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2,034--and Still Ticking : Comedy: Rhino releases a boxed-set of albums with the 2,000 Year Old Man. 'I listened to the last record yesterday, and it's still funny,' Carl Reiner says of the routines he did with Mel Brooks.

May 27, 1994|DAVID KRONKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the 2,000 Year Old Man was introduced to the world in 1960, he had two simple tips for longevity: Never, ever touch fried foods, and never run for a bus--there'll always be another.

Today avoiding fast food and stress will only get you so far. The Man is now 2,034 years old, and clearly, there must be something else that accounts for his enduring nature. But Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, the masterminds behind the old guy, never expected him to last this long without life-support systems.

Rhino has released a boxed-set of the team's four comedy albums--"2,000 Years," "2,001 Years," "At the Cannes Film Festival" and "2,000 and Thirteen." As Billy Crystal states in his introduction in the set's booklet, these are "historical" recordings that influenced many a comic in their day. They also happen to be crushingly funny in 1994.

"It's wonderfully shocking," says Reiner. "I listened to the last record yesterday, and it's still funny. It's the absolute truth, some things don't change. A lot of the same principles remain true--there's a bit about the first hospitals in history with patients screaming and indifferent doctors, and we still have that today. There's the bit about selling the U.S. to Japan that's probably even more timely."

Amazingly, it took 10 years before the 2000 Year Old Man became anything other than an act with which Brooks and Reiner graced friends at parties. Reiner and Brooks became fast friends working on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s. And as it turns out, the 2,000 Year Old Man was inspired by a really bad TV show, a '50s equivalent of reality television.

As Reiner recalls, "They were interviewing this guy on TV, who was saying, 'I was in Stalin's toilet and I overheard their plans--they're gonna blow up the world next Tuesday.' I couldn't believe I had heard something on TV so stupid. So I went into the writer's room and said to Mel, 'Isn't it true you were there when Christ was crucified?' I didn't even expect an answer, but Mel just took off."

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On the other hand, Brooks' contribution to the act had a more personal origin. "My mother's side was Russian, and they were always so positive that they were right," he recalls. "When I was a kid, my Uncle Sol used to say, 'Why do we need these big, six-story buildings? God never intended people to live so far from the street. Why do we have to be above two floors from the street?' I was 5 or 6, and I thought, this is funny. If he goes downtown, he'll faint.

"He was crazy, he was wild. I loved his energy. The 2,000 Year Old Man is a purveyor of these same large truths--I don't wanna call them lies. He mocks the things that we all are to become, just as I see my kids making fun of me and my ways. But someday they're gonna end up with their own kids mocking them.

"I never forgot his voice. That sound meant a great deal to me--safety, protection, strength, that loud, vigorous voice with the Jewish accent. When I redid it, when I listened to the tapes the first time, it was amazing, it was incredible. I went right back to being 6 years old with my mother's family."

It was that personal aspect that made Brooks particularly resistant to the notion of the Wise One going public. "It was a private thing, I thought no one'll understand it. It was all about crazy Jews, it was so insular. It was about being Jewish, and being from the Bronx. No one else would understand."

In 1960, Steven Allen finally persuaded the duo to record a session. "I was not interested in money," Brooks said. "For the contract, there was no fooling around. All it said was if we thought they were no good, they would not issue them, we would burn the tapes. We had to think they were good enough--these were going to strangers' ears, to Gentiles' ears, God forbid! All we wanted was the right to edit every single Q and A.

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"So they sent them out, and they started selling, I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Carl, there must be a lot of Jews out there.' He said, 'No, others are buying them, too.' It just took off like wildfire."

The records were directly responsible for kick-starting Brooks' career--on the strength of those records, he was hired to co-create the TV series "Get Smart" and moved on to his celebrated film career. (Reiner's career was already in high gear--he was working on his classic creation "The Dick Van Dyke Show.")

One of the chief pleasures in listening to the routines (the first three records feature other segments beside the 2,000 Year Old Man) is the terrific give-and-take between Reiner's skeptical interviewer and Brooks' feisty bimillenialarian. Except for the fourth album, the performances were completely ad-libbed, with Brooks never quite sure just what questions Reiner would be posing--and Reiner was looking to give Brooks the gears at every turn.

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