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The 11th Commandment
by Jon Schuller

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From the beginnings of time human beings needed to laugh. They didn't always know why they laughed or when – or even how. But I can imagine sooner or later someone realized what funny was (or wasn't) and eventually kings and queens ordered their subjects to laugh; royalty found fools and jesters who acted stupid; if you didn't like the jester the king would be offended. It's good to be the king. People would find themselves in dangerous situations, maybe living in a country that wasn't their own, and they needed something to keep their spirits up and maybe stay alive too. Something or someone who could tell funny stories and help keep hope flourishing as another dark day enveloped them. The long historical story of the Jewish people has been inextricably intertwined with great humorists and tellers of stories. Whether they were men of great wisdom, like rabbis, or just ordinary folks trying to survive, their ability to laugh at their own circumstances helped them survive. Right up to our modern, interconnected world today, replete with compact, electronic communication devices everyone seems to have, we still need people to make us laugh, see humor where there seems to be none and endure for another day . One of our most beloved national treasures is a modest man named Mel Brooks.

Born Melvin James Kaminsky on June 28, 1926 in East New York, Brooklyn, N.Y., Mel Brooks is a prolific writer, humorist, film-maker, composer and lyricist, actor and comedian. I seriously doubt if there are any people in the world who don't know him or haven't seen his many famous movies, television shows or plays. He started his comedic career after serving in the Army Engineers Combat Battalion in World War II. As an almost stereotypical Jewish kid from Brooklyn he started in the famous "Borscht Belt" of the Catskill Mountain resorts.
He took his mother's maiden name, Brookman, so he wouldn't be confused with a then-famous trumpeter, Max Kaminsky. Brooks tells the story that, as a drummer, he wanted his name printed on his bass drum but Brookman wouldn't fit so he shortened to Brooks and history was made.

He found he could write comedy as well as perform it and he eventually wound up among what would become a famous group of writers for the popular Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows 1950's television program. He worked with Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and Woody Allen. Brooks' experiences as a writer were dramatized in 1982's My Favorite Year (a great film to boot). This amazing circle of comedy writers was captured in Simon's 1993 play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Brooks and Reiner became close friends as well as co-workers and from an impromptu series of skits between them – popular at parties and coffee breaks – came the 2000 Year Old Man. By 1961 the pair had an album that sold over 1 million copies. He was involved with more and more productions, like movies and television, as the writer. He joined with Buck Henry in 1965 and together they created the comedy spoof of the hugely popular James Bond films, Get Smart. It ran on television for 5 years, starred Don Adams and won 7 Emmy Awards. Brooks was already married to Anne Bancroft since 1964.

By 1968 Brooks was ready to be a film director. He had come up with an idea to make fun of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis (poking fun at serious topics is a mainstay for him) as a musical comedy. Finding funding was difficult but eventually he did. The Producers starred Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Christopher Hewett, Andréas Voutsinas and Lee Meredith with music by John Morris. It was a revolutionary movie and eventually, after many years
of encouragement from his wife, became a Broadway musical and won a record 12 Tony Awards. The Twelve Chairs premiers in 1970 and was not a rousing success. But it was the totally irreverent Blazing Saddles (1974), and Young Frankenstein, in the same year, that really cemented Brooks as the high priest of offending as many people, legends and sacred cows in America and the world. He is incredibly able to distill the humor and pathos within the same story, while simultaneously taking previously untouchable subjects and poking unlimited fun at them. He could share the irreverence with his actors who had no difficulty portraying the characters Brooks wanted. Both of these films featured splendid casts and both made lots of money. These were followed by:
Silent Movie (1976) (Brooks is also an actor)
High Anxiety (1977) (actor/producer)
History of the World, Part I (1981) (actor/producer)
Spaceballs (1987) (actor/producer)
Life Stinks (1991) (actor/producer)
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) (actor/producer)
Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) (actor/producer). He actually appeared in most of his own films but did have his own personal favorites as actors. One of them, Gene Wilder, agreed to star in Young Frankenstein on the condition that Brooks was not in the movie too. Brooks agreed. Between 1950 and 2012 he appeared in no less than 36 separate television productions and/or shows. He has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. He just received an A.F.I. Life Achievement Award. Three of his movies have all been listed on A.F.I.'s Top 100 Comedy Films: The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

If you love Mel Brooks as much as I do you certainly have no trouble remembering, word for word, action for action, scene by scene, some of the funniest lines and parts ever recorded on film. Madeline Kahn, another of his
favorite actors, as Lily Von Schtupp (very loosely based on Marlene Dietrich) in Blazing Saddles, greets Cleavon Little in her "dwessing woom" with "a wed wose, how womantic." The wonderful English comedian, Marty Feldman, portrays the hunchback, Igor (eye-gor) and his answer to Frankenstein's command to take the bags, says "You take the blond, I'll take the one in the toiban." In History of the World, Part 1, narrated by Orson Welles, only Mel Brooks would poke fun at Moses as he prepares to present the Commandments to the Hebrews on Mt. Sinai. Holding up 3 tablets Moses struggles and says "the Lord has me commanded to present these 15, (he drops a tablet) no, these 10 Commandments to you." Rick Moranis, as the deadly Dark Helmet in the Star Trek spoof, Spaceballs, asks his commander, Colonel Sandurz (George Weiner), who are all these guys who can't do anything right. " That one is Major Asshole."
"And his cousin?"
"Chief Gunners Mate Asshole"
"How many assholes do we have?" The entire crew stands.
"I'm surrounded by assholes."

The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) is comforting Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) in Blazing Saddles after the new black sheriff has been insulted by a little old lady:
"What did you expect? Welcome home, sonny? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember these are simple farmers, people of the land, the common clay of the new West. You know. . . .morons."

I believe the entire world is indebted to Mel Brooks for the joy, fun, irreverence and variety of his comedies and his whole body of work. Our world can be a very deadly, serious place and to be spared a few moments of peace and laughter from all the terribly depressing things we all face every day is rare and to be treasured. Mr. Brooks' mission has been from his earliest days to create another Commandment, the 11th, which states that "Thou Shalt Make People Laugh."

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Jun 27, 2013 8:57 AM
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Great column, Jon. I love Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs, particularly. Brooks was also really funny semi-recently on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Jun 27, 2013 9:41 AM
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Thank you. Did you see the AFI show? They don't give out those awards to just anyone.

Mike Thomas
Jun 27, 2013 11:52 AM
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Great column!

Mel Brooks is an icon, for sure. He was one of the few people in Hollywood who could write, direct, produce, and star in his own movies. Many have tried, and they've failed miserably.

He was also great at packaging a product. I mean, how many movies have been made into a stage show, then have a movie made of the stage show, and all of them were awesome! Every version of "Springtime for Hitler" was hilariously horrifying!

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

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Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

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Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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