Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks' humor springs from Jews' outsider status and history of persecution.

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Reprinted with permission from American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and Trends (University of Illinois Press).

Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky) never camouflages the causal rela­tionship between his Jewish perspective and his comic work. In­deed, he persistently demonstrates and explicitly acknowledges how the latter springs from the former. In both his interviews and his films, Brooks incorporates Jewish motifs and concerns, a repeti­tive pattern as easily recognizable in his earliest works as in his most recent picture. 

Often referring to himself as "your obedient Jew"--a phrase squeaking with mock obsequiousness while affirming his outsider status--Brooks plainly situates himself, his work, and his humor within a recognizable Jewish tradition that integrates his personal history with his people's suffering:

"Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved, lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every 10 Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one.... You want to know where my comedy comes from? It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you're 16. It comes from the feeling that, as a Jew and as a person, you don't fit into the mainstream of American society. It comes from the realization that even though you're better and smarter, you'll never belong."

Comedy Amidst Tragedy

Such a comment assumes that suffering constitutes a large segment of Jewish history, while it recognizes comedy's role in the midst of such tragedy. In fact, Brooks's statement goes further, expressing an instinctive understanding that comedy relieves, if only tempo­rarily, the pain and horror of historical intolerance.

This cultural anguish finds a direct parallel in Brooks's personal experience, where his physical appearance and religious heritage limit his participation in everything from the traditional rites of puberty to acceptance into mainstream American life. Yet, once again, grief and bitterness become crucibles that forge comedy rather than ex­istential despair or violent recriminations. For Brooks, being a Jew means being tied to a specific tradition from which he draws both his inspiration and his comic vision.

One finds this constant reaffirmation (some might call it an annoying redundancy or even obsessive paranoia) of Jewishness throughout Brooks's career. Take, for example, his 1966 Playboy interview, ironically placed between interviews with Fidel Castro and Malcolm X. Brooks begins by proclaiming that he is "spec­tacularly Jewish," and then goes on to assert that many top comedi­ans are Jewish because "when the tall, blond Teutons have been nipping at your heels for thousands of years, you find it enervating to keep wailing. So you make jokes. If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?"

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David Desser is the director of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former editor of Cinema Journal.