Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew, by Jeremy Dauber. Yale University Press, 2023.
I have lost track of the number of times I’ve watched Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. I can recite numerous scenes verbatim, and my best friend from high school and I still have competitive quote-offs. I got my film-avoidant 20-something son to watch it recently, along with Blazing Saddles. He enjoyed both, even as he pointed to the outdated portrayals of race and sex as “cringy.”
I do share my son’s frustrations with Brooks, though my parents helped me forgive him. My face-palms and groans, especially as a young adult, were met with my father’s shrugs over his generation’s sensibilities. And my mother always had one line for reassurance: “But he’s married to Anne Bancroft.” Bancroft wouldn’t put up with serious woman-bashing, mom promised. I similarly excused the racism in Brooks’ “Indian chief” role in Blazing Saddles by praising his strategic use of Yiddish as the character’s native language, linking Indigenous peoples and immigrant Jews in clever fashion.
Only last month, however, did I venture beyond the screen and occasional magazine article to read a book about Brooks. This year, the comedy genius turned 97 and saw his name in print (again) in Jeremy Dauber’s Mel Brooks: Disobedient Jew. The book tracks the comedian’s life and career in engaging detail, with a special focus on his unparalleled work in parody. We read about his childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, full of Jewish life and culture as well as the early deaths of several family members. We follow him through the development of his comedic style in the early 1950s, working in the Jewish-dominated writers’ room of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, where Brooks was the youngest member. We see him turn to writing and directing for film, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, becoming one of the most popular filmmakers in America. And there’s also a chapter devoted to his parodic work for television, including Get Smart (1965-1970) and When Things Were Rotten (1975).
The final chapters bring us from the 1980s to the 21st century, with special attention to the musical reinventions of his early films, including the Tony award-winning The Producers and the less groundbreaking Young Frankenstein (which I was nonetheless delighted to see in London in 2018).
The book’s title marks its core focus, the brilliant “disobedience” of Brooks. Dauber argues that parody – a disruptive and subversive art – must be understood as a mode of Jewish humor, one at which Brooks has excelled. Outstanding examples include his most famous musical numbers, such as the “Inquisition” sequence in History of the World, Part I and “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers. By ridiculing the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis, Brooks broaches the taboo subject of Jewish historical persecution through absurd excess and ruthless satire.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter addresses Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man routines with Carl Reiner. Dauber argues that the 1960 comedy album is where Brooks first found his comedic voice, relying on Yiddish-inflected cadences and Jewish perspectives for his witty historical commentary. (Of Joan of Arc, for instance, he opines, “Vat a cutie! I went with her!”) For Dauber, this ancient character illustrates Brooks’ need to subvert the cultural norms of
polite society, to push beyond the boundaries of the acceptable, and to do so in a particularly Jewish voice.
In short, if you already love Mel Brooks or seek to understand why so many people do, this book will offer a persuasive presentation. It’s a fitting tribute to an important Jewish auteur and a living comedy legend. This Thanksgiving, if prompted, I plan to give thanks for Brooks, and perhaps watch Young Frankenstein again.
Elyce Rae Helford, Ph.D., is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. She can be reached at email@example.com