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Mel Brooks at the End of Comedy

Well into his 90s, Melvin Kaminsky has his fingerprints all over this year’s Oscars via ‘Jojo Rabbit’—and all over the comedy world at large, depending on where you look. If Taika Waititi wins big on Sunday, though, expect the scoffing to sound much the same as it did in 1969.

Alamy/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Ringer illustration

At the Oscars, a comedy about Nazis is up for a few of the night’s biggest awards. The film is a dark horse in most regards, and, especially with such a young, unserious writer/director, it’s mainly a shock that it even got made in the first place—let alone that it’s gotten this far in the awards race. Upon release, critics and audiences were torn: The movie finds a way to make you laugh, sure, but is it responsible? Is it relevant? Is it art?

It’s not yet known how the Nazi comedy will fare at this year’s awards, but you can see, in all its grainy YouTube glory, how it did in 1969: After Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles finish goofing their way through the nominees for Best Original Screenplay, which include John Cassavetes (for Faces) and Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (for 2001: A Space Odyssey), the winner is announced as ... Mel Brooks for The Producers.

When the broadcast cuts to the previously B-list Brooks, he isn’t seen kissing his A-list wife, Anne Bancroft, because she isn’t there next to him. (It wasn’t believed that Brooks had any chance in hell of winning the award, so she didn’t attend the ceremony.) Nevertheless, Brooks doesn’t miss a beat in trotting spryly to the stage, entering straight into a bit that you would swear was rehearsed by a man who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would stand apart, even in that Hollywood crowd, as deserving enshrinement in movie history.

“I didn’t trust myself in case I won, so I wrote a couple of things here,” he says onstage, fumbling around in his jacket for a speech, ultimately coming up empty. “Well, I’ll just say what’s in my heart: ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.”

The image of Mel Brooks at the Oscars, collecting an award for a satiric, theatrical comedy originally titled Springtime for Hitler, is still a bit surreal to see. When it first hit theaters in November 1967, The Producers was released in the relatively recent aftermath of World War II. Nearly everyone in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that Oscar night would have witnessed firsthand the brutal effects of the war. Many of them fought in it.

That includes Brooks, who arrived in France in February 1945 as part of a U.S. military unit responsible for clearing out and maintaining supply roads used by the Allied infantry—meaning that part of his job was to defuse landmines. (“The bombs were powerful enough to blow up a tank,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “Imagine what they could do to you.”) He didn’t know it at the time, but nearby the Nazis had created camps with the express purpose of exterminating his people, whom he wasn’t all that distantly linked to, being a first-generation Jewish immigrant himself. (His mother, Kitty, was born in present-day Ukraine.)

As detailed in Funny Man, Patrick McGilligan’s 2019 biography of Brooks, at one point a bomb hit Brooks’s unit, and he had to take refuge from falling debris under a desk, where he thought, “If I get through this, I’ll get through anything.” Brooks was 5-foot-3 and weighed 125 pounds. He was 18 years old.

Understanding just how audacious The Producers was is impossible without the consideration of this timeline. In a country packed with recent victims of Hitler’s regime, a large number of them still reasonably scarred and vulnerable, Brooks made his feature-length debut with a story that asks people to laugh at the man responsible for nearly dismantling the Western world. As you can imagine, this initially did not go well.

“It was still dangerous to do The Producers when I was filming it in ’65 and ’66,” Brooks told Marc Maron in a 2013 episode of the WTF podcast. “I’ll never forget: Opening night at The Producers, there was a big guy who was drunk, a big Jew, storming up the aisle during the production [scene] of Springtime for Hitler, saying, ‘This is a disgrace! This is a horror! Jews died!’ And I caught him at the end of the aisle, trying to get rid of him—it was opening night—and he said, ‘I was in World War II! I risked my life!’ And I said, ‘I was in World War II—I didn’t see you.’”

This would not be the last time Brooks had people protesting from the aisles. Following The Producers, the man born Melvin Kaminsky created a handful of the most controversial films of the ’70s. Despite becoming a household name in that era, frequently cited alongside his former colleague Woody Allen as a definitive voice of American comedy, Brooks never had a movie come out in his whole career that wasn’t met with some form of critical or commercial dismissal—or both. (1991’s Life Stinks, which has a generous 18 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, eventually ended up in the red by nearly $9 million.)

Even when his movies were extremely popular, as they were in 1974, when he directed not one but two of the top releases of the year (Blazing Saddles, which was no. 1 at the box office, and Young Frankenstein, which was no. 4), he was written off by numerous top-end critics like The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael as being childish and unredeeming. (“Brooks as director destroys his own best ideas,” she said in her original review of The Producers. “[His approach is] not screenwriting; it’s gagwriting.”) To this day, Brooks will still cite some of those bad reviews by memory. “You don’t forget these things,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2017.

What made him so controversial—and so partially reviled—in that time is also precisely where some of his impact can still be deeply felt. Try to consider a world in which an entire bridesmaid party would crap themselves without Brooks having already served beans to a bunch of gunslingers outside of Rock Ridge. (Even the name Blazing Saddles itself was a fart joke.) Or one in which Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg could make ... essentially any of their movies without having grown up watching Gregory Hines light Mighty Joint in History of the World: Part 1.

This isn’t to say that what made Brooks’s films great was simply that he was willing to cross any and all lines previously established. In fact, a good couple of his movies have aged poorly because of this fact, usually having pushed the line in some wrong direction. (The casual homophobia in his movies stands out, as does his occasional use of women characters as objects just to glare at.) In its time, anyway, the most controversial element of a Brooks movie was Blazing Saddles’ crass handling of race issues—but it is worth noting that Richard Pryor was one of the cowriters of that production, helping to find a tone that humanized the dehumanizing history of black people in the United States in an absurdist way. (“Well, Mel, you can’t say it,” Pryor is said to have told Brooks, regarding the n-word in the script, “but the bad guys can say it. They would say it!”)

Truthfully, the best movie Brooks ever made—his one unimpeachably perfect film—is the one that might have the least amount of shock value to it at all: Young Frankenstein. And as seen by that movie’s debt to the films of James Whale and Ingmar Bergman, or by the many carefully and lovingly choreographed Busby Berkeley musical sequences staged throughout his career, Brooks had sincere aspirations for creating work that could be considered “real art.” This truth became somewhat eroded over time, particularly after people came to know him as the guy who made fart jokes, after which he decided to embrace that fact by giving the people what they wanted—while also expanding into piss jokes and puke jokes, for good measure.

But when looking back on his work, especially in the early period, it’s clear that Brooks had loftier visions of his image, as seen by films like The Twelve Chairs, which was essentially an art house film about poverty in Soviet Russia (filmed in Yugoslavia), or Silent Movie, which was literally a silent movie, in which Brooks paid tribute to his silent star heroes like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was, of course, one of the central inspirations for satirizing Hitler in The Producers, as was Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which Brooks later paid tribute to by starring in a 1983 remake alongside Bancroft.)

With the benefit of being able to consider his entire career at a glance, it appears that the pure appeal of the Brooks canon is the combination of his highbrow sensibilities with a lowbrow fearlessness to go places other people wouldn’t. (You can see this combination personified in the 1963 animated short The Critic, an Oscar-winning Brooks collaboration with Ernest Pintoff that lovingly makes fun of Norman McLaren’s work.) That didn’t necessarily mean he was solely aiming to rile viewers up, but rather that he was unafraid to have fun with it and see what happened, for better or worse. “Write from the gut,” Brooks is said to have told the Blazing Saddles writing team, which also included Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger, in addition to Pryor. “Write from the heart. Write the craziest shit.”

Even before Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi was in line as a possible heir to Brooks’s throne. For one thing, even though there are plenty of other notable monster-movie parodies that are sure to have played a role in its inception, it’s hard to imagine Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows getting made in a universe in which the New Zealander isn’t raised in a post–Young Frankenstein world (and, to a lesser degree, one in which he isn’t studying theater in college when Brooks’s career-endingly awful Dracula: Dead and Loving It came out). For another, anyone who steps into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with as much grace and success as Waititi did with Thor: Ragnarok can be expected to share Brooks’s own notorious focus on a financial bottom line—not to mention a shared understanding of the value of merchandising.

But Jojo makes that lineage exceedingly clear, for obvious reasons, and also opens up the conversation as to whether someone like Waititi could possibly turn out to be this generation’s answer to Mel Brooks. Regardless of what you think of Jojo, you can’t deny that it is wild that we’re all sitting around talking about a movie starring Hitler—played by the writer/director himself, no less, in that writer/director’s first movie after being minted by the MCU.

From any angle, it was a bonkers move, and, with apologies to those who don’t think “gesundheit” is a funny response to someone saying “a Jew” (it is pretty funny, come on), the movie does serve as a totally above-average comedy. It’s nowhere near perfect (comedies seldom are), but at the very least it’s thought-provoking and charming, and the work of a filmmaker with a distinct voice willing to fully commit to an outlandish vision. An aspiring art film masquerading as slapstick. And at least proverbially speaking, it had people walking up the aisles.

“The kiss of death for me,” Waititi told Complex in a recent interview, “would be someone going, ‘Yeah, I saw the film. Interesting.’ That’s a sort of weird, derogatory way of describing a film. It’s like eating a cake. It’s enjoyable while you’re eating it, and then you don’t really remember it. You got no nutrition. You’re not completely satisfied. Whereas, I feel like if you’re talking about it afterwards, it’s doing its job.”

Getting people to talk by whatever means necessary is a messy formula, which explains why we got a messy film. But in an otherwise bland and forgettable comedic cinematic era—one in which people were seriously talking about Booksmart as being the funniest movie of last year—it was most welcome.

“I want to say,” Brooks said, unprompted, during a recent speech at the AFI Awards, “I just saw Jojo Rabbit, and it’s really a terrific and eloquent and beautiful picture.” Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.

Last December, lost during the chaos of the holiday season, Mel Brooks quietly came out of cinematic retirement. Well, sort of. The occasion was the HBO special Mel Brooks: Unwrapped—a decades-spanning mockumentary project helmed by former BBC creative director Alan Yentob, who filmed several visits with Brooks dating back to 1981, compiling them in semicoherent fashion alongside new footage.

Toward the end of the special, Brooks starts to joke around about his death. Only thing is, this particular joke is from 40 years ago.

In a vintage scene, presumably pulled from a vault within the deepest recesses of the BBC, a camera pans across the tombstones of Jim Morrison and John Wayne, each with little TVs embedded in the cement above their names, playing clips of the then recently departed. “Helllooooo!” Brooks waves from a TV on his grave as he comes into the shot. “Grave-watchers! Funeral parties!” He whistles the camera over. “I’d love to continue talking to you, but you have to put in a coin.” The marker is engraved with his birth name, spelled slightly off, as it often is: MELVYN KAMINSKY. The epitaph reads “SOME KIND OF A MAN.”

Back then, the idea of Brooks resting in the pantheon of American icons like Morrison and Wayne was essentially a joke: What comedian would have the audacity to place themselves alongside such larger-than-life icons—alongside figures so carefully sculpted in the cultural psyche that they belonged in Andy Warhol lithographs? But watching the clip now, the juxtaposition almost seems matter of fact. Of course Mel Brooks belongs there.

“What goes on after the body ceases?” Brooks asks us from beyond the grave, after we’ve put our coin in. “Is it the soul? Is it the spirit? That’s what the religiosos would have you believe. Actually, I’ll tell you what lives on: videotape.”

At age 93, Mel Brooks is still very much with us, thank the lord, but he’s been thinking about the ending of his story his whole life—and its precarious relationship with his beginning, too. “Being alive works alongside comedy,” he said in a 2018 Atlantic profile. “Vive! Vivre! The joy of life. ... Comedy is central to it. ... [Comedy] is the realization of being alive.”

Every story does have to have some kind of an ending, whether it’s a satisfying one or not. Unwrapped struggles with that—indeed, it seems to have struggled with it for decades—and, eventually, the director, Yentob, playfully decides to just hand the issue off to Brooks for him to solve. Sitting on the trunk of a Honda Accord, Brooks considers the situation, before asking Yentob, “You want me to just say, ‘Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks’?”

Next thing you know Brooks is standing at the top of a fire escape, doing a full-tilt Hitler imitation, finger-mustache applied, right arm raised. He’s yelling off the names of various German cars, an act that crescendos, in a ridiculous Hitler accent, with “America is bullshit!” After that he just completely disintegrates into a Donald Duck voice.

“Yes, but Mel,” says Yentob, from the street below. “Is it an ending, really?”

“It’s a terrific ending,” Brooks replies. “I’m Hitler, and then I go.”

Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, and elsewhere.