Two Thousand and Thirteen

A couple of weeks ago, I caught the AFI Life Achievement Award 2013: A Tribute to Mel Brooks. It was a warm and funny salute to the master of mishugas, Mel Brooks. It’s fitting to throw in a few yiddishisms when mentioning Mel Brooks, as he knew how to tickle a funny bone with his gravelly voice and “old world” syntax, which in many ways, “normalized” or assimilated ethnic and linguistic differences. One of the beautiful aspects of our evolving American society is inclusion. While many lament the loss of the “good old days”, I am grateful that we have a richer and more vibrant  American culture as we include so many previously discrete, self-identifying ethnic symbols, foods, music, and words, and share in globalization and becoming more cosmopolitan. In this day and age, Maureen Dowd and Mel Brooks can both use the word mishugas (craziness). There’s plenty of craziness to go around!

Watching the film clips from those Mel Brooks movies, and listening to so many colleagues, young and old, with whom Mr. Brooks worked and inspired, it was impossible not to notice the societal changes (and thus, comedic changes) over many years.  Even in today’s world, Mel Brooks’ brand of humor still tickled. I’m not sure if I was reveling in the comedy or the nostalgia. Perhaps both.

This morning, for no apparent reason, (although maybe my Mel Brooks nostalgia was lingering unconsciously), I recalled a favorite album I had as a kid, 2000 and Thirteen. It was a sequel to the hilarious 2000 Year Old Man–a sketch (and album) with Carl Reiner as an interviewer, asking the 2000 year old man (Mel Brooks) what life was like back in the day. Way back in the day!

(Although the link says The 2000 Year Old Man, it is in fact from the album 2000 and Thirteen.)

How different we are in 2013. We have expanded our concepts of gender and marriage, (along with other cultural concepts) and although the movement toward inclusion is still met with fears of loss and misunderstanding, which often manifest in cruelty, we are nonetheless forging ahead in a world that would not have been recognizable when 2000 and Thirteen was released (1973). We still struggle with education and employment; with balancing work and home; with affordable health care; with violence, and other political, economic, and societal challenges, but many of these issues are human issues–not race or ethnic, male or female, gay or straight. Many of the cultural constructs of gender (and sexuality) that were the stuff of comedy in the middle of the last century, have evolved. We have a much more ethnically diverse society now in 2013, and we have a more global approach to living. It is a beginning, even in 2013. We continue to bump into old patterns and close mindedness mixed with fear and hate.  And, we must figure out how to manage when there are those who seek destruction. We’ve come a long way, but we’re still learning and evolving in 2013.

But then there’s Mel Brooks. His mocking of Hitler and Frankenstein and all movie genres as they included monsters or evil doers, was his revenge. Comedy was his weapon. That is not to say that he (or we) should not take threats or acts of evil seriously. We must. But being able to mock evil (monsters and destructive ideas) weakens the hold that evil has on us. From Jonathan Swift to Stephen Colbert, satire is more than humorous defense. It awakens us and reminds us of our values and of structures of power. We may laugh, but we may then get to work on humanity.

During the AFI tribute to Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman, who was not only funny and graceful, gave Brooks what I thought was the ultimate compliment. She called him a mensch. In Yiddish, a mensch ( literally, human being) means “a person of integrity and honor.” I would add that “honor” is not at the expense of anyone else. That’s really what it’s all about. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, economic situation, title, education, ability, etc……just be a mensch! Forty years have elapsed between 2000 and Thirteen and 2013. We’ve made plenty of progress in many domains, but there is tremendous room for creating a society of mensches, regardless of one’s origins.

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