Happy Birthday, Mel Brooks!
If you’re not laughing, you’re not living. And if you’re not living you’re–A ZOMBIE! KILL IT! But for lessons in how to do that, you’re better off consulting World War Z author Max Brooks. So until the zombie apocalypse strikes, here are some lessons we learned about life from his father, the legendary king of comedy, Mel Brooks.
Comedy is as important as tragedy
Let’s face it, comedy doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. For it to succeed, someone has to look like a fool. And that’s if it succeeds at all–there are way more bad comedies compared to good ones than there are bad-per-good dramas. That doesn’t mean comedy is a lower form of human expression–it means comedy is freaking hard. You want to make somebody cry at your movie? Kill a dog, break up a couple meant to be together, and make somebody fail just short of their goal. Look, I’m the one who just calculated that and I’m still tearing up.
But to make someone laugh, you can’t just provide a new puppy, get the couple together, and have them win the race. You have to do all those things in a brand new way each time– away that’s unexpected, but also completely appropriate to the premise (I mean, you can get ludicrous, but then your laughs for weirdness’s sake can stray into deus ex machina territory and the plot becomes unimportant).
Mel Brooks does all that plus sets himself the handicap of getting you to laugh not at joyous outcomes, but dark and awful ones. It works because he keeps his stories marching forward with a smile and a song, deeper into the shadows, and we trust them to carry us through to a better end. They almost inevitably do.
Sometimes we laugh so that we don’t shriek
Propaganda is war’s longest-standing tradition after trying to kill a guy. It’s employed at home to boost morale and abroad to wound it among one’s enemies. But very few Psy Ops agents have the balls to simply troll. When Brooks was busy hurt locking his way across Europe by deactivating German landmines, the Nazis set up loudspeakers to demoralize GIs–although what the hell a Nazi could possibly say to delimit anyone’s Nazi-smashing enthusiasm escapes us. Any of their taunts can be shut down with “Yeah? Well you’re a Nazi!” It is literally the only time in history when calling your opponent a Nazi effectively ends an argument.
But since Nazis don’t deserve a reasonable rebuttal, Brooks decided to straight-up troll them. He decided to get some loudspeakers of his own–wait, where did he get loudspeakers? Is that something you need when you’re creeping through a minefield?–anyway, Brooks gets these loudspeakers through what we’re going to take a flying leap and assume are wacky hijinks. He points them east, and…
…does not make the Nazis looks like fools which you know from his entire career is his superpower. Instead, he sings his silliest rendition of Al Jolson’s “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye.”
Think of it this way: two boxers are doing some pre-fight press. Boxer 1 is wearing Apollo Creed’s shorts from Rocky. Boxer 2 is Max Schmeling with an evil goatee. Boxer 2 talks a mountain of trash about Boxer 1′s mother, and how what he did to her is akin to what will shortly happen to Boxer 1′s face. And then without the fight winnings, Boxer 1 won’t be able to save the orphanage. Boxer 1 just smiles because life is sweet, and lets Boxer 2 make himself look like a blustering ass. Boxer 1 doesn’t actually call Boxer 2 an @$$#()!%, he just lets him know he’s being one by showing it’s not going to bother him. And then he smears Boxer 2 across the mat.
That’s what Brooks did to the Nazis. Trollololol.
Be Genuine and Be Kind
Marc Maron’s a good interviewer who specializes in getting his subjects to open up about areas they normally keep private. But with Brooks, he’s–by his own admission–a nervous kid. And Brooks is not only charming, relaxed, and generous with his time, he takes a genuine interest in Maron as a fellow comic.
When the interview concludes, and it’s time for Maron to leave the older comedian’s office, Brooks escorts the podcaster all the way to his car and then takes it upon himself to set up a bonus interview with his best pal Carl Reiner. This is like catching a record-breaking fish, and after you release it, it knocks another colossal fish into your boat.
Brooks grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which means, hipsters, that unlike you, he actually lived there before it was cool. There young Mel took drum lessons from Buddy Rich, who you might recognize as the greatest drummer of all time. Music got him into entertainment, and entertaining got him into comedy, though you could say both were in him from the start.
Though Brooks’ family, the Kaminskys, weren’t very religious, he still grew up with a culturally Jewish identity in a largely Christian society–and it would not be too much conjecture to say he developed a sense of the disparity between an outsider’s perspective and the inculcated, accepted order of things.
Whoa! That’s a lot of ten-dollar words: basically, he learned at an early age, that not everything is the way we’re told it is. Being able to scrutinize the official story is a valuable skill for a comedian, since so much comedy is wrought from inconsistency.
It would have been one thing for Brooks to point out these discrepancies from a strictly Jewish perspective. You’d still get amazing comedy like the Inquisition musical number, in which a supposedly beneficent group of monks wreak horror via torture. But he didn’t stop with his own people. He expands his comedic view to all humanity — a brotherhood not of race or religion, but of people who feel for each other.
The running theme in his work is not only the dignity of an intelligent or emotive person, but the apartness that comes with it. His characters, like their creator, see and feel society’s discrepancies, and it automatically sets them apart from the bulk of society that can toil on in the way things are. It becomes the job of his characters to convince the majority to accept a new idea. Only then is the crisis averted and the outsiders are reunited to society.
Look at his work: in Blazing Saddles the only thing that will save the town is if the people recognize the equality of all races and take orders from a black sheriff. Looking past their fear to see the monster as a human being with great gifts is the only way to avoid violent catastrophe in Young Frankenstein, where the title character believes in his creature’s worth even after it costs him everything (up to and including his sanity). Seeing the poor and vulnerable as people rather than profits is necessary for the community in Life Stinks–okay, maybe Life Stinks is a bad example. But it brings us to our final lesson…
Don’t Let Fear of Failure Stop You from Experimenting
Comedy takes balls. You have to be able to keep going even if nobody’s laughing, not because you know it’s funny, but because even if it’s not, you’re going to bring this sinking ship of humor into port. And Mel Brooks has the biggest balls of all, because he’s not afraid to fail. I’m sure he worries about it like you would when you invest a lot of time and energy into something, but he’s shown again and again he has another idea coming up behind that one whether it succeeds or fails.
Take experiments like Silent Movie, which only has one word of spoken dialogue, and it’s by the world’s most famous mime. Do you think Space Age audiences were clamoring for a throwback to the silent era? Heck no. But Marcel Marceau’s mono-syllabic speech gets a bigger gut laugh than almost the entire decade of everyone else’s zany ’70s comedies strung together.
And sure, sometimes you get Dracula: Dead and Loving It. But it also gets you Blazing Saddles, in which he so savagely shreds the romantic myth of the Old West he actually destroys and abandons the set itself, spilling the chase scene out into a much more complex, rich, and beautiful world.
And that’s a world we’re all lucky enough to enjoy, thanks to souls like Mel Brooks.