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COMEDY

2,037--and Counting

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's crotchety (but lovable) 2,000-Year-Old Man is back, mangling history, the language and anything else that pops into the conversation.

May 25, 1997|Steve Schmidt | Steve Schmidt is a screenwriter who lives in Westwood. He knows every "2000-Year-Old Man" routine by heart

Before embarking on their prodigious careers as writer-producer-directors of trailblazing comedy on TV and film, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner entered the crowded scene of recorded humor circa 1960 with an album of improvised skits titled "2,000 Years With Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks." It included a crotchety sage called the 2,000-Year-Old Man.

With many of the comedians of that era now forgotten or having changed with the times (George Carlin soon traded his natty suits for a ponytail and scathing Nixon bellicosity), the old codger remains a cult favorite through four widely spaced recordings, the last released in 1973.

The originals, recently reissued by Rhino Records, retain their snap and spontaneity. It's one of the reasons Brooks, 70 (creator of "Get Smart," "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein"), and Reiner, 75 ("The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Where's Poppa?," "All of Me"), reentered the studio this month to record a new CD, tentatively titled "The Wit and Wisdom of the 2,000-Year-Old Man (for the Millennium)." A companion book from HarperCollins is also due out this fall.

The two first collided in that TV hothouse of perdurable writing talent, Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s, working alongside the likes of Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart. Though both men have spent the better part of their recent careers creating and coaxing performances from others, the presence of any appreciative audience--no matter how small--quickly sparks the performance instinct, and the shtick starts to fly.

The setting is Reiner's Beverly Hills home one recent afternoon. Slipping into the distinctive growling and whining of an old Russian Jew, supposedly borrowed from his grandfather, Brooks alternates between hectoring the hapless interviewer--Reiner--and making fun of his own human foibles through the ages. History is mangled, the English language and other cultural targets ravaged.

Question: How did the 2,000-Year-Old Man come to be?

Reiner: It was 1950, in the writers offices of "Your Show of Shows." Mel would entertain us by getting up and doing things that made us laugh. I came in upset about something I'd heard on television--talking about an eyewitness that couldn't have been there. I said, "Here's a man who was actually at the scene of the crucifixion 2,000 years ago." And he went, "Ahh, boy. . . ."

From that moment on, I kept asking him questions. "Did you know Jesus?" He said, "A thin lad. He always came into the store. He never bought anything. . . ." The less he had time to think, the more amazing his brain would react. For 10 years, we did it at parties.

Brooks: But we did a myriad number of characters.

Reiner: I always asked him about psychiatry--he'd be a Greek psychiatrist, Jewish, English, and always have a different thing to say--never at a loss.

Brooks: That's because I was always in analysis.

Reiner: He is a doctor in some states.

Brooks: In four of the lesser-known states, I am an accredited doctor. I can practice medicine.

Q: How is that?

Brooks: These states don't require a degree. If you're ever sick in Alabama, give me a ring.

Q: Why did you make the record?

Reiner: We started giving command performances. We went to a class-A party. Everybody was there. After we'd finished it, Steve Allen, whom we credit with making us do this, said, "You have to put this on tape." George Burns said, "If you don't put this on a record, I'll steal it." Edward G. Robinson said, "Make a play; I want to play the 2,000-Year-Old Man."

Q: What was the state of comedy albums at that time?

Reiner: It was great. Bob Newhart had an album, Shelley Berman, Stan Freberg.

Q: Was anyone doing anything comparable to what you were doing? Mike Nichols and Elaine May?

Reiner: They came out at about the same time.

Brooks: Their record was fabulous. Still good. Then Cosby.

Reiner: Two or three years later.

Q: Did you have an influence on them?

Brooks: Oh, sure, we all influenced each other. When we heard the first Shelley Berman album, I said, "My God, they make comedy records. We've been doing it for free all these years."

Reiner: We got a studio and made the record in one session. Two hours.

Brooks: Very little preparation. None, actually. I played more than one character.

Reiner: The wonderful thing is I used to ask him his name at the beginning of any of these, and after we'd go 10 minutes. . .

Brooks: I'd forget.

Reiner: The best part was when he was 12 psychiatrists around a table and he forgot his name. He said, "Just a moment," and took out his wallet. He said, "I have it here written." He got the name right but then said, "I don't think that's me, I think I've got the wrong wallet," and went for 10 minutes trying to find the name. I was hysterical.

Brooks: We were concerned this might be construed as anti-Semitic because of the accent.

Reiner: But nothing true is ever "anti-" anything, and he was speaking from his heart.

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