Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks’ Timeless Comedy Sketch: The 2000-Year-Old-Man

I read the obits. If I’m not in it I’ll have break­fast. —Carl Rein­er

Up until this week week, it seemed as if Mel Brooks and Carl Rein­er could keep their 2000-Year-Old Man rou­tine going for­ev­er.

The premise was sim­pleRein­er 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 Peo­plea week­ly news pro­gram that dra­ma­tized impor­tant cur­rent eventsnotably 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 accentwhich came quite nat­u­ral­ly to the Brook­lyn-born Brookscaused 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.

One won­ders what the 2000-Year-Old Manwho as a cave­man had trou­ble deter­min­ing “who was a lady”would have had to say about the move­ments for Trans Equal­i­ty#MeToo, and Black Lives Mat­ter.

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 Rein­erwho 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 98who steered the act, often by press­ing his sub­ject to sub­stan­ti­ate his wild claims.

As Anne Lib­era, Direc­tor of Com­e­dy Stud­ies at The Sec­ond City and Colum­bia Col­lege Chica­go, notes:

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.

Copies of the Com­plete 2000 Year Old Man can be pur­chased on Ama­zon.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear 30 of the Great­est Standup Com­e­dy Albums: A Playlist Cho­sen by Open Cul­ture Read­ers

Judd Apa­tow Teach­es the Craft of Com­e­dy: A New Online Course from Mas­ter­Class

Steve Mar­tin Per­forms Stand-Up Com­e­dy for Dogs (1973)

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.

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