[3 February 2010]
What started out as a writers-room tension breaker and a parlor game among friends quickly turned into comedy gold. Nearly 60 years after its inception and a half-century since the first album, Shout Factory has assembled The 2000 Year Old Man: The Complete History. This anthology includes all five comedy albums on three CDs plus a DVD featuring two 1961 television appearances, the 1975 animated special and an August 2009 interview with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks; it’s a must for any comedy enthusiast.
The origin of the routine dates back to the Sid Caesar program Your Show of Shows where Reiner was an actor and Brooks was a writer (along with Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, among others who went on to have hugely influential careers). When Reiner first set foot in the writer’s room he was caught up in Brooks’ spontaneous madness; the latter burst into an impromptu routine about a kvetching Jewish pirate complaining about the inability to pillage in the current economy. They soon became fast friends.
Reiner quickly discovered that tossing out a line to Brooks was like lighting a fuse on a string of fireworks. As a lark they began to use the exchange to entertain themselves; Reiner posing a question to Brooks as a plumber or airline pilot and cracking each other up – a classic improv exercise but with two master comics. Reiner, like all classic straight men, would provide the framework and atmosphere and cautiously redirect and set up Brooks with his questions and reactions. Brooks would not only take the comedy bait but also assist by providing additional set-ups for the supposed straight man to use as additional options. In every classic comedy duo from Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello to Martin and Lewis, in order for the exchange to work, the quality of the straight man had to be as dynamic as that of the funny guy.
The brilliance of the routine was elevated by the quick improvisational mind of Mel Brooks, who would often use a single Reiner question as a springboard to unplanned exposition and tangents that would be as much of a surprise to his partner as it was to the audience. Reiner steering Brooks was like restraining a monkey with string; control and direction was merely a formality. But Reiner was no slouch; while he deferred the great lines to Brooks, he knew his friend well enough to follow along and cross paths enough to set him up for more opportunities. He also knew he could throw him a complete curveball and he’s hit it out of the park. Brooks, an ace comedy writer, deftly scattered a few crumbs along the way which would be retrieved for huge laughs in well-placed callbacks. Beyond a few of the proven lead-ins it was a mutual high-wire act.
Reiner recalls that the genesis for the 2000 Year Old Man occurred when he approached Brooks with “Here’s a man who actually knew Jesus” and Brooks deadpanned “Oh, boy”. But although they would continue the routine in private for years as parlor entertainment for themselves and their friends, it wasn’t until they were finally prodded by Steve Allen to record it in his studio. (Or perhaps it was George Burns asking if the routine had been recorded, playfully insinuating that he’d swipe it if it wasn’t.) Reiner had gotten in the habit of bringing a tape recorder to these parties because Brooks never said the same thing twice, and he was astute enough not to let this comedic gold slip away.
On the first album, 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, title subject was merely one character among many, although the premise was the same. Reiner played the interviewer, opening the routine with an introduction and question, while Brooks was the interviewee as an actor, painter, or astronaut. Reiner often said that Brooks was best when backed into a corner, because like any great comic he would have to find his way out of it; he’d never simply surrender. Not everything worked – sometimes the initial comeback fell flat – but Brooks would remember the bad line regardless and somehow weave it back in later on, often forcing Reiner to quickly stifle his laughter to continue with the segment.
During the televised appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1961, Brooks and Reiner sat next to each other on stools, wearing suits. With only a cigarette as a prop, the duo exchanged banter with a minimum of facial or physical moves (short of trying not to crack each other up laughing – a lifelong Reiner weakness) and the routine relied almost exclusively on the wordplay. While there might have been a bit of improve they were mostly recreating exchanges they had worked out before rather than winging it off the cuff. For all intents and purposes it was as if they were performing on radio; barely taking advantage of the ability of the audience to benefit from any of the visual humor above a knowing wink or glance.
By the time they appeared on The Steve Allen Show eight months later, the routine was far more polished. Brooks now wore a white wig, and although still wearing a suit it looked more like a costume and less like one he would wear to a wedding or office meeting; he also added a walking stick as a prop. More importantly, he and Brooks stood and moved, which enabled Brooks to add more pronounced physical gestures to the character. Although this did add another dimension to the exchange, both Brooks and Reiner readily admit that the short appearances on television never captured the bit at its best. They much preferred the live album tapings (which sometimes lasted two hours or more) or the informal gatherings; the free-form nature of the longer performance pieces allowed an ebb and flow that generated far more spontaneous magic than the gaps between. Although they would whittle a couple of hours down to forty minutes, other material would surface on future albums and even in Brooks’ string of film comedies years later.
Over the years the pair released five albums: 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (1961), 2000 and One Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (1961), Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks at the Cannes Film Festival (1962), 2000 and Thirteen (1973) and The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 (1998). The 1998 album won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Comedy Album, besting fellow nominees Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy and The Firesign Theatre. The structure of featuring the title character as one among many was continued on the second and third albums, but the fourth and fifth albums were dedicated solely to the man who survived modern history. Reiner continued to play the voice of the audience, asking questions and challenging answers. “He was like a District Attorney” claimed Brooks, who felt that Reiner’s real-life knowledge of history and important events raised the bar on the exchanges. “I knew the questions” quipped Reiner, “but I didn’t know the answers”.
The October 2009 interview footage finds both Reiner (now 87 years old) and Brooks (83) in top form; as Reiner contends that “our faces look older but the brains are still there”. As expected, they amuse each other as much as the intended audience, reminiscing about the routines over the years (recreating a few and even ad-libbing a few new ones), discussing their personal relationship, and explaining how they were initially resistant to re-launch the comically thick Jewish accent in the post-war era. Both humbly recognize that for all their genius, had it not been for the persistence of generous friends like Steve Allen, the 2000 Year Old Man might have remained an inside joke among friends rather than one of the most beloved routines in the history of recorded comedy.