Herbert Gold

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674

[Brooks] is the little boy, the youngest son, so beloved by his family and continually tossed in the air that his feet didn't touch the ground till he was 6 years old. He has been resting securely on the wind ever since. He knows he can always get home. He also gives an audience this dreamy assurance: They can wander in fantasy and nightmare, but with Kafka or Lenny Bruce, other Jewish masters of controlled psychosis, they were not sure of getting home from the dream. With Mel Brooks, they are merely up in the air, dandled, comfortable, blowing homeward to familiar hatreds (Germans, creeps, squares) and comfortable nostalgias (food, neighborhood, kids, old folks, Jews, Italians). The 1,000-watt kid is finally shedding his light for Southern drive-ins, Western small towns, the suburbs and exurbs and nonurbs filled with chuckling customers who never saw the originals which spawned him. In stagflation time, something that allows laughter is worth any price, especially since the price will probably go up.

Benevolent rivals for kingship in this domain of comfortable and consoling comedy are Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. They share several qualities—unthreatening physical presence, a bewildered yet focused eye, a language which slips out of the loose grasp of immigrant speech into desperate precision. Survival is never certain for them, and yet their perturbation is somehow comfortable. The audience is implicated, but not bound. Both Allen and Brooks violate rules, but not law: or perhaps it is law but not rules—they go far, but not too far. Fred Allen and Jack Benny filled some of these needs in another time. Isolation, anomie, frustration, love-lost and lovelorn fate, the common comic themes are stroked. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks are good at it. They do not threaten total revolution, but they play with nihilism. They are wanters—of love and comfort—like the audience. They also want distraction, and they give it, and they get good rewards from an audience in need. There is room for both Woody Allen and Mel Brooks at the top. (pp. 28, 30)

Mel Brooks has learned the philosopher's truth: The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced—or, in his case, to be worked over in yoks. Like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, he is playful with ideas and sounds, and introduces a bound-for-college tentative intellectuality; like the Borscht Belt comics, the Jackies and Sheckies and Jerries, he knows his job is to keep the customers awake and agape and, if you don't like this joke, wait seven seconds for the next one. His special qualities—boyish hope, a few obsessions (Jews and Italians good, Germans bad), the image of the 2,000-year-old man, a loving attention to the street fantasy of the kids of his generation (the western, the horror film, the verbal pratfall)—are not really unique, either, but he has finally mobilized the Mel Brooks Cult into a Mel Brooks Championship. (p. 30)

The audience achieved by Brooks's careful attention to his own insanity now seems to include everybody—critics, the young, the old, the nostalgic and the backers of movies. People want an excuse to laugh, any excuse, and Brooks is willing to give them good value for their money. They sense his yearning beyond the wisecracks, his appeal to love, his small-boy dirty-face cuteness, no matter how outrageous he might seem—flatulence, a dirty word here and there, a touch of bemused sadism. Where Lenny Bruce shocked, Mel Brooks consoles. He is funny because he wants to be funny. He is attractive about his funniness, corrosive in a healing manner, because he likes his actors, he likes his audience, he likes himself. As an amateur doctor, he wants to make people well—also himself. He is one unusual comic…. He is no revolutionary. He is a consoler in a time of too many instant revolutions. (p. 31)

Herbert Gold, "Funny Is Money," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1975, pp. 16-17, 19, 21-2, 26, 28, 30-1.

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