Back in May, during the week I was one of the guest-posters at Instapundit, and searching through the Hulu and Truveo archives for video material to link to, I stumbled over the above clip of Mel Brooks, David Steinberg and George Segal on The David Susskind Show back in 1970. They were there along with Dan Greenburg, the author of the then-recently published How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Very Lovely Training Manual, which inspired the episode, which Susskind titled, “How to be a Jewish Son,” and two other guests.
In Commentary this month (sadly, behind a subscriber/pay to read firewall),there’s a terrific article titled “When the Jewish Mother Was an Icon” by Stephen Battaglio, which crackles with almost as much energy as the manic show it recaps.
Despite the six man panel and Susskind, the show’s host, as Battaglio quotes George Segal as saying, “Welcome to the Mel Brooks Show” — and if you watch the entire episode, 90 minutes of side-splitting laughter. (I rewatched the whole thing the other night in anticipation of writing this post, and felt exhausted afterward from laughing so much):
A half hour before the taping started on November 12, 1970, Mel Brooks went into the bleachers in the studio at WNEW, New York City’s Channel 5, and warmed up the crowd. It was like he was back to his days as a tummler working the crowd in a Catskills resort. “He was in the audience doing shtick,” Greenburg remembered. “He was so on it was unbelievable.” Laughter rumbled through the set by the time Susskind started his introductions at the top of the program. Usually unflappable, Susskind was breaking up as George Segal lovingly blew thick clouds of cigar smoke into the host’s face.
Within moments, Brooks went into overdrive. He announced in all the years he lived with his mother, he had never seen a piece of furniture. Sheets to keep the dust off had always covered it. “But what’s criminal is that my mother has four great paintings that we’ve never seen,” he proclaimed. When Goldberg talked about how the small Jewish population was dispersed in his hometown of Kansas City, Brooks said: “I bet they all get together for pogrom—gathered in one big Jew cellar while the Gentiles go thundering by!”
Susskind started Steinberg off by asking if his mother were still alive. The comic stared into space as if he were trying to remember. He then described a dream in which they were in a ballroom on a luxury liner. “We danced until dawn,” he said. “I’m three and she’s 52 and I’m just about to get her into my crib—and I wake up.”
Brooks topped him later by claiming he had left the Jewish faith because the sign of the cross was easy to make in a time of panic. He demonstrated how a Star of David would require both hands. “Two triangles,” he said. “That’s a lot of work!”
The show became a joyride powered by a relentless, unpredictable Brooks, who could fill any pause in the conversation with a routine or a song. The performance had the technical crew in the show’s control room rocking with laughter. Assistant director Jim Shasky said the camera operators on the studio floor laughed so hard they were unable to keep their shots steady. “The live audience really set the tone,” said Herman. “I remember one of my assistants, a redhead, was the only person not laughing. She was a nice non–Jewish girl from California. I don’t think she knew what was going on.”
“It was anarchy,” said Segal, who sent the studio audience into convulsions when he got up from his chair to do a song from his days as a Dixieland jazz bandleader and stepped on the cord of the lavaliere microphone that hung around his neck. He started to choke when the cord tightened like a noose. When Susskind got face to face with Segal to help him, the actor looked in the host’s eyes and said softly, “What are you doing later?”
But it was Brooks who kept on taking command. He thought of the rest of the panel as straight men, and they knew it. “They were all funny,” he said. “As far as I was concerned they were very, very good, but I was better. It was just give me the mike and stand back and I’ll take care of the evening.”
“Mel has got that streak in him, that ‘I’m taking this over no matter what,’?” Segal said. “Welcome to the Mel Brooks Show. But that was okay. He was being Mel and that was the best part of him really. I don’t know what you call that kind of aggression, but it certainly worked on that show. Mel was totally comfortable with David Susskind. David kept giving him rope and Mel kept advancing.”
“Mel and I were sort of discovering each other there,” said Steinberg. “You could see me half improvising and finding material I didn’t even know I had on the show. At some point I realized all I wanted to do—whatever subject David Susskind hasn’t found, I wanted to find another one for Mel.”
Brooks did not let anyone, even Susskind, slow down his momentum, at one point dismissing a ponderous question from the host with a playful “Shut up, David!” “It was my favorite moment in the whole show,” said Greenburg. “Everybody wanted to say ‘Shut up, David’ for years. People roared with laughter.” So did Susskind.
As I said, the rest of the above article is unfortunately behind a pay to read firewall, but the show that inspired it isn’t — watch the whole thing.