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On the Town With Mel Brooks

By Frank Rich

A VERY long time ago I was spending my summers at a camp in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was an intensely serious place full of pimply kids like myself who entertained dreams of one day becoming musicians or painters or actors or dancers. It was not a good thing to be caught laughing at such a place. Indeed, being found in your bunk jerking off would be less embarrassing. People were most comfortable talking about their parents' divorces, psychoanalysis, and The Theatre.

It was rather surprising, then, that one of the counselors inspired us to build a cult around a comedian named Mel Brooks during my last Stockbridge summer. It is especially surprising when you consider who are the targets of a record such as the Brooks "2000 Year Old Man" (Capitol). I doubt if we ever quite understood then that we loved Mel Brooks because we were the very people he was lambasting.

His routines, done with partner-interviewer Carl Reiner, are dissections of American role-playing and our susceptibility to the put-on. What Brooks' creations tell us about this country is painful-but the creations endure because they are not built on the comedy of cruelty, but on the comedy of love.

Brooks' different routines all fall into a coherent pattern. Each of the characters he assumes is a charlatan, a famous "celebrity" whose every move is dishonest and phony. Yet there is honesty in the dishonesty. The roles are forced on the Brooksian characters by their society; inevitably the "celebrities" haplessly reveal the hollow core beneath their moral and cultural pretensions. Their dogged ineptitude at falsifying themselves arouses our compassion rather than our distaste.

And so, on the hilarious Brooks-Reiner albums, we get a brave chauvinistic astronaut who suddenly, desperately admits, "I don't stand a chance. I'm gonna lose my life." Or a heavily-accented Greek painter named Corin Corfu who turns out not to be Greek at all but would merely "like to be Greek." Or a New Wave film director named Federico Fettucinni who fills his movies with rape not for commercial reasons but so people will learn how evil rape is.

The most famous Brooks characterization, the 2000 Year Old Man, works over the largest territory, smashing the idols of all time. At one point he credits the Robin Hood legend to a press agent and explains that the altruistic robber actually "stole from everybody and kept everything." He reminds us of Shakespeare's flop play, "Queen Alexandra and Murray," which "closed in Egypt."

ONE OF Brooks' best pranks is contained in his first movie, The Producers, in which a tasteless musical lauding Nazism (and titled Springtime for Hitler ) becomes the darling of the New York stage. This week Mel Brooks turned up in Boston to talk with critics about his second film ( The Twelve Chairs, opening at the Astor today), and he was, of course, uncomfortable in dealing with the kind of cultural arbiters who could conceivably make something like a Springtime for Hitler a success.

Accordingly, he began by assuming the posture of a ludicrous, self-proclaimed great man. He immediately apologized for the "conditions of life in the U.S.A. during our epoch" in a most reverential manner. He went on to sing a few bars from the old Jeanette MacDonald song "San Francisco" and then told the story of his life:

"I popped out of my mother on a cold day and I said, 'I don't like this life.' But the world demanded I partake in social activities, so I learned to dance at the age of two and a half months."

He explained his rules for moviemaking: "When the scene is exciting, put the camera in cement. When the scene is dull, spin the camera around like a whip." Brooks would not let anyone take him seriously in any of the poses the situation demanded he assume.

He said that he had no fun filming in Yugoslavia because "Tito had the car." He said that he looked forward to meeting Johannes Brahms "in the great beyond" -and then clarified that by saying that "the great beyond" is "out west." "I guess I'll meet him on the coast," he finally concluded. "I'll meet Brahms when I go to the coast," he repeated, somewhat sadly.

It is quite amazing to realize that Brooks is as funny now as he was eight or ten years ago. But it only makes sense. Vietnam and all the social upheavals that have come along with it have not changed the seriousness with which we play our roles in this society. The roles have changed, but the pretense is as strong as ever. It is still difficult to laugh at ourselves.

Harvard is no different from my old summer camp. If we don't see ourselves as artists of the future, we see ourselves as terribly serious utopianists or revolutionaries or rising young politicos or academics. Ken Kesey's letter to Tim Leary in Rolling Stone is as much the kind of supercilious grandstanding that Brooks is talking about as are Stalin's daughter's Twenty Letters to a Friend. David Susskind, Erich Segal and Andy Warhol are all part of the same American game. Everyone plays to the audience.

It is no wonder that Brooks praised his old partner this week because Reiner always kept him "in a state of panic." Panic is the durable essence of Brooks' humor: the panic of being born into a world that demands us to "partake in social activities" rather than be privately ourselves.

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