It started as a novelty act: Carl Reiner would entertain friends at parties by pretending to interview a character he’d throw at Mel Brooks, who would immediately adopt the persona—a guy at a coffee shop, a famous film director, a submarine captain. The highlight of their impromptu act (which existed entirely in this Q&A format) was interviews with Brooks’ character the 2,000-Year-Old Man, an ancient Jewish guy who talked of living in caves, hanging with William Shakespeare, and shtupping Joan Of Arc. The dynamic duo, who met on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, finally recorded the bit on a 1961 comedy album, and the joke was no longer relegated to those soirées; four albums followed with new 2,000-Year-Old Man banter, including a Grammy-winning 2000 release, The 2000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000. Today, Brooks and Reiner are comedy legends—Brooks went on to create Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers; Reiner’s contributions include The Dick Van Dyke Show, acting in the Ocean’s Eleven movies, and having a hand in most of Steve Martin’s early films—but the 2,000-Year-Old Man routine remains one of their best-known classics. Before Shout! Factory released The 2000 Year Old Man: The Complete History, a three-CD/one-DVD box set that includes all the previous albums and classic TV appearances, The A.V. Club talked with Brooks and Reiner about the longevity of the straight-guy/funny-guy comedy dynamic, writing plays for critics, and Jewish humor.
The A.V. Club: How are you doing today?
Mel Brooks: I’m okay, I’m fine. I’m wearing New Balance sneakers and a light polo shirt with a little guy on a horse with a polo mallet. And chino trousers and a black sweater. I’m at my desk surrounded by every award that show business could imagine.
AVC: And you’re incredibly humble.
MB: I am, I’m incredibly humble. I’m one of the most wonderfully humble guys. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well that’s good. Are you ready to talk about the—
MB: So, the 2,000-Year-Old Man… We were big at parties for 10 years, and we didn’t think it had any commercial value. We just wanted to do it out of love and joy.
Carl Reiner: We were on Your Show Of Shows—he was a writer, and I was an actor. After I came up with something, he let me be in the writers’ room, so I was like an actor without a portfolio. But the very first day I met Mel, he jumped up and did something from nowhere—nobody asked him to, he became a Jewish pirate. He was using a Jewish accent to complain about the plight of the pirate that day. I was roaring—and he used the same accent that ultimately he was going to use on the 2,000-Year-Old Man, but that’s where I knew. He got up and he started complaining about [Adopts Jewish accent.] “You know what it costs to set sail today? I can’t pillage, I can’t loot.” We were hysterical. And so not too soon after that—maybe a week or two—I happened to be listening to a program called We, The People; it was a Sunday program that recreated the news. And Dan Seymour, the host, would say, “Here’s a man who was in Stalin’s toilet repairing his plumbing, when he heard the premier say [Deep, conniving tone.] ‘We’re going to blow up the world Thursday,’” something crazy like that. I came in the next day and said, “Fellas, I heard something, and we oughta do a sketch on it.” And they thought it was a good idea, but we let it go. I was so hot with it, I couldn’t let go, and Mel was sitting on the couch next to me, and I turned to Mel and said—this is the origin of the 2,000-Year-Old Man, right here—I said, “Here’s a man who actually knew Jesus,” that’s the way it started. The first words out of his mouth were, “Oh boy.” I’ll never forget those words.
For the next 10 years, from 1950 to 1960, it was just a comedy tool that we used to entertain ourselves. Myself, really. When things got into a lull, I would just throw something at Mel, I would make him a psychiatrist or whatever. We did it only for friends, and we never thought anything about it. 1950 was four or five years after the war, and the Jewish accent wasn’t being used in comedy as it was from the turn of the century. They used to call ‘em “Jew comics,” or “Dutch comics” when they didn’t wanna call them Jew comics. Then when the war came, the Jewish accent disappeared, because Hitler was doing enough to denigrate the Jews, and making fun of the way they talk was just not acceptable. So we did it for friends! Anytime anybody said, “Hey, you oughta take this out and do it someplace in the public,” we said “No, no, it’s for our Jewish friends and our non-anti-Semitic Christian friends.” A guy named Joe Fields, who was a big-time producer on Broadway, had a couple royal performances—he called them royal performances. He’d invite people to his penthouse, we’d go up there, have dinner, and he’d go, “Get up, fellas!” I always took a tape recorder along, so I wouldn’t miss some of the gems, because Mel never came up with the same thing twice. If I asked him the same question, he’d come up with different answers. And we did that in New York.
Then I was on the coast, doing The Dick Van Dyke Show; Mel, he came out for a visit, Joe Fields was out here, and he made another one of his parties; it was at that party where it took root. We got up again after dinner, had a lot of fun, and three people came up to us after. One of them was George Burns, who said, “Is there an album of this?” And we said, “No.” And he said, “Well, you better put it on an album, or we’re going to steal it.” And then Edward G. Robinson said, “Make a play out of that 1,000-Year-Old Man!” And it was Steve Allen who got up and said, “Fellas, you gotta put this on tape. We’ll get the studio, you can have it for a night. You can burn the tape, you can do anything you want with it, but you should try and take a shot at it.”
AVC: The straight-guy/funny-guy dynamic has been around for ages. How did the two of you fall into that format?
MB: I think the real engine behind it is Carl, not me. I’m just collecting the fares. But he’s the guy that creates the subjects, the questions, and creates a kind of buoyant, effervescent, terribly naïve character. He keeps saying, “Sir, I find that hard to believe, that you’re 2,000.” [Laughs.] He actually says that. So I didn’t even start it. I wanted nothing to do with it. I was eating a piece of sponge cake and drinking Manischewitz wine in a corner somewhere at a party, and suddenly Carl comes over with a tape recorder and says, “I understand, sir, you were at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” And I was off. I was off doing what I had to do.
CR: It’s really a writing job—the straight guy comes up with the premises. In all good writing teams, there’s always someone who has a strength in one area, and my strength is that I always come up with ideas. I write books that way—I put a first line down and say, “Where does this go?” About a week or two ago, somebody came and told me about an article that said the guy considered the straight man in old vaudeville days owned the act. Weber and Fields, one of the biggest acts in vaudeville, it was Weber who owned the act and hired Fields. And he used many different Fields. There wasn’t one Fields. And Abbott and Costello, Abbott got the lion’s share of the money. He was the head guy. He found Costello, and it turned out that that was an accepted thing, the straight man was the guy, the producer, the writer, and the other guy was the guy who made the money for him. But I never thought of it in those terms. I am also the voice of the audience. I’m going to ask questions that if I were in the audience, I would love to know what this man thought about this, this, and this.
AVC: What about the straight-guy/funny-guy dynamic has caused it to last so long?
MB: Well, the straight guy is never given enough credit. For me, the heroes are the straight guys. The funnier one in Laurel and Hardy is Oliver Hardy. And Laurel gets all the credit for being the comic, and Hardy was the straight man. Abbott is a relentless maniac driving everybody in the world crazy, especially Lou Costello. And Lou gets all the credit, and Abbott gets no credit for framing it, for the architecture, for the support, for the drive. He does everything except the punchline; he’s amazing.
AVC: Regular audience members don’t seem to be very interested in comic setups.
MB: Yes it’s true. It’s so true. And I think the straight guy is critical. Dean Martin never got any credit. All the credit went to Jerry Lewis. And it was Dean’s reactions and his ease and his grace and his sheer talent that made that team work… Jack Benny was really the straight man of The Jack Benny Show, and that’s what made it so marvelous and wonderful. [In one joke], he’s in his vault—you hear him step by step, you hear the vault creaking, you hear the vault open, you hear some tinkling of coins, of gold or something. Then you hear a voice say, “Okay, your money or your life.” And you wait—this is radio—you wait a full minute, interminable space in radio. And the guy says, “Well?” And Jack says “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” The same thing with Johnny Carson, who just listened to comics. I loved doing his show, because you really made him laugh. He wasn’t kidding. And Carl is in that tradition; Carl is the genius of the piece. I don’t know what Carl’s going to ask. “Did you know Joan of Arc, sir?” Where the hell did that come from?
AVC: At what point did you realize which role was for you?
MB: Right from the beginning, I wanted the laughs. I wasn’t going to waste a minute setting things up. But Carl loved that job. I think today, Stephen Colbert does that beautifully. He plays this kind of naïve far-right Republican, and he plays it so earnestly and so naïvely, just the way Carl would play it with me and the 2,000-Year-Old Man. We would do things like, “I’m not exactly 2000, I’ll be on October 16. I’ll be exactly 2000.” And he’d say, “I find that hard to believe.” He’d go, “Do you have a birth certificate?” And I’d say, “Well in those days, we didn’t even have paper. Your birth certificate, you chipped it out on a stone, on a rock, you chipped out when you were born. On a boulder! I’m not going to carry around my birth certificate. It’s two tons.” So Carl would often go from one subject to another, gracefully, brilliantly, and then surround it. You finished the joke, and Carl would segue out of it into the next. And he really he should get the credit that Bud Abbott, that Oliver Hardy gets. People should know that he’s the most important one in the act.
CR: We fell into it without even thinking about it, and didn’t have to think about it until people like you came around and asked these dumb questions. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding. I call them dumb questions—questions I don’t really have an answer for, except that it happened that way, and we never thought about why we were doing it. All things that happen naturally—you don’t think about how you walk, how you put one foot in front of the other.
AVC: Carl, you’ve said in other interviews that you’re against analyzing comedy. Why is that?
CR: Well, people have a comic bent or an angularity to their thinking, and those are the people who make jokes. And it’s usually people who were in an environment, when they were young, where jokes were at a premium, or at least considered important to a life. My parents always listened to the comedy radio shows, we went to the comedy movies, and my parents appreciated comedy. So kids listen and follow what their parents like.
AVC: Do you think comedy is something you can teach somebody?
CR: No. There are people born with intelligence; you’re not born with a funny bone. If you’re just a normal thing, the palette is there; it just depends on who puts the paint on the palette, and what they put on the palette when you’re very young. And then when you’re a little older and go to the movies by yourself, then you start making choices, and it’s usually honed by choices you made very early in your life.
MB: Where are you?
AVC: I’m in Chicago.
MB: I was always treated with love and respect and joy in Chicago.
AVC: I understand you called the theater editor of the Chicago Tribune recently about his Young Frankenstein review?
MB: Yeah, because he knocked the shit out of it. Chris Jones is a Chicago Tribune writer. I don’t know who he wrote for, but we opened in New York on Broadway, and he covered it for the Chicago Tribune. He covered a New York opening, and he knocked the shit out of the show. I said, “What’ve we done?” [Laughs.] We didn’t intend to harm people. There was no malice or forethought when we wrote the show. But anyway, when I spoke to him, I pointed out that there were a couple of good things in it, and he should look at it again when it opens in Chicago. “Give it another chance; if you feel the same way, fine. But maybe since time has gone by, you might like the show.” I think it’s good. It stands up.
AVC: You mentioned to him that you could have written a show for critics. With a lot of—
MB: Yes, sophisticated references. Actually I think that word is “arcane,” references that critics would adore. But the ordinary reader would say, “What the fuck is this?” But to critics, oh my God, “It’s out of Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer, and the second act is a reference.” Critics know all that shit. And they like to be delighted with arcane material. But people just want what’s really funny, what’s really entertaining.
AVC: So you think there’s a sense-of-humor divide between critics and regular people?
MB: There is, because if the common man likes it, why should the critic like it? He’s certainly above the herd. So I was trying to explain to him, I could write for critics and I know what they would like, but I don’t, because if I please them, I’m liable to leave out a lot of citizens.
AVC: But you’ve done that in the past, haven’t you? Surely some of your films have been well-received by everyone.
MB: I have been lucky that some critics joined the mob in loving something I’ve done, or in appreciating it. I’ve been lucky. But most of the critics don’t like what the people like. I think they have a very strange job, and they are meant to criticize. I’ve gotten some raves, and I’m very proud. I took The Producers on Broadway, and strangely enough, unanimous raves from both the critics and the public. That was the only time in my life that that phenomenon ever happened. But I was trying to explain to him, I said, “How could somebody like myself, who’s proven goods—my goods are good. I’ll bake you the best bread, it’s Mel Brooks.” If you listen to The 2000 Year Old Man, you’re going to get something good. I’m good at what I do, I write good songs, good jokes; the bottom line is, I’m good. Personally, I think I’m great, but you know. [Laughs.] So how can you knock the shit out of the work I’ve done on Young Frankenstein the musical, when you are besotted and swooned to the merriment of The Producers? How could that be? Did I suddenly turn into Joseph Goebbels? I’m still the same guy, why is my work so hateful?
AVC: What about critics who try to keep an open mind about everything individually, regardless of who made it?
MB: When somebody brings a train of baggage to the event, you can’t discount it. It’s not like a newcomer, where you can say, “Well, maybe this guy shouldn’t even be in this business,” or “This guy’s good: I hope he gets discovered.” When somebody brings so much to the feast, there should be a modicum of regard or respect for his mind. Shakespeare’s worst fucking play is still Shakespeare, you know?
AVC: Some people just buy tickets to theater, though, and they want to know if a show, from their perspective, is good. Not everyone is going to obsessively follow every thing you do, and be okay with it just because you did it.
MB: But there’s something in between that. It’s not just black and white. I would never discount—if [Eugene] O’Neill wrote a play, even if I didn’t like it, I might compare it to another O’Neill play, but I would never say it was bad. I could never say a Fitzgerald novel was bad. Even though The Last Tycoon is not as good as The Great Gatsby, it’s still Fitzgerald. It’s still very good.
AVC: I wonder what kind of reviews Shakespeare got back in the day.
MB: He probably got the shit kicked out of him. There was some critic standing in the pit eating a haunch of rabbit or something, spitting out the bones and saying, “What is this crap? And why iambic pentameter, why don’t they just talk regular?” I really should do a musical or play set in Shakespeare’s time, and have a fictitious Shakespeare, and have critics having fun knocking the shit out of him. I could do that, that’s the way I could get even with them. “See, you were wrong!”
AVC: You need to write a play now completely for critics.
MB: The thing is, the task that would really be funny and good, and something that I don’t know if I’m equal to, would be to write a new Shakespearean play in iambic pentameter. Do it, actually do it, and have it be the best damn play I could even think of, based on Shakespeare’s talents. And then hope for good reviews, and see what I get. Not from the real critics, but from the critics from my show.
AVC: The first 2000 Year Old Man CD has you playing a variety of characters other than the man himself. Where did those come from?
MB: Carl created them. He said, “We’re at the Cannes Film Festival, and here’s the filmmaker Pippi Skittles from England, who’s given us a wonderful movie here. Pippi—” [Changes to a gruff British accent.] “I’ll tell you something, mate,” suddenly I’m this Englishman. I never know who I’m gonna be. Like I said, Carl is the architect.
CR: That’s what the fun of it was. I got more kick out of just coming up with somebody. I remember once we were in my house, and [I came up with] a psychiatric convention with psychiatrists from every nation in the world. We went around the table, and I said, “From Germany, Dr. Fritz So-and-So,” and he’d talk with a German accent, “From India, Dr. Pandihandib,” and we went around the table, and he gave me different accents for each person. We didn’t know where we were sometimes, but laughs never stopped coming. But how about keeping eight balls in the air? I don’t know if it was four, six, or eight, but a different voice for each, different sensibilities.
AVC: Do you get a kick out of really pushing him and really challenging him?
CR: Oh, that’s what I get the biggest kick out of, when I think there’s no answer. Yeah, when I got him in a corner and there’s no way out, and he finds a way out, that makes me laugh out loud. On some of the records—you won’t hear me, because I turned away, but I’m laughing out loud. I turned away from the mic. Sometimes, I hear the jokes a beat after everybody else. As the audience is laughing, I’m so intent upon asking the next question, I don’t know what the audience heard. Then it occurs to me what he just said.
AVC: On the DVD, you guys were talking a lot about when you appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and you had to recite jokes that had previously been improvised. You mentioned that it felt weird. How so?
MB: It did. Some of the juice went out of the piece. I’m just remembering a joke rather than creating a joke. It wasn’t as much fun. “Here I am in Alaska. The cod-fishing boats are lining up at the dock, and here’s the captain of this fishing boat. ‘How do you do today, Captain?’ ‘HELLO!’” I like that. I like the challenge.
AVC: Does that challenge manifest itself when you’re writing a film, or working on something scripted?
MB: Wait a minute—the challenge comes from creating it. You’re talking about the polish, which is not as much fun, but it’s very important. Then I come in as a critic, as an audience member, I come in as a different person, but first I come in as a wacky, creative writer. Then I come in as a person who expects something better.
AVC: Have you always been able to delineate between the two roles? Did you have to come about to that?
MB: That’s a very good question. I just knew instinctively that unfettered and virgin snow in creativity was very important, and then we need roads and signposts. You’ve gotta build the village. But in the beginning, it’s wild, unchained creativity. It usually starts with a character who wants something, and he goes ahead wildly and meets other people, and we know he wants something, and that creates the story.
AVC: What is it about that character and that routine that keeps you both coming back to it?
MB: He has a lust for life. He hates death and he likes life, and he loves telling stories. He’s got a lot of joie de vivre, this guy.
AVC: Did anything change when you revisited the character for the last album?
CR: Mel was a little worried about the fact that we hadn’t done it in like 13 years or something. So what I did, I started asking Mel questions in my office days before. I’d ask him a question, and if he started to answer and I heard the nub of something, I’d say “Stop! I’ll ask this question, but I don’t wanna hear what you have to say.” I asked a question and he looked blank at me, I’d throw the question aside. So when we got there [to record the album], he didn’t know particularly which questions I was gonna ask, but he knew that he’d heard the question before. But all of this stuff worked, they were roaring with laughter. I had bunch of garbage questions in another suitcase, rejects, and I said, “You know, I’d like to ask you a few more questions,” and he saw me going for these things I had thrown away, and looked at me like I was crazy. Every reject question got a good answer, and a new answer, and some of it’s on the record.
AVC: You both have remained active in comedy over the years. What do you admire about new comics you work with?
MB: It’s a hard question. I’ve always admired bravery and courage in comics that go out there unclothed, naked, throwing their comedy at the public and getting little applause and no laughter sometimes. I just absolutely applaud them. I love their courage, whether they make it or not. To get up onstage takes a lot of balls, and to suffer an unwelcome hostile audience, you gotta have a lot of guts.
AVC: Do you think there will ever be a time when we all stop telling Jewish jokes?
MB: Never. That will never go away, because they’re so rich, they’re so schmaltzy, they’re so funny, they’re so absurd. I still open my act—if I ever do anything, I always open with two jokes I used to do in the Borscht belt. I open with “I met a girl last night who was so skinny, this girl was really thin. I took her to a nightclub, and the maître d’ said, ‘Check your umbrella?’ That’s how skinny this girl was.” That, and “You can’t keep Jews in jail: They eat lox.”
CR: It’s downtrodden humor. Blacks have had the same ability to be funny, because when you denigrate people, they have two ways to fight back—with their fists and guns, or their mouths. And mouths are seemingly the easiest way to not get hit back. If people are laughing, they’re not going to hit you.