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Monday, April 6, 2009


It’s always at this time of year, with Passover (which is what Bob Hope used to say Oscar time was at his house), Good Friday, and Easter, I find myself thinking of Mel Brooks.

Yes, Mel Brooks. I’ve always loved his work. Even before I knew who he was, I loved Get Smart starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. What an inventive, funny show! Did you know that before Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Brooks did another sendup of the Sherwood Forest legend? It’s true. It was called When Things Were Rotten. It’s another of those shows that should have run for much longer than they did; it was on ABC for half a season, and it starred Dick Gautier (Hymie the Robot) and Bernie Kopell (Siegfried, Maxwell Smart’s KAOS rival) from Get Smart! Gautier was Robin (natch), with Misty Rowe (later of Hee Haw) as his Maid Marian. Kopell was Alan-a-Dale. The theme song was pure Mel Brooks: “They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank/They jumped a lot of fences./They robbed the rich, gave to the poor,/Except what they kept for expenses!” My favorite bit in Men in Tights (other than the Sherwood Forest rappers, who made a proper mockery of the whole hip-hop/rap sensibility) is when Cary Elwes says smugly to the camera, “...unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent!” This was a deliberate dig at Kevin Costner, whose film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had been released a short time earlier.

Anyway, yes, I love Brooks’s work for much the same reason I love the movie Airplane! and the films that it paved the way for: it’s a stupid, sophomoric, but at the same time very knowing kind of parody. I remember when I was in high school, my Jewish friend Richard Frank tried to explain The Producers to me. I had never seen The Producers at that time, and the things Richard was describing didn’t really register with me when he was talking about them. It wasn’t until about three years later, when I was in college, that I got to see the film because it was starting to appear on television. I saw that it was going to be on and I thought, Oh, let me watch this and see what the heck Richard was talking about. And of course, when it came to THAT scene, not having comprehended what Richard was saying, I found myself watching with my lower jaw in my lap, just like the theatre audience in the movie. Now, of course, “Springtime for Hitler” cracks me up, but on first viewing I was horrified! “Springtime for Hitler and Germany./Deutschland is happy and gay./We’re marching to a faster pace./Look out, here comes the Master Race!” And someone actually filmed that? How could they? It’s one of those jokes that takes a little time to sink in.

I love Blazing Saddles. (It is the reason I laugh at the song “I Get a Kick Out of You,” among other things.) Any time I get together with my comic book artist friend John Dennis--which is far too seldom--we will inevitably go into lines from Young Frankenstein. (“Put...ze candle...back!”) I liked the ones that no one ever talks about: Silent Movie, High Anxiety. I was offended when a cable station once cut a critical--and hysterical--gag from the Brooks version of To Be or Not to Be. (It’s when Tim Matheson’s description of flying a fighter plane inadvertently becomes a metaphor for something else, and when he asks Anne Bancroft, “Would you like to see my bomber?” her effeminate friend shrieks, “YES!” The end of that gag was actually cut from a cable TV airing once, and I felt like throwing something at the TV. I hate censorship.) And you know, I actually like Spaceballs. By this time, Brooks’s sense of parody was starting to wear thin (as witness the later Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but it was still funny.

Anyway, the reason I think about Mel Brooks during what people not as secular as I am call “Holy Week” is that this is the time of year when TV usually trots out the movie The Ten Commandments. And The Ten Commandments reminds me of a scene from Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1.

Now, History of the World is not necessarily Brooks’s best work. In fact, the real fun of it, mostly, is picking out which gags in it are variations on things from other Brooks movies. (For instance, the musical number about the Spanish Inquisition clearly harks back to “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers--another tyrannical atrocity set to music.) But there’s one scene that always makes me smile. You know the scene I’m talking about: Moses coming down from the mountain with what the Lord has given him for the benefit of mankind: the Fifteen Commandments!

That’s right, there were supposed to be fifteen of them! But Moses turns out to have been a bit of a butterfingers, for directly he’s off the mountain he drops one of the three tablets on which the Lord has burned the rules for human civilization, shattering one-third of the laws from on high. So we’re left with ten. Whenever I think about the state of the world, I think about that moment in the film. The world that humanity has created for itself is a place of greed, hatred, stupidity, injustice, greed, bigotry, violence, war, oppression, greed, ignorance, inequality, poverty, cruelty, corruption, pollution, greed, and environmental near-collapse. And did I mention greed? It seems to me that there may be something to Mel Brooks’s joke about Moses. While I am a strictly secular person and not given to attributing anything to the will or actions of mythical, supernatural beings, much of the world purports to take its moral cues from some external, supernatural authority. Can it be that for these thousands of years, humanity has not been playing by the complete set of rules?

If so, judging by the world the way human beings have made it, I have my own educated guess about what was on that tablet that Moses dropped. My guess is that the Eleventh through Fifteenth Commandments went something like this.

11. Thou shalt not hate.
12. Thou shalt not make war.
13. Thou shalt not worship avarice.
14. Thou shalt esteem woman equally with man.
15. Thou shalt not bring extinction unto the beasts, nor despoil the land, the air, and the water.

Now of course, those are just my own guesses, and I am admittedly no theologian. As I think of my Commandments 11 through 15, I’m also reminded of some things that the late Professor Joseph Campbell once spoke about. Professor Campbell, if you didn’t know (even though you should), was the renowned authority on the mythologies and religions of the world (his books include The Hero with a Thousand Faces) who helped George Lucas create Star Wars. In the book and PBS miniseries The Power of Myth, Professor Campbell discussed with journalist Bill Moyers how the Judeo-Christian system unseated the former, ancient religion of the Goddess; demonized the portrayal of God as a woman and made a woman’s supposed error in judgement the root of all human suffering; put God (a male authority figure) outside and above nature and cast nature and anything natural as corrupt; and charged man with dominion over the Earth and, not incidentally, woman. I suspect that if the (male) inventors of Christianity had actually received Commandment 14, they would have suppressed it! (And there are people today in Washington and on Wall Street, among other places, who I expect wouldn’t mind the expurgation of Commandments 13 and 15 as well!)

However, I very much doubt Mel Brooks thought about any of this in those terms, or meant any of it to go as deeply as that. Mel Brooks has always made it his job, first and foremost, to make us laugh. The Moses bit in History of the World is certainly a joke and not to be taken as anything else. It’s just that, as an old saying goes, many a truth is revealed in jest.

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