Wednesday, July 18, 2012

All About Mel Brooks: A Q&A with film historian Leonard Quart

This post was written for the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Blog From Battery Place, and originally published on June 14, 2012, in anticipation of their free weekly screenings of classic Mel Brooks films. The staff interviewed film historian Leonard Quart, who offered some insight into Brooks’ Jewish humor and overall relevance as a comedian. This summer film series is ongoing every Wednesday night until August 8, and tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

In advance of our free summer film series, which will showcase the work of Mel Brooks, we took the time to interview film historian Leonard Quart, who will introduce the festival.

MJH: What about Mel Brooks’ humor is quintessentially Jewish?
Quart: In all his films Brooks incorporates Jewish motifs. Among other elements, he utilizes a constant use of Yiddishisms, reference to his Jewishness and gentiles, and a sense that his comedy relieves the pain of historical intolerance, and being a social outsider.

MJH: Do Brooks' films continue to push the boundaries of good taste?
Quart: Yes, he can be vulgar, scatological, and outrageous. But for me, his films are too innocent, even sweet-natured to draw blood, even though Brooks believes "comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

MJH: Is he still relevant?
Quart: How do we define comedy's relevance? If it's able to make us laugh, escape our lives, and, at its best, make astute sharp social and psychological points, it's relevant. I wouldn't say all of Brooks’ work meets those criteria, but he does meet some of them.

MJH: What is your favorite Brooks' film? What’s your favorite line?
Quart: My favorite films are Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Most of Mel Brooks’ funniest lines are profane, so I will say that one of my favorite (non-profane) lines is something Brooks said himself that is apt: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”

MJH: In what ways does Brooks' comic style and vision differ from Woody Allen's?
Quart: That's a big question. To be honest, Allen, in his middle period (e.g. Manhattan and Annie Hall) was the more controlled, stylistically rich, and gifted director. And his works then seamlessly combined the comic and pathetic, with characters who had internal lives, and weren't merely cartoons. Brooks is the more manic and anarchic, and can evoke belly laughs that Allen rarely does. Both engage in social criticism, though Brooks' use of pop culture makes his work broader and less subtle. For a time, these two Brooklyn products, who did stand up comedy, and wrote for Sid Caesar, were, albeit in different ways, the two best American directors of comedy.

-- Originally posted by Betsy Aldredge for the Museum of Jewish Heritage

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