April 9 (Bloomberg) -- “I lived with my mother intimately for 22 years and never saw the furniture. On every piece of furniture was a sheet to keep the dust off.”
So says Mel Brooks on the “How to Be a Jewish Son” episode of “The David Susskind Show,” aired in the fall of 1970 and available for the first time in its entirety on DVD from S’more Entertainment.
It’s often regarded as the funniest impromptu 90 minutes in TV history.
Brooks, who began his career as a “tummler” (sort of a combo emcee and social director) in the Catskills, was not alone on the stage, although it often seems that way. Even when he’s sitting there behaving himself, your eyes are on him.
Besides Susskind, who keeps fairly mum on the evening’s subject despite prodding, the other Jewish sons included comedian David Steinberg, fashion designer Stan Herman, Goldberg Pizzeria founder Larry Goldberg, actor George Segal (whose “Where’s Poppa” is the ultimate Jewish son black comedy), and Dan Greenburg, who was married to Nora Ephron and had recently written the best-seller “How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Very Lovely Training Manual.”
Susskind, who once professed he wanted to become “the Cecil B. DeMille of television,” clearly was unprepared for Brooks’s antics. Clipboard in hand, scrolling agitatedly down the list of prepared questions, he’s continually interrupted by Brooks’s free-associative spritzes.
“I was in analysis for six years and couldn’t say a bad word about my mother,” Brooks says when asked if he sees a psychiatrist. “I love my mother. If I could I would go skinny-dipping with her.”
Later he is asked about his wife Anne Bancroft, a Catholic. Brooks says he converted to Catholicism because it’s easier to make the sign of the cross on his chest than the star of David.
“The David Susskind Show,” like its forerunner, “Open End,” was a product of a bygone TV era, when a talk show could drag on until everyone was too exhausted to continue. (The title “Open End” was meant literally).
Susskind, stiff-backed and with touch of ‘tude, had made a name for himself interviewing everyone from Khrushchev (in 1960, at the height of the Cold War) to Martin Luther King Jr. to Bernie Schwartz, aka Tony Curtis, another famous Jewish son, who threatened to punch him “right on his big nose” because Susskind described him as a “passionate amoeba.
“How to Be a Jewish Son” appeared at a transitional time when youngish Jewish writers, actors and comics were wrestling with the push-pull demands of assimilation. Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” was the bible of the era, and like the “Jewish Son” episode, was attacked by older-generation Jews for being anti-Semitic.
Some on the show -- like Steinberg, whose father was a sometime rabbi -- grew up in households where Yiddish was spoken. Brooks’s mother came to America from Russia and, according to him, “never learned this language, never learned Russian either. She never learned any language.”
But she learned show-biz lingo. “Socko in Cleveland, Mel,” she would say to him when he was a writer on “Your Show of Shows.” She would be so afraid the show wasn’t funny that she would only watch it to see her son’s opening credit and then turn it off.
I would love to know if she ever saw “How to Be a Jewish Son.” It’s still socko.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
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