When Brooks Met Reiner ... 

A salute to two main mensches of postwar American comedy

Thursday, Jul 22 2010

In Enter Laughing, Carl Reiner's 1967 directorial debut based on the stage version of his own novel, a movie- and sex-obsessed Jewish boy from the Bronx breaks free of his smothering immigrant parents by living out his thespian dreams with a clutzy, ragtag off-Broadway company. Though autobiographical, the film also works as an ur-narrative summarizing the experiences of the first-generation Jewish comics who, after bumbling, anything-for-art initiations into showbiz, went on to profoundly influence the entertainment industry after World War II.

Reiner got his start in the theater, while eventual 2,000 Year Old Man partner Mel Brooks made a name for himself in the Catskills. The American Cinematheque's "Laugh-Out-Loud Weekend With Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner" emphasizes their connection as writers (Reiner also performed) on Your Show of Shows, the early-'50s Sid Caesar–centered variety hour-and-a-half that served as a testing ground for young Jewish talent out of the Tri-State area. This Golden Age of Television classic is properly memorialized in the Brooks-produced opening night selection, My Favorite Year (1982), screening Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The following night, a compilation film of highlights, Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973), provides terrific firsthand evidence of its live-and-loose sketch comedy.

Reiner's and Brooks' careers forked when they moved on to the movies. Brooks starred as the emcee of his instantly successful broad-side-of-the-barn productions, while Reiner usually stayed behind the camera, unable to fulfill the potential shown by Enter Laughing (the only representative of his early work in the Cinematheque's series, screening Friday) until joining forces with Steve Martin in The Jerk (1979; screening Friday at 7:30).

click to enlarge Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, screening on July 28
  • Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, screening on July 28

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Three of Martin's and Reiner's four collaborations are accounted for by the Cinematheque — all hysterical, and all strongly influenced by Martin's writing and acting. A Mad Libs quality persists not only in the films' deadpan, absurdist dialogue ("I wanted to kiss her with every lip on my face"; "Carlotta's the kind of town they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct them, they kill you") but also in the make-it-up-as-we-go-along story lines. This madcap gambit is brought to its logical conclusion in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid's (1982) bizarre incorporation of footage from classic noirs: for example, Fred MacMurray's grocery-store rendezvous with Barbara Stanwyck transformed into a drag disguise seduction by Martin. Ultimately, the Reiner-Martin joints convey an infectious sense of fun, especially in the off-the-wall The Man With Two Brains (1983), a film that at one point translates the exclamation "Leaping lizards!" into a literalized sight gag.

Due to the presence of Martin, Reiner's best films are slightly surreal; due to endless self-amusement (enabled by game regulars Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn), Brooks' best films are pure Borscht Belt. As is the case with the Reiner lineup, the Brooks portion of Cinematheque's series covers the peak years — minus High Anxiety, from Western send-up Blazing Saddles (1974) to History of the World, Part I (1981). With these titles the Brooklyn-born shtick-up artist practically fathered the modern genre spoof, perfected less than a decade later by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team and debased in recent years by the unholy alliance of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (History is mostly bad, but it's no Epic Movie). Today Brooks' films feel simultaneously trendsetting and antiquated: His lasting contribution to culture is undoubtedly a scatological juvenilia that has become the gold standard of popular comedy ever since the farting campfire sequence of Saddles, but his elbow-to-ribs, fourth wall–breaking wocka-wocka Yiddishisms and overall corniness (deformed laboratory assistant Igor in 1974's Young Frankenstein: "Call it ... a hunch. Ba-dum, chi!") have gone the way of the Henny Youngman–style one-liner.

Though I've groaned at his jokes since adolescence — the mental age such material unabashedly caters to — I still find Brooks' brand of humor largely endearing, a quality brought out by his unpretentious love of cinema and his meticulous efforts at spoofing it with stylistic precision, whether paying cinematographic homage to the Universal horror films of the '30s in Young Frankenstein, or in saluting the halcyon days of slapstick comedy by rendering Silent Movie 99 percent speechless. Brooks' tasteless taboo-busting hasn't stood as successfully against the test of time. Saddles' crude pokes at Manifest Destiny racism hold up as well as the trenchant political investigations from serious revisionist Westerns of the same era, but his razzmatazz musical renderings of civilization's worst atrocities (the Spanish Inquisition–meets–Busby Berkeley number from History) ickily favor self-satisfaction over genuine farce, an attitude we're now stuck with in the age of South Park's pandering "provocations." As for Brooks' own inevitable sellout to Broadway, his "Let's put on a show!" philosophy of outrageousness was always stage- and tourist-primed.

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