The Arty Semite

8 Best (and Worst) Mel Brooks Movies

By Michael Kaminer

Melvin James Kaminsky is finally getting the tribute he deserves.

A monthlong retrospective at the Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival, is honoring the director better known as Mel Brooks.

“It’s Good to Be the King” salutes the 88-year-old’s “triumphant bad taste and transcendently-awful-cum-pricelessly-hilarious jokery,” according to program notes.

Though Brooks hasn’t directed a film since 1995’s “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” he’s hardly been taking it easy; this year alone, he’s voiced characters in animated hits like “Dora the Explorer” and “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.”
But for many fans, Brooks’s 1960s and ‘70s will always represent the heyday of his work.

With that in mind, and to celebrate “It’s Good to Be the King,” here is our ranking of Mel Brooks movies, going from worst to best.

8. Spaceballs (1987)

“May the Schwartz be with you”? Not funny. A diminutive sage called “Yogurt”? Less funny. John Candy as “Barf”? Sad, actually. This drove home the feeling Brooks the director had run out of gas.

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Is Rick Moranis 'Too Jewish'?

By Mark Cohen

Writing about Rick Moranis required that I remind myself what he’s done. After all, his great comic roles in Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs” and the first “Ghostbusters” movie are pushing 30. So I sneaked over to YouTube to watch Moranis order his starship to “ludicrous speed,” and in “Ghostbusters” ask, “Okay, who brought the dog?”

But what has Moranis done lately? Well, in 2005 he released a Grammy Award-nominated comedy song album called “The Agoraphobic Cowboy,” a parody of the freedom-loving cowboys that complain about being fenced in. And now he has an enjoyable new comedy album called “My Mother’s Brisket & Other Love Songs” that will please many in the Jewish community and provoke students of popular culture to wonder if Moranis will be the one to finally reach that frightening land of commercial failure known as “Too Jewish.”

On his website Moranis tells us that’s exactly where he’s headed. “When I first began writing jokes and sketches with various Jewish partners one of us would inevitably stop at some point and announce, ‘Too Jewish!’ Too Jewish for the star, the show, the network, or the audience. The songs on this album are all in that category.”

Yes, they are. And some of them are terrific. In the klezmer-style “Pu-Pu-Pu,” the Toronto-born Moranis pays homage to the sanitary North American version of the Old World spitting that helped ward off the evil eye.

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Mel Brooks Honored for Lifetime of Funny

By Forward Staff

Mel Brooks is already a member of the EGOT club, having received Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, but the comedy legend has more prizes coming.

Getty Images

Brooks is scheduled to receive the American Film Institute’s 41st Lifetime Achievement Award tonight, an honor widely considered to be the industry’s most important career-spanning recognition. The award will be presented to Brooks by Martin Scorsese at a ceremony in Los Angeles and will be televised June 15 on TMT.

According to the AFI, the award is given to someone “whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.” Previous recipients of the award include Jimmy Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand.

Asked about the honor by Variety, Brooks said:

I’ve always been recognized as a comedy guy, either as a performer or a comedy writer, but never have I been saluted as a filmmaker. I thought I was finished with AFI because six or seven months ago they gave me a doctorate at a graduation ceremony. I was bitterly disappointed. I was wearing a stethoscope and came to the realization that I wasn’t actually a doctor.

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What We Can Learn From Mel Brooks About Racism

By Eitan Kensky

“Blazing Saddles” is generally regarded as Mel Brooks’s best movie: It was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies and it was nominated for three Academy Awards. “Best,” though, is a relative term. Brooks’s Borscht Belt-meets-absurdism style is so unique and so indelible that what we call the “best” is usually the first of his movies we fell in love with.

YouTube

It’s safer to say that “Blazing Saddles” was Brooks’s most timely movie, even his most serious movie. And it’s as safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks installment of PBS’s “American Masters” (premiering May 20; check local listings) without “Blazing Saddles.”

The opening scene is terrific and justifiably famous. We see a mix of Chinese and black workers pounding hammers under the desert sun. Their vicious and idiotic white overseers demand they sing spirituals like they did when they were slaves. The workers huddle, break apart, and slowly we hear a sweet, beautiful voice: “I get no kick from champagne.” Almost before we can process the joke, Brooks lays a second one atop the first: the black workers join in, harmonizing with the lead singer. This isn’t one person singing Cole Porter; this is a full, sophisticated a cappella routine. Brooks continues to add inversion after inversion, but the jokes work because the first few bars of that unexpected, anachronistic song say so much about racial ignorance.

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Mel Brooks, Out of His Element

By Curt Schleier

Spend an hour with Alan Yentob and you quickly realize just how good Dick Cavett is.

Courtesy of HBO

Yentob hosts “Mel Brooks Strikes Back!” a conversation with the comic genius that premieres on HBO December 10 at 9 p.m. It comes a little more than a year after Cavett performed similar duties in another HBO special, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again.”

Cavett brought out the best in Brooks, offering straight-man questions that launched one hilarious anecdote after another. I wouldn’t say that Yentob pales in comparison to Cavett. I’d say he’s an albino.

The irony is that Cavett, by Brooks’ description, is “spectacularly gentile.” Yentob comes from an Iraqi Jewish family in the shmata business. Unfortunately, that business is in Britain, where Yentob serves as creative director of the BBC.

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Friday Film: The Art of Being a Jewish Son

By Curt Schleier

David Suskind was the Oprah of his day. From 1958 until 1987 he hosted a television talk show that discussed controversial issues, from Vietnam to race relations. One of his most popular programs, which he rebroadcast on a regular basis, was “How To Be a Jewish Son.” Originally broadcast in the fall of 1970, it is now available on DVD.

The show featured fashion designer Stan Herman, Goldberg Pizzeria chain founder Larry Goldberg, author Dan Greenberg, actor George Segal and comedian David Steinberg. Not surprisingly, the irrepressible Mel Brooks stole the show.

Most of the program was spent talking about the hilarious proclivities of Jewish mothers. Much of what was said does not translate easily into print, but is still recognizable to Jewish sons (and daughters) of a certain age.

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Paul Mazursky From 'Curb' to Warsaw and Beyond

By Benjamin Ivry

At 81, Brooklyn-born screenwriter and director Paul Mazursky may be most familiar to some HBO-TV viewers as Sunshine, the ill-fated poker dealer in “The Sopranos” and Norm, strictly unamused by Larry David’s antics in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” A new book, “Paul on Mazursky,” out from Wesleyan University Press this fall, reminds us that Mazursky’s varied talents add up to a memorable legacy of filmmaking.

The book consists of softball questions from author Sam Wesson, creating a wholly uncritical aura noticeably absent from Mazursky’s 1999 memoirs, “Show Me the Magic” from Simon & Schuster. Mazursky’s finest work combines pitilessly perceptive laughs with emotional understanding, such as 1968’s “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” 1969’s “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” 1974’s “Harry and Tonto,” 1976’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” 1984’s “Moscow on the Hudson” and 1986’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Mazursky has produced his share of duds, although his artistic success rate is higher than those of either Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, to cite two near-contemporaries.

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Kibbitzing With Mel Brooks, Dick Cavett and Carl Reiner

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy of HBO

Dick Cavett calls Mel Brooks more than a comedy star; he’s a “super nova.”

Mel Brooks calls Dick Cavett “spectacularly gentile.”

The two share the stage on the appropriately titled HBO special, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,” an hour-long, anecdote-filled, hilarious love fest debuting September 9 at 9:00 p.m.

Brooks was a frequent guest on Cavett’s various talk shows, and the two clearly admire one other. It’s not clear what the occasion was, but the two reunited last December on a Los Angeles stage.

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A Picture Out of Focus

By Rokhl Kafrissen

Joan Marcus
Donna Murphy and Christopher Innvar in ‘The People in the Picture.’

Is Broadway ready for dancing girls in the Warsaw ghetto? Can an American musical high kick through the darkest moments of Jewish history and still avoid giving offense, or worse, falling into kitsch?

“The People in the Picture,” a new musical playing at the Roundabout theater until June 19, raises this question, treading where even the now sainted creators of “Fiddler on the Roof” dared not go. Indeed, in his commentary for the anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof’s” original Broadway cast recording, Sheldon Harnick tells how “Fiddler” almost had dancing girls in a big second act production number. Jerome Robbins even had it choreographed before deciding that the juxtaposition of dancing girls to communal expulsion just wasn’t the show they were writing.

Though the dancing girls in the ghetto are only a brief moment in “The People in the Picture,” as an artistic choice it stands for a show which is neither very funny nor very serious, and ends up falling, unfortunately, on the wrong side of self-parody.

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The Ones That Missed the Cut

By Saul Austerlitz

Earlier this week, Saul Austerlitz wrote about his recent author tour and five not-as-terrible-as-you-think movies. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:


One of the trickiest aspects of writing my book was figuring out how to structure it. After tinkering with a variety of approaches, I settled on 30 chapters, each dedicated to a single filmmaker or performer whose body of work I considered to be significant to the history of American film comedy. These 30 selections were joined by about 100 additional short entries on comic figures significant enough to deserve a mention, if not quite meritorious enough to earn a chapter of their own. 130 directors and actors seems like a lot, and I got to include most of the people I wanted, but as I expected from the outset, readers and reviewers have often been most interested in discussing the exclusions. (That is, after all, a significant part of the pleasure of assembling a list, and what is a book about film other than a bulked-up list of movie suggestions?) I’ve enjoyed the discussions, kept them in mind, and pondered who else might deserve inclusion. (Second edition, anyone?)

Here, then, are a handful of performers and directors who just missed the cut.

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The Man Who Brought Big Ideas to the Small Screen

By Gary Shapiro

The reputations of talk show hosts do not have a particularly long shelf life. How many people under the age of 40 recall Jack Paar? Who under 25 knows Johnny Carson? But Stephen Battaglio’s new biography, “David Susskind: A Televised Life,” makes the case for remembering an impresario who brought a brash exuberance to the rough-and-tumble of ideas and social issues.

The premise of Susskind’s show “Open End” was that it would last as long as the host found the talk interesting. On air, Susskind quizzed a dizzying who’s who of writers and intellectuals, including Lionel Trilling, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Preston Sturges, Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell and Truman Capote.

Angering executives and racking up Emmy and Peabody Awards, Susskind brought serious fare to the small screen. His plays, specials and series drew the best talent of the period, crossing the color barrier and hiring blacklisted writers. Susskind had a knack for getting corporate America to sponsor his forays into high culture; an antidote to what Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow once called the “vast wasteland” of television programs.

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Lewis J. Stadlen: Rekindling a Talented Jewish Character Actor

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy The Wilma Theater, Photo Jim Roese
Lewis J. Stadlen points the way.

On October 2, BearManor Media issued a Kindle Edition of 2009’s “Acting Foolish,” an unjustly overlooked memoir by actor Lewis J. Stadlen. Born in Brooklyn in 1947, Stadlen famously appeared on TV’s “The Sopranos” as Dr. Ira Fried, a wittily dour specialist in erectile dysfunction.

Yet Stadlen is basically a stage animal, as student of two Jewish theatrical teaching legends, Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler. Stadlen was attracted to Adler, who in her 60s “looked like the queen mother of a country whose major export was sex,” as opposed to Meisner’s “cruelty.”

Scion of a liberal Jewish family, Stadlen recalls: “That reactionary rag, the Daily News, was allowed in our home only once when [Senator Joseph] McCarthy died of liver cancer, so the family could rejoice at the block letter headline SENATOR JOE, DEAD AT 57!”

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Making a Mess of Comedy

By Matthew Rovner

Wiki Commons

Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.

There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.

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