The (Funniest) 89-Year-Old Man

08/13/2015 - 2:45pm
The comic genius of Mel Brooks is divine.

"Blazing Saddles", "2000 Year Old Man", "History Of The World"  and more by Mel Brooks have made an indelible mark on Jewish humor. Getty Images 

 

Editor’s Note: Isaac Rosen was a finalist The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing. The national contest sought essays on a Jewish American who has made a significant impact in the field of television, film, music or theater. Writers were asked to identify the person’s lasting legacy on them or on American culture. The contest was sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.

I remember the first time I watched “Blazing Saddles.”

I was an 8th grader in the midst of a big research project. My topic of choice? Jewish humor. A few weeks in, I met with my teacher so he could check my progress. I showed him my primary source, Novak and Waldocks’ “The Big Book of Jewish Humor” and he checked over my notes. Before I left he asked me if I had ever seen “Blazing Saddles.” When I told him that I hadn’t, he gave me my homework assignment.

That evening I discovered my first true love of the entertainment world. Mel Brooks.

The child of European Jewish immigrants, Melvin Kaminsky was born in Brooklyn in 1926. At school he was often bullied and used performing (he was a talented musician) as an escape. After a brief tour of military duty he worked as a pianist in various Catskill nightclubs. One night, the headlining comedian fell ill and Brooks, who had used humor to survive hard times in his childhood, stepped on stage and improvised a set. Throughout a career spanning seven decades, Mel Brooks has been one of the most influential and successful men in entertainment.

After Blazing Saddles, I watched every Mel Brooks movie I could, memorized “The 2000 Year Old Man” and created a comedy routine with my best friend.  In my 8th grade yearbook, I listed Mel Brooks as one of my heroes alongside Abraham Lincoln and the Dalai Lama.

But comedy is complicated. What makes us laugh and why? Where is the line between what is funny and what is taboo? With roots in the shtetl, Jewish humor — heavily steeped in self-deprecation and the ability to laugh at suffering — has found its own answers to these questions. The Spanish Inquisition isn't funny… until you introduce the synchronized swimming nuns and the Yiddish men’s choir in the torture chamber. “The Inquisition” song (“It’s better to lose your skullcap than your skull!”) in all its campy glory, was the first time I had seen a Jewish tragedy made funny.

During my freshman year in a large urban public school, I posted the lyrics to “Springtime for Hitler” on my Facebook page. I had recently seen “The Producers” and wanted to show off my sophisticated palette of humor to my new high school friends. My mom, who naturally scanned and censored my page, was furious. She insisted I remove it, explaining that some might take it literally as a pro-Nazi song. In order to laugh at satire, one must understand that it means the opposite of what it says. I had taken this ability for granted, because Mel Brooks (and the Jewish comic tradition he exemplifies) had been my teacher.

With wit like Herschel of Ostropol, antics like the wise men of Chelm and better timing than God when He took us out of Egypt, Mel Brooks is one of the comic geniuses of our time. He has made me laugh and made me think. 

author's bio: 
Isaac Rosen is a graduate of Albany High School in Albany, N.Y. He is attending Tufts University in the fall.