One day in early 1962, Mel Brooks was sitting in a New York City theater watching an avant-garde film by the Scottish-born Canadian animator Norman McLaren when he heard someone in the audience expressing bewilderment. “Three rows behind me,” Brooks told Kenneth Tynan for a 1979 New Yorker profile, “there was an old immigrant man mumbling to himself. He was very unhappy because he was waiting for a story line and he wasn’t getting one.”
Brooks had made a study of old curmudgeons ever since he was a boy growing up in a Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn. In a 1975 Playboy interview he described his eccentric Uncle Joe, who would say to him when he was five years old, “Don’t invest. Put da money inna bank. Even the land could sink.”
Later, as a young comedian learning his craft on the borscht belt circuit, Brooks paid close attention to the elocution and timing of the old Yiddish comedians. After working as a writer for Sid Caesar’s early television program, Your Show of Shows, Brooks and fellow writer Carl Reiner hit it big as performers in 1961, with their “2000-Year-Old Man” routine. Reiner was the straight man interviewing an old man played by Brooks. In one famous scene Reiner asked, “You knew Jesus?” Brooks replied, “Yeah. He was a thin man, always wore sandals. Came into the store but never bought anything.”
So when he overheard the old kvetch in the movie theater giving a running commentary on his own bewilderment, Brooks recognized the comedic possibilities. He approached director Ernest Pintoff, whose Oscar-nominated 1959 short The Violinist had been narrated by Reiner, about making a movie. Pintoff hired artist Bob Heath to create the animation, and chose Bach to set the highbrow tone. Brooks was 36 years old when he created the voice of the 71-year-old man. As he told Tynan, the commentary was ad-libbed:
I asked my pal Ernie Pintoff to do the visuals for a McLaren-type cartoon. I told him, ‘Don’t let me see the images in advance. Just give me a mike and let them assault me.’ And that’s what he did…I sat in a viewing theatre looking at what Ernie showed me, and I mumbled whatever I felt that old guy would have mumbled, trying to find a plot in this maze of abstractions. We cut it down to three and a half minutes and called it The Critic.
The film was a critical as well as a popular success, winning the Academy Award for best animated short film of 1963. Putting The Critic into perspective, Samuel Raphael Franco of J, the Jewish news weekly, wrote in 2009:
The film is a relic of quintessential borscht belt humor….It is also a valuable sociologic portrait of the predominant cultural attitudes of Brooklyn’s first generation of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The influence of Brooks’ development as a comic as a tummler for the crowds in the Catskills surfaces right away in the first line, “Vat the hell is dis?”