December 4, 1997
Toward the Millennium
The 2000 Year Old Man is alive, well and still doesn't touchfried food
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
Before Carl Reiner invented the "Dick Van Dyke Show" and thetemperamental, toupee-clad Alan Brady, before Mel Brooks was aYiddish-spouting Indian chief in "Blazing Saddles," indeed, beforethe dawn of Christianity, there was The 2000 Year Old Man.
Any Jewish baby boomer who ever dipped into his or her parents'album collection can still recite sizable chunks of Brooks andReiner's now-classic routines about the discovery of a Jewishmethuselah. From that first album in 1960 onward, the bit hasremained one of the most inventive and enduring in American comedy.Brooks is the old man, a dapper, salty and haimish ancient who hasmanaged to live for two millennia without losing his Eastern Europeanaccent. Reiner is his nimble straight man, a reporter who probes theloquacious alte kaker's memory for everything from insight into thebubonic plague ("Too many rats, not enough cats!") to the scoop onJoan of Arc, his one-time girlfriend ("I told her, 'Look, I gottawash up; you save France'").
For Jews, Brooks' funny, free-form and topical observations had anadded appeal. The humor and jazz-like attention to language andrhythm were deliciously recognizable -- mined from the same stuffthat made the listeners' own family gatherings and privateconversations so...well, Jewish.
The truth is, none of it was ever intended for the public. Thatfirst recording session, in 1960, was done mainly at the prodding ofcomedian Steve Allen. Brooks and Reiner had already been doing wildlyimprovisational riffs on The 2000 Year Old Man for 10 years by then,but it was a strictly private shtick -- batted around playfully forfriends, done at parties and for co-workers on Sid Caesar's "YourShow of Shows," the place where it all began.
As Carl Reiner remembered it during a 1994 interview with SaulKahan, "I came in and sat down next to Mel on the couch in [producer]Max Leibman's office and said...'I understand you were at the sceneof the Crucifixion.' And Mel said, 'Oh, boy!' and we were off. Thewhole office was laughing for 10 minutes.... Any time we'd get bored,we'd ask Mel questions."
(It's worth noting that Woody Allen, in those days a writer onCaesar's staff along with Brooks, created his own historicalcharacter purported to have been everywhere. The 1983 movie was"Zelig," and it came out 33 years after The 2000-Year-Old Man wasborn.)
The resounding success of the pair's first comedy album spawnedthree more. The old man got a second lease on life when Rhino Recordsreleased the "2000" recordings as a four-CD compilation in 1994. Andnow, as a new millennium approaches, Brooks and Reiner are back incharacter for "The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000," a brand-newCD on the Rhino label. This one has a book of the same name to gowith it, a companion volume that's subtitled "Including How Not toDie and Other Tips." It contains some material from the new disc andhighlights from past routines, including the world's first nationalanthem (a prehistoric cheer written by The 2000 Year Old Man'smother: "Let 'em all go to hell except Cave 76!").
My favorite part of the book is the "Two Thousand Year Old Man'sSeven-Day Diet." It should be hung up in every deli in America as thedefinitive weight-loss regimen for Jewish binge-purge eaters.
But, of course, it's the CD that best captures the humor of thepair's question-and-answer format. Reiner lobs a question, then stepsforward to play net -- methodically edging Brooks back into a corneruntil he has no way to score except via his own quick-wittedness andinstinct for the absurd.
A lot has changed in the 24 years since The 2000 Year Old Man'slast "interview." These days, he tools around the informationsuperhighway with a cyber girlfriend named "Dot Com" (short forDorothy Comsky). He marvels at the proliferation of silly mall stores("The Athlete's Foot.... Look at that -- they named a store after afungus"). And like the rest of us, he's peeved about theimpossibility of reaching an actual human being on the telephone ("Ifyou're bleeding from your eye, press two. If you're bleeding fromyour tushy, press four...").
Old fans will be delighted by this latest addition to the Brooksand Reiner oeuvre. For the uninitiated, this disc offers a freshchance to discover what the rest of us have been laughing about foryears.
"The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000" (CD or cassette) and thebook (HarperCollins, $20) are widely available at local record shopsand bookstores.
The Wild Man
A conversation with Mel Brooks
Jewish Journal: You did an interview recently with The NewYork Times' business section about your own conservative investinghabits. That story ran the day before the market crash. You must havehad some interesting feedback.
Mel Brooks: People in the financial community thought I wasa genius. (Laughter.) I do only buy bonds and real estate. I don'tbuy stocks. The market is up 500 points, it's down 500 points. Whoneeds that emotional ride? I whistle no matter what the market isdoing.
JJ: Is your friendship with Carl Reiner a lot like what wesee onstage?
MB: Oh, it's even more intense. We hang out on weekends.He's my best audience, and, therefore, he's my best friend. He getssome of the more insane and arcane things I fling at him. Andsometimes we end up lapsing into Yiddish. How many people can youtalk to in Yiddish these days?
JJ: This material is still so popular, even though there'sa whole new generation that probably doesn't know what vildachaya (wild animal) means. Does it surprise you?
MB: It does. I'm still amazed that anybody is in tune withsome of those jokes that have Yiddish in them. There's a scene in"Blazing Saddles" where I say, "Luzim gayen" (let him go). Atthe time, I thought, "I'll put that in so four old Jews watching inthe back row will get a kick out of it." Then I start getting theseletters from 23-year-olds, saying, "Luzim gayen was the line thatdestroyed me." How did they know? At the time, I just figured I'd putYiddish in a Western. Why not? Who the hell knew Cherokee?
JJ: For Jews, there's this great shock of recognition witha scene like that, or with The 2000 Year Old Man. Yet everyone findsthis stuff funny. Does the humor work on two levels -- Jewish andnon-Jewish?
MB: Yes. The Jews, of course, understand all the words andeven recognize people they know in the material. I think, fornon-Jews, they may not understand all the words, but they know enoughto know it's Jewish, and it tickles them.
JJ: Are you consciously calling up certain members of yourfamily in your comedy?
MB: Oh, yes. I'm calling up my uncle Joe, my mother and,certainly, my grandparents. They were very outgoing and vivacious.There was a radio program, "The Yiddish Philosopher," and mygrandfather was like that. He would make these pronouncements aboutanything and everything, much in the same way The 2000 Year Old Mandoes. It was a way of talking that certain Jews his age had. Heoffered an expert opinion on any subject, as if he was Schopenhauer.He'd say things like (with a thick Yiddish accent), "As far as thenew cars are concerned, [pause] they're all good." What is that? Hefelt compelled to make these incredibly insane pronouncements. Theyhad an air of profundity about them for a moment, and then youthought, "What the hell does that mean?"
JJ: Which comics in the generation that came after you doyou admire?
MB: I like Chris Rock. He's adorable. And I like Seinfeld'sshow, although I don't particularly like sitcoms. Most of them areinane. I like "Mad About You." Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt are verysmart, very talented. I appear on that show every so often as acharacter named Uncle Phil.
JJ: What do you think of Albert Brooks?
MB: I love him. I often say he's my son. Actually, I saythat when he has a good picture. When he has a lousy picture, I goaround telling people that he stole my name.
JJ: After creating the TV series "Get Smart," you ended upmaking "The Producers," one of the funniest movies ever made. It waslike Jewish surrealism, incredibly funny.
MB: God bless you! How old are you?
JJ: Could a film like that get made today?
MB: No. It's not politically correct.
JJ: It had this manic, edgy energy, like the Marx Brothers.
MB: Well, I was really influenced by two brother teams --the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers. They were my gods. I likedBuster Keaton and W.C. Fields and the others, but they never touchedme emotionally. It was the same with Laurel and Hardy. I thought theywere funny, and I was able to appreciate them, but they didn't touchmy soul like the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers.... It's funny,because David Geffen has been after me lately. He loves "TheProducers," and he said to me, "Why don't you do this as a stagemusical, and I'll produce it?"
JJ: That could be wonderful. It's too bad Zero Mostel isgone, and Dick Shawn is gone.
MB: Yes, but who knows? Maybe we'll still do it. I couldsee people like Nathan Lane in it.
JJ: What's the most tiresome thing that fans of yours dowhen they see you?
MB: They give me things. They come up to me and hand me 300pages and say, "Here, you gotta read this script by my first cousin.He's a comic natural." Or they give you a cassette and say, "Here,this is my son. He's in an improv group, and you gotta watch it." Imean, you want to be nice, but who needs it? Don't give methings! It happens a lot. Carl and I were in a restaurantrecently, and a woman from Israel came up to me and stuck a cassettein my hand. So, later, we went back to Carl's and we tried to playit, and it didn't work. It turns out it was on the PAL system, notVHS. So, now I have to go find a PAL system.... Enough already.
JJ: Is it the worst in Los Angeles?
MB: Yes. In New York, they don't give you things, but theyget in your face. Someone will come up and slap me on the back sohard, it knocks the breath out of me, and he'll say, "I love ya,kid!" Or they'll call out, "Mel, one joke! You're gonna love thisone." Then they tell me a joke that I know is going to be terrible.And it is.
JJ: When you were starting out, you were a tummlerin the Catskills. Was that a good experience?
MB: It was very good. Nurturing. The Jews were brutallyhonest. I'd finish a show and then go past the coffee room, wheresome old ladies were eating sponge cake, and I'd say, "Howya doing,girls?" And they'd say, "Melvin, you stunk, but we love you." --Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
The Straight Man
A conversation with Carl Reiner
Jewish Journal:How has the reaction been to your newrecord?
Carl Reiner: Great. You know, we hadn't done it in so long,and Mel thought we shouldn't. Of course, I knew that we could stilldo it. On my last few book tours, particularly among Jewishaudiences, the one question people kept asking us was, "When are wegoing to hear from The 2000 Year Old Man again?"... So the feedbackhas been great. Steve Martin called me after listening to it twotimes to tell me he thought it was hysterical.
JJ: Given that Yiddish is slowly dying out, are you alittle surprised at The 2000 Year Old Man's continued popularity?
CR: Mel kept saying that -- that the accent isdisappearing. But I think there is a new thrust among people to learnYiddish.... Also, there's a second and third generation of kids andgrandkids, people whose fathers and mothers taught them theserecords. A lady came up to us with an 8-year-old and said, "Listen tothis," and the kid started doing our routine. (Laughter) So we have alot of salesmen out there.
JJ: I've read that one of the reasons you two didn'toriginally consider The 2000 Year Old Man as something commercial wasbecause it was too insider-ish, too Jewish.
CR: For 10 years, it was just something we did forourselves.... The reason we didn't record it was because we thoughtit was too anti-Semitic. If you'll remember, after Hitler, there werea lot of comics who stopped doing their Jewish accents. It felt veryuncomfortable. A lot of them lost their careers over that because itwas the centerpiece of quite a few acts -- Lou Holtz, Dave Chasen. Inthose days, people called them Jew comics. Chasen was doing it inmovies, but then he opened a chili stand, which eventually becameChasen's restaurant. There was always Myron Cohen, of course, who hada very elegant way about him.
JJ: So what persuaded you to make the record?
CR: By 1960, we were convinced by Steve Allen that everyonewould enjoy it. He was right. It did cut a wider swath than wethought. At that time, I had a bungalow on the Universal lot next toCary Grant, and he used to come in and ask me for two dozen recordsat a time. That startled me. He even took them once on a trip toEngland, and when he came back, he told me, "The Queen loved it!" Hewas quite a character. I remember every time I'd pass him and ask howhe was, he'd say, "Jaunty jolly!"
JJ:How much of the material is ad-libbed?
CR: We really did it on a wing until 1973. After that, webegan to prepare a little bit. Now, it's 24 years later, so we wrotesome questions down and sort of talked about them before we startedad-libbing. But there are always surprises. Those little addenda thatMel puts at the end of things, those little throwaways, arespontaneous and they're hilarious.
JJ: Are there any contemporary comics you particularlylike?
CR: Oh, there are so many, I'm afraid to leave anyone out.Well, the older ones, even though some of them don't really dostand-up anymore -- like Robin Williams and Steve Martin, BillyCrystal, [George] Carlin and Dennis Miller. Chris Rock, who has justexploded on the scene, is also wonderfully funny. And there's [Jerry]Seinfeld, [Paul] Reiser and Ray Romano. Always, with a tip of the hatto Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. And there's nobody better than SidCaesar and Dick Van Dyke.
JJ: Are you two working on anything else together?
CR: We'll take it as it goes. We do have a lot of stuffthat we didn't put on this record, mainly because of length.
JJ: Privately, does your friendship with Mel Brooksparallel what we see on stage?
CR:Yes, absolutely, except that, privately, he doesn't mindwhen I'm funny. He appreciates it. You know, onstage, it's incrediblyhard for him to think about where he's going next if I'm competingwith him for laughs.
JJ: What does it take to be a good straight man?
CR:To be interested in what is in the mind of the personyou're interviewing. To glean knowledge that you didn't have before.With Mel, I always knew that the harder I pressured him, the funnierhe would be.... Originally, I interviewed him to make myself laugh. Istill do. I use him as an entertainment. --Diane Arieff Zaga,Arts Editor