I read the obits. If I’m not in it I’ll have breakfast. —Carl Reiner
The premise was simple—Reiner as the serious minded announcer, interviewing Brooks as an elder with a Middle European Yiddish accent about some of the historic moments, trends, and celebrities he’d had personal contact with over the years.
The idea originated with Reiner, who, as a young staff writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, thought there was comic gold to be mined from We the People, a weekly news program that dramatized important current events—notably a plumber who claimed to have overheard some toe curling plans while repairing a faucet in Stalin’s bathroom.
Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, no one else in the writers room had caught the show, so he drafted coworker Brooks to play along, interviewing him as if he were the host of We the People, and Brooks were an average Joe who’d been at the Crucifixion:
Mel, aging before our eyes, sighed and allowed a sad “Oooooh, boy” to escape from the depths of his soul…
I pressured the Old Man and asked, “You knew Jesus?”
“Jesus … yes, yes,” he said, straining to remember, “thin lad … wore sandals … always walked around with twelve other guys … yes, yes, they used to come into the store a lot … never bought anything … they came in for water … I gave it to them … nice boys, well-behaved… .”
For a good part of an hour Mel had us all laughing and appreciating his total recall of life in the year 1 A.D. I called upon Mel that morning because I knew that one of the characters in his comedy arsenal would emerge. The one that did was similar to one he did whenever he felt we needed a laugh break. It was a Yiddish pirate captain who had an accent not unlike the 2,000-Year-Old Man.
The durable, always unscripted 2000-Year-Old Man made an instant splash with friends and family, but his accent—which came quite naturally to the Brooklyn-born Brooks—caused the duo to question the wisdom of trotting him out before a wider audience.
In the 20’s and 30’s Yiddish accents had been a comic staple on the radio, and in Broadway, vaudeville, and burlesque houses, but that changed when the Nazis came to power, as Reiner recalled in his 2003 memoir, My Anecdotal Life:
…when Adolf Hitler came along and decreed that all Jews were dirty, vile, dangerous, subhuman animals and must be put to death, Jewish and non-Jewish writers, producers, and performers started to question the Yiddish accent’s acceptability as a tool of comedy. The accent had a self-deprecating and demeaning quality that gave aid and comfort to the Nazis, who were quite capable of demeaning and deprecating Jews without our help. From 1941 on, the Yiddish accent was slowly, and for the most part, voluntarily, phased out of show business.
Eventually, however, the character found his way onto their 1961 LP 2000 Years with Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks.
They buttressed his 12-minute appearance with sketches involving astronauts, teen heartthrob Fabian, and Method actors, hedging their bets lest the accent flop with both reference-challenged WASPs and fellow Jews nervous about reinforcing problematic stereotypes.
A quote on Brooks’ website may provide a hint:
It’s OK not to hurt the feelings of various tribes and groups, however, it’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It’s the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behavior.
Brooks delighted by putting imminently quotable, off-the-cuff punchlines in the mouth of the 2000-Year-Old Man, hooking many young listeners, like veteran comedian and stand up comedy teacher Rick Crom:
The 2000-Year-Old Man was the first comedy album I ever listened to. I was quoting it at 10. I told my Sunday school teacher that before God, people worshipped “a guy…Phil.”
But it was Reiner—who maintained a wish list of questions for the 2000-Year-Old Man and who left us earlier this week at the not-too-shabby age of 98—who steered the act, often by pressing his subject to substantiate his wild claims.
Carl Reiner was a master of the underrated art of the setup. Most “straight men” are known for their responses that release the laugh. Carl did that too, but even more brilliantly, he subtly puts all of the pieces into play for Mel Brooks to push off of into the comedy stratosphere. You see it in the Dick Van Dyke Show as well —he knew how to create the exact space for a comic character to do their best work.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Here latest project is an animation and a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.