Carl Reiner, left, and Mel Brooks ad-libbed most of the routine through… (Shout Factory )
Clear out all those books on tape. Mel Brooks' and Carl Reiner's "The 2000 Year Old Man: The Complete History" was released Tuesday, just in time to use holiday travel, or any other ambient free time, as an opportunity not only to laugh, a lot, but to explore the inner workings of what is one of the most famous comedy routines of all time.
The three-CD, single- DVD set chronicles the iconic title character from his earliest beginnings, as part of a comedy routine Brooks and Reiner performed for their friends, to the 1975 animated special that may have been, among other things, a paean to Saran Wrap. According to the 2,000-year-old man, it's the greatest invention ever (though in the earlier recordings, that honor goes to waxed paper, proof that comedy is nothing if not flexible).
The DVD also includes a recent conversation between Brooks and Reiner about the genesis of the routine, which answers a lot of questions new fans might have. None of the "2000 Year Old Man" routines were scripted, for instance. As the skit developed, so did a "wish list" of questions, but Reiner did not know how Brooks would answer and Brooks did not know how Reiner would react. Sometimes Reiner's "interviewer" would take an outlandish answer at face value, but other times he would question its veracity, driving Brooks into a corner. Which is, he says, where he worked best.
The genius of "The 2000 Year Old Man," besides the quick wit of the two men, was that, by its very nature, it transcended the expiration date of most social-riff comedy. Brooks brought a modern Jewish sensibility to all manner of historical events and figures. (A decision, the two men say, that was somewhat reckless in the '50s and early '60s, when even using a Yiddish accent was frowned upon as denigrating Jews.) Jesus was a thin lad who "came into the store" but never bought anything. Churchill extended the war because he told everyone to defeat "the Nar-zis" and the troops stopped fighting the Germans and started looking for Narzis. Helen of Troy's sister Janice was not pretty but had a body that could "launch a few canoes," and the Spanish Inquisition was bad news for the 2,000-year-old man, who ran a yarmulke shop at the time, because it destroyed thousands of yarmulkes "and the Jews under them."
Which isn't to say the act is completely timeless. In the early albums, there are Polish jokes and gay jokes and ugly-wife jokes, and the third disc, "The 2000 Year Old Man in 2000," has references to then-current events and people. But for the most part, the jokes remain as fresh and funny as they were when first minted.
And it's so nice to hear these two men working together. The spark that dies out during so many long-term marriages and partnerships has burned brightly for more than 40 years, illuminating a now well-traveled road in which comedy is not so much a funny thing that happened as a surprising way of reconsidering history and the way things work.
According to the 2,000-year-old man, most things, from singing to the handshake, originated from fear -- saying "a lion is eating my foot off" didn't get nearly the attention that singing it did. But the work of Brooks and Reiner seems to come more from a place of joy. Which makes this "The 2000 Year Old Man" not just a compilation, but a revelation.