Grandmasters of American Comedy: Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner

Based, in part, on a Smithsonian Associates Lecture by Brian Rose.

For more than seven decades, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks made America laugh, solo, and as partners, in television, films, on Broadway and in recordings. Brooks acted, directed 11 films, wrote two Broadway musicals, several dozen screenplays and is an EGOT winner: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. Reiner won 11 Emmys, directed 15 films, and wrote seven books – five memoirs, as well as acting into his eighties.

Both men were born to second generation Jewish immigrants in rough and tumble New York neighborhoods that helped shape their comedy. Taken to see Ethel Merman in Anything Goes at the age of nine, Brooks resolved to make a career in entertainment. At 14, he began to MC local shows. Drafted, he entertained the troops, then became a stand-up comic in the Catskills, rising to the rank of Grossinger’s tummler, which combines the duties of a comedian, activities director, and master of ceremonies to keep guests amused.

Reiner, who’d been a sewing machine repairman, also entertained troops during the war, then plunged into theater. Broadway roles included a leading character in Call Me Mister (by Harold Rome). The title referred to soldiers returning to civilian life who no longer wanted to be addressed by their military ranks.

Why do they think so many comedians were – and are –Jewish? “Well, back when we started there weren’t that many jobs for Jews. It was either the garment center, sports or comedy,” says Brooks. “I think Jews were naturally funny because they were low on the totem pole, so they made fun of the people higher on the pole,” says Reiner. (Hadley Freeman – The Guardian U.S. Edition February 2020)

Brooks and Reiner met in 1950 working on Sid Caesar’s live 90 minute television program, Your Show of Shows written by what Rose arguably calls “the greatest group of comedy talent ever assembled: Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Joseph Stein…” Brooks was on the writing staff. Reiner, who with Imogene Coca and Howard Morris was a cast member, also contributed skit ideas. We watch an excerpt from a scene with Caesar, Coca and Reiner in which an innocent movie patron finds himself mistaken for a woman’s clandestine lover by her infuriated mate.

“One day in the writers’ room,” Rose tells us, “Reiner heard Brooks improvise a routine as a Jewish pirate that knocked him dead: ‘I’m a Jewish pirate. You know what they’re charging for sails these days? $33.72 a yard!’ The next morning he came up to Brooks, set down a recorder and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here is a man who was actually at the scene of the Crucifixion.’” (Reiner was the straight-man interviewer.)

Brooks’ first words were ‘Oooooh, boy!’ ‘You knew Jesus?’ Reiner asked. ‘…thin lad … wore sandals … always walked around with twelve other guys … yes, yes, they used to come into the store a lot … never bought anything …’ The 2000 year-old man was born. Reiner said he was inspired by We the People, a local news program that dramatized current events.  He heard its announcer begin an episode with “Here’s a man who was actually in Stalin’s toilet and he heard the Premier of the USSR say…”           

The bit was just an improvised party routine until Steve Allen convinced the pair to record a comedy album. Its tremendous success lead to television appearances, two more albums, even a cartoon. Both men were exploring other creative endeavors. On YouTube, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner The 2000 Year Old Man on The Ed Sullivan Show and the record album.

Reiner wrote a situation comedy called Head of the Family loosely based on his experience in a stable of comedy writers. We see a clip from the pilot in which he played Rob Petrie. CBS was unhappy. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because two years later, his concept became The Dick Van Dyke Show – with Van Dyke playing Rob, Mary Tyler Moore as his wife Laura, and Reiner as Alan Brady (with an affectionate nod to Sid Caesar). “It was five seasons of the funniest, most sophisticated comedy on television,” Rose observes. Alternate takes on the communal experience at Your Show of Shows were written by Mel Brooks – My Favorite Year and Neil Simon – Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Next Reiner directed the play and film of Enter Laughing (written by Joseph Stein) based on one of his memoirs : a young man pursues acting against the wishes of his parents and girlfriend. And then the film Where’s Poppa? in which a senile mother (Ruth Gordon) interferes with her lawyer son’s love life played by George Segal.

During the same time period, Brooks (with Buck Henry) came up with Get Smart (starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon) which featured bumbling secret agents. Remember the inconvenient shoe telephone? He then wrote and directed a project almost every studio turned down called The Producers. According to its author, the film was about “two schnooks on Broadway who set out to produce a flop and swindle the backers.” (The duo played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.) In a subsequent interview, Brooks commented the film was created to “get even” with anti-Semites, “especially Hitler…I think you can bring down totalitarian governments faster by using ridicule than you can with invective.”

We watch “Springtime for Hitler,” a Ziegfeld girl and Nazi production number: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/ Deutschland is happy and gay/We’re marching to a faster pace/Look out, here comes the master race…” Are you humming the tune? The multi-hyphenate also excelled at music and lyrics.

Brooks continued his potent spoofing with Blazing Saddles. The role of the Waco Kid was offered to John Wayne, then Gig Young before Gene Wilder. Brooks told Johnny Carson that Warner Brothers executives screened the film looking like Mt. Rushmore. “I was so nervous, the blood left me and went into my friend, Benjie.” “There isn’t a scene in the entire film that wouldn’t offend someone now,” Rose comments. “It couldn’t be made today. Even then Warner Brothers gave it a soft opening in Burbank. It won three Oscars including Best Screenplay and was deemed “the funniest comedy of all time” by The American Film Institute.

Young Frankenstein was put into development as a favor to Gene Wilder who took the idea to Brooks. Some of its set and props are from the original James Whale movies. “Perhaps it was Wilder’s influence, but Young Frankenstein is by far Brooks’ sweetest film,” Rose observes. We watch a clip: “Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania Station?” the doctor asks. “Ja, Ja track 29/Can I give you a shine,” the boy replies. (A parody of the Glenn Miller song.)

Silent Movie, the first silent film made in Hollywood for decades followed. The cast included Sid Caesar and Marcel Marceau who spoke its single audible word. Then High Anxiety, a send-up of Hitchcock from which we watch the ominous gathering of birds first with Tippi Hedren in The Birds, then Brooks himself here liberally shat upon. At the other side of the spectrum, his production company released The Elephant Man, Frances, and 84 Charring Cross Road, the latter starring his wife, Anne Bancroft (with Anthony Hopkins).

Bancroft describes their relationship beginning with Brook’s call across a dark, empty theater in rehearsal for Kraft Music Hall. She was a beautiful, young actress and much pursued. “This aggressive voice came out of the dark. I thought it would be a combination of Robert Redford and Clark Gable. It turned out to be Mel. He never left me. He’d say, where ya going, then,  so am I!” The couple made only one film together, To Be or Not To Be, satirization of the Ernst Lubitsch film. We watch a vaudeville song and dance routine of “Sweet Georgia Brown” in German.  They’re great. The marriage lasted 41 years before she died in 2005. You may remember Estelle Reiner from the iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally (directed by son Rob Reiner) in which, after Sally loudly fakes an orgasm, Estelle says to the waiter, “I’ll have what she has.” Married since 1943, Estelle Reiner died in 2008. 

Carl Reiner’s acting roles include The Russians Are Coming,The Russians Are Coming, Sol Bloom in the Ocean’s Eleven series, variety shows, and sitcoms. He played a crucial role in Steve Martin’s career by directing and supporting The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and The Man with Two Brains. Brooks made History of the World Part I from which we watch the production number “The Inquisition” during which dancing monks sing “It’s better to lose your skull cap than your skull” in front of prisoners hanging from stone walls. Then, Spaceballs, and Men in Tights.

The natural next step for Brooks was musicalization of The Producers. He first asked Jerry Herman to write the music. Herman refused, telling Brooks he should do it himself. Seventeen songs later, the show emerged with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick setting a Broadway record for its first two days of sales. It won 12 Tony Awards and became a film. Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, moved to Broadway with decidedly mixed reviews.

Neither man slowed down in their eighties, continuing to act, do voice-overs, write and even Twitter. Brooks’ long awaited memoir will come out this Thanksgiving. Brooks and Reiner spent the last decade eating dinner at Reiner’s house, watching Jeopardy and an old film. The one rule for movies was that it had to be one where “somebody says, ‘Secure the perimeter!’ or ‘Get some rest.”” Reiner died peacefully in his sleep in 2020.

It’s difficult not to make a lecture of this nature seem like resumes. Watching the lecture, we’re entertained by intermittent clips. Cumulative accomplishment of these men is astonishing as is their comic genius and joie de vie.

Opening Photo by Angela George Courtesy of Smithsonian Associates

My piece on Mr. Rose’s earlier Lecture: Something To Laugh About: TV Comedy, From Milton Berle to David Letterman.

Brian Rose is professor emeritus at Fordham University  

His next lecture:                                                                     

The Hollywood Blockbuster: How Steven Spielberg and George Lucas Changed the Movies. Wednesday December 1, 2021. 12:00- 1:15.

Smithsonian Associates Streaming

About Alix Cohen (1151 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.