Mel Brooks, the unchallenged king of Jewish satire, was born Melvin Kaminsky in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The 84-year-old funnyman, film director, songwriter and Broadway record-setter believes comedy has the power to transform ugly facts of life such as Jewish persecution into something understandable—and even beautiful. Coming from the man who brought the world a musical number about the Spanish Inquisition, the handy miniature guillotine for on-the-go circumcisions and the absurdist song, Springtime for Hitler, this view is no surprise. Brooks opens up to Moment about his shock upon discovering that most Americans were not Jewish, his experiences as a soldier in World War II (he serenaded German soldiers over a megaphone on the battlefield), and why he thinks Jewish humor is dead.
What were some formative experiences growing up that turned you into this funny guy?
I was the baby of the family, always ready to entertain. They always expected this cute baby to do a little dance or something for them, so I thought it was natural that I would perform. I was never shy like other kids about singing a song or telling a bad joke or just appearing as a—sometimes in school all you are is a snowflake in a snowstorm—but I made sure that my snowflake stood way out. I was an egotistical little child. Getting laughs was very important to me. I always wanted to rock the boat a little bit. It was all very natural. I never struggled to become a performer. I was just meant to do it.
Who were your childhood heroes? Were they funny people? Were any of them Jewish?
Actually, my first childhood heroes were not funny at all. My heroes were adventurers: Robin Hood, Flash Gordon and Jack Armstrong and a little later, Superman. I must have been 10 or 12 before the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields or Eddie Cantor meant anything to me. Later radio shows, Jack Benny and Fred Allen, they were very, very important, just as shorts and movies with the Three Stooges and of course the Ritz Brothers. The Ritz Brothers were my favorite, followed closely by the Marx Brothers.
Were you aware growing up whether someone was Jewish?
For some reason we all knew it. We all knew that Jack Benny was Jewish. We all knew that the Marx Brothers were Jewish. We all knew that the Ritz Brothers were Jewish. The Three Stooges were certainly Jewish, too, with names like Shemp. I think except for W.C. Fields and Fred Allen, 99 percent of the comics that I loved and reveled in were Jewish. I just thought comedy was Jewish. I didn’t think there was anything else. I was amazed if someone was funny and they weren’t Jewish.