By Eli Boonin-Vail
Mel Brooks’ reimagining of the Spanish Inquisition in one segment of The History of the World Part I as a Golden-Age Hollywood Busby Berkeley-esque musical number, complete with dancing nuns and synchronized water torture, serves as his thesis statement on cinematic comedy. It would be easy to mislabel this scene – and much of Brooks’ oeuvre – as “shock comedy,” as it revolves around taboo subjects traditionally thought unfunny and aims for provocation. Torture, racism, antisemitism, and Nazism are just a few of the areas where Brooks looked for comedy in films like Blazing Saddles and The Producers, but in his absurdly crafted cinema, shock does not appear to be his endgame. Rather, Mel Brooks is a comedy auteur who pioneered what we might call “reclamation comedy.” The Inquisition musical number isn’t shocking so much as it is genuinely delightful despite being about an objectively horrific piece of human history. In its studious appropriation of classic Hollywood forms, it oxymoronically reconstructs a deadly serious subject matter into something that moviegoers, particularly Jews like Brooks, can laugh at and grapple with. Like the “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers, once the initial shock, subsides the audience is left to delight in comedy where we thought none could exist.
A sly comedic paean to humankind itself, The History of the World: Part I holds nothing sacred. Its guiding philosophy is irreverence of the highest form, tackling the sacred in the most sacrilegious forms possible. Laid out in a tableau of sketches spanning history, the film takes aim at the dawn of humankind, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the death of Jesus, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution, painting major players as sex-crazed, drug-addled, irritable, and generally as messy and flawed as the average American circa 1981. Brooks takes his worldview to its most macro scale with this film, bringing his trademark Jewish post-vaudevillian sensibilities and love of classic Hollywood comedy to every corner of recorded memory.
One of the most obvious themes of The History of the World Part I is the subversion of authority. Whether it’s Moses as a nebbish whiner, Julius Caesar as a morbidly obese incompetent, or King Louis the XVI as a sex-obsessed deviant, the film reiterates that monarchy and religion are to be mocked. Just as the inquisition sequence asserts that no subject is too grim for comedy, so too does Brooks prove in this film that no subject is too powerful.
Part of what makes The History of the World Part I such an effective piece of Brooksian filmmaking is that its structure lends itself well to the particular strengths of Brooks’ humor: his need for concise memorable gags and his lack of concern for transitions. It’s episodic, to-the-point, low-fluff comedy that maximizes punch lines and eliminates wasteful spending of the audience’s time.
Perhaps unlike some of his more visually-oriented predecessors, Brooks only occasionally utilizes the camera as his ally in joke construction. With the exception of musical numbers and editing in his films (which is almost always flawlessly funny), Mel Brooks either relies on dialogue or flat angle slapstick. This aligns him more with the screwballs of the 30s from Hawks and Capra than with the greats of the silent era, but what’s masterful and timeless about most of Brooks’ work from the late 60s through the 80s is that it’s clearly indebted heavily to both forms of comedy. Though The History of the World Part I is no visual feast of technical comedy genius, it’s a slapstick-heavy celebration of absurdity that can’t help but be visually funny. Think of the burning cart of marijuana in the Roman Empire period of the film, or the chessboard gangbang during the French Revolution. Brooks’ juvenile attitudes towards joke construction influence the attitudes of his camera. Unlike Woody Allen, Brooks never had pretentious yearnings towards cinematic greatness; he’s a man who has good ideas for jokes and films them plainly.
This approach to comedy is probably best metatextually emphasized by the character of Comicus, played by Brooks himself. Comicus is what’s referred to in the film as a “stand up philosopher” at Caesar’s palace – filmed quite obviously in Las Vegas’ own Caesar’s Palace. There’s a double meaning to this character’s role. He simultaneously elevates the significance of comedy by comparing it favorably to philosophy (“I coalesce the vapor of human experience into a viable and logical comprehension”) and deflates the significance of philosophy by replacing it with cheap vaudeville gags (“I just got back from Venice and boy are my arms tired”). Philosophy itself is probably the most sacrosanct of human endeavors, often considered by many cultures to be the most esoteric and noble of studies. By wrapping it up intrinsically with base comedy, Brooks is making a fascinating point both about human experience, about his comedic outlook, and about the film itself. The vulgar is sublime and the sublime is vulgar.
The comedy of reclamation dictates that that which was once bitter and painful must be made tangible and funny, and the fake trailer/coda of The History of the World Part I (for which there is no part II) cements Brooks’ commitment to this style of comedy. By previewing “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space,” Brooks makes two subtle statements to his people through his jokes: Hitler was a doofus who does not deserve to be taken seriously, and the Jewish people will continue to exist in the future. With The History of the World Part I, Brooks effortlessly skirted convention and made a film that felt simultaneously fresh and traditional.