Brooks accepting his 2001 Tony for ‘The Producers,’ and still mocking Nazis after all these years
I highly recommend anyone unfamiliar with the legacy of Jewish comedy to read up on The Borscht Belt. A cheeky play on The Bible Belt, the Borscht Belt—or the “Jewish Alps”—was a scenic region of upstate New York peppered with resort towns, nicknamed for the beet soup favored by the Eastern and Central European Jewish immigrants who vacationed there from the 20s to the 70s. The entertainment traditions that developed in these resorts laid the foundation of what we now recognize as stand-up comedy. Prior to the character-driven monologue style of Borscht Belt comics, the most popular vehicles for comedy were vaudeville and minstrel shows, with jokes either embedded in a more elaborate act, or used as a buffer between them.
While the Borscht Belt comics pioneered the “mic and brick wall” minimalism of modern stand-up, they were also on the ground floor with some of the more experimental stuff. Below is the animated short film, The Critic, a brilliant piece by the immortal Borscht Belt alumnus, Mel Brooks. Inspired by his own experience overhearing a gentleman of the tribe kvetching during an avant-garde movie, Brooks voices the part of an Ashkenazi grouser with affection and bite.
The four classic comedy albums created by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are probably amongst the five most influential “things” that determined how I speak and write as an adult (The other four factors are Lenny Bruce, The Firesign Theater, Kurt Vonnegut and rock critic Lester Bangs, if you care). I listened to a lot of comedy records when I was a kid. I’d listen to them over and over again with headphones on, unintentionally memorizing every word. To this very day I still use lines from Lenny Bruce or the Firesign Theatre, probably serving only to confuse everyone around me, but I don’t care. I think this is also the reason I sound more like a Jewish comedian from the Catskills when I speak and not a West Virginia hayseed. Those records are really a part of my DNA.
The most famous sketches from the Reiner and Brooks records, obviously, were “The 2000 Old Man” routines. Legend has it that the idea was hatched when Reiner was visiting Brooks in the hospital after a painful surgery. Brooks exclaimed that he felt like a 2000-year-old man. Reiner made like an interviewer, held an invisible microphone under Brooks’ chin and asked him what it was like to have been born before the time of Christ.
Brooks improv’d about the “discovery of women” (“A guy named Bernie…”), the development of language, how cavemen decided what was edible or not and various historical figures the 2000 Year Old Man had encountered, like Joan d’Arc (“Know her? I dated her!”), Benjamin Franklin and Moses.
Soon the duo was trying this material out at Hollywood parties and eventually a tape of their “2000 Year Old Man” bits started getting passed around town.
That’s one story, there are other, competing versions of this legend, but suffice to say that Brooks and Reiner created an enduring classic of stand-up comedy. As a double act, Brooks and Reiner were never less then off-the-scale brilliant and their material was as tight as a drum. I knew that the pair had performed short versions of the 2000 Year Old Man sketches on television several times—and there was the cartoon version in the 70s—but I’d never seen any of it. Of course these days, all one has to do is dial up YouTube and there it is…
“The 2000 Year Old Man” is an enduring comedy classic. It will never really date and it will always be as funny as it was when it first came out.
As hatched by a team of writers that included Sam Shepard, and wife of Bernardo Bertolucci, Clare Peploe, the plot of Zabriskie Point wasn’t terribly complex. Rebel Angelenos (my favorite kind!) Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette (who go, in the film, by their real names), hook up in the desert, have sex in the sand, then separate to meet their own explosive ends.
More complex, though, was the anger and confusion the film provoked at the time. Typically gorgeous cinematography aside, cineasts looking for a worthy philosophical successor to Blow-Up were left disappointed by Zabriskie’s relatively unnuanced take on capitalism. Hollywood watchers were appalled that Antonioni squandered so much time and money ($7 million in 1970 dollars) on something that, despite it’s notorious “desert orgy” sequence, managed to rake in barely a million hippie-box-office dollars.
Fortunately, 5 years later, Antonioni secured cinematic redemption with The Passenger. Daria Halprin acted in only a handful of films, but went on to become, briefly, Mrs. Dennis Hopper. After her marriage to Hopper fizzled, Halprin developed an interest in art therapy, and now, with her mother, runs Marin County’s Tampala Institute.
The future was far less kind to Mark Frechette. You can read the Rolling Stone article about his “sorry life and death” here, but the shorthand goes like this:
He was the apparent victim of a bizarre accident in a recreation room at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, where Frechette had been serving a six- to 15-year sentence for his participation in a 1973 Boston bank robbery.
Frechette’s body was discovered by a fellow inmate early on the morning of September 27th pinned beneath a 150-pound set of weights, the bar resting on his throat. An autopsy revealed he had died of asphyxiation and the official explanation is that the weights slipped from his hands while he was trying to bench press them, killing him instantly.
What the above leaves out, though, is that prior to his incarceration, Frechette was living in a commune run by American cult leader Mel Lyman. The entirety of Frechette’s Zabriskie earnings were tithed to Lyman’s “Family,” and it’s presumed that whatever money Frechette hoped to abscond with post-robbery would have wound up there as well.
Before all this, though, back when television talk show guests could still indulge in a cigarette, Halprin and Frechette found themselves—along with Mel Brooks and Rex Reed—on The Dick Cavett Show.
As you can watch below, Cavett had yet to see Zabriskie Point—and Frechette makes him pay for it. In defending Lyman, Frechette also goes on to argue the fine line between “commune,” and “community.”