pop culture (not always a guarantee with ‘scholarly’ looks at the topic). There’s not a trace of jargon, ideology, or trendy hermeneutics in this work. Instead, the book sparkles with detail, just enough analysis, and – equally interesting to me–deep contextual erudition about Brooks’ peers, the industry, and how all these things changed enormously over the (many!) decades covered.

As an example of how Dauber welds showbiz history to criticism, here’s his three-layered take on the famous “Putting on the Ritz” dance number from Young Frankenstein:

“This is simultaneously an autobiographical reminiscence (as Brooks used to reduce a childhood friend to tears doing something similar), a tip to another movie (where, having captured King Kong, the only thing to do with a monster is make him the basis of a big show), and also, for film fans, an interesting subversion of Peter Boyle, an actor then best known for playing a different kind of monster, a lunchbucket conservative in Joe, in 1970.”

Of course, the book celebrates Brooks’ box-office smashes like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both released in the year 1974!), and his EGOT-earning/Tony-record-setting  comeback with The Producers musical on Broadway. But another strength – which I particularly appreciated as a sometimes-toiler in Hollywood – was that the book also gives ample attention to Brooks’ many, many setbacks, also-rans, and outright failures.

It reminds me of Rewrites, the autobiography by Brooks’ long-ago Sid Caesar colleague Neil Simon, in which the venerated playwright reveals just how excruciatingly hard it was to get taken seriously, get his first play mounted, and to get back on the horse when it bombed.

Similarly, Dauber does not pull punches in calling out Brooks’ weaker efforts (Looking at you, Dracula: Dead and Loving It). This is no hagiography by a long shot.

And to save the best for last, Dauber lards the book (sorry, kosher readers) with enough fantastic tidbits to keep you yapping at cocktail parties for years. He recounts some “almost-casting” tales typical of entertainment history (how the Blazing Saddles sheriff came close to being James Earl Jones or Richard Pryor). There are also numerous hilarious examples of “Mel being Mel” offscreen, like when he was named the fifth biggest box-office attraction of 1976, ahead of Burt Reynolds–and used to phone Reynolds just to say, “Number Six! This is Number Five calling!” Finally, Dauber cites a young Brooks’ romantic dalliance with Someone You Know, creating an image that will explode your brain. I’ll save that one for the book.

My only quibble is that, on a few occasions, Dauber’s interpretive project risks overwhelming the simple comedy. For example, there’s his take on the lyrics of the famous Spanish Inquisition song from History of the World, Part 1:

Confess – don’t be boring.

Confess – don’t be dull.

A fact that you’re ignoring:

It’s better to lose your skullcap than your skull.

Dauber sees this as Brooks chiding the “dullness” of traditional Orthodox Judaism (which he personally eschewed), thrown into contrast by a “showbizzed up” Torquemada (sung with gusto by Brooks). As a fairly experienced comedy writer/lyricist, I’d stake my yarmulke that Brooks’ comedy brain first heard the “skullcap/skull” turn, and reverse-engineered the A-B rhyme scheme to get us to that timeless zinger.

But enough about me! Back to Mel. In Disobedient Jew, Dauber has pulled together an impressive number of threads to produce a very satisfying (and quite quick-reading) story of an unstoppable creative mind, with a huge and continuing impact on so much of today’s comedy world. A world of whose history we can only imagine this nonstop nonagenarian will be writing a third part.

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Rob Kutner

Rob Kutner has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, and is also the author of Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times, and the graphic novel Shrinkage.

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