It’s no secret that I love Mel Brooks. I spend every January, starting on New Year’s Day watching his movies all month long. I call it “Mel Brooksuary” (which inspired our very own Sean to try his own “Denzel Marchington”). I could spend this entire blog telling you why Brooks is a brilliant filmmaker that turned the parody genre into an art form. I could tell you about how he was a WW2 vet that diffused landmines and blasted the Nazis with pop music just to piss them off, or how he’s one of eleven people to ever EGOT, or how he belongs to an elite group of renowned comedy writers that all wrote Your Show of Shows together (including Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, and Mel Tolkin).
I don’t want to do that because if you haven’t figured it how important Mel Brooks is, I can only assume you’ve never seen a Mel Brooks film. But for those of you who have, this one’s for you!
We all know that the best of the best in comedy are bound to reuse a joke or two, and Mel Brooks is no stranger to that. When there’s a sight gag, a play on words, or just a fun bit of music that works, one can be expected to maybe use it again. Now I’m not talking about a deliberate, self-referential callback to an earlier film, like “It’s good to the king” from History of the World, Part 1 and mentioned in Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and as a lyric in “King of Broadway” in The Producers musical, or “A black sheriff?” from Blazing Saddles, referenced again in Robin Hood. Those are easy.
What I’m writing about right now is the jokes that are perhaps recycled, because, well, they’re funny so why not use it again? Or maybe they’re used as less apparent nod to previous films. Either way, here are my arbitrarily ranked top 5 reused gags in Mel Brooks’ movies…
5. The Window Breaking Camera
We first see this High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ 1978 slightly underrated parody/tribute to Hitchcock films. On top of being a well-crafted film, it hilariously spoofs the idea suspense and the ways it’s created with deliberate musical cues and specific camera work. In this case, watch the movie and right around 15:44. The scene opens up to the exterior French doors of a dining room where the mental hospital staff are sitting down to dinner. The camera slowly starts to move in for a closer look. It gets a little too close and breaks through the window, causing all the people at the dinner table to turn and stare directly into that broken fourth wall. It’s a brilliant prod at the idea of the probing camera, a staple of suspense thrillers at that time, and it gives the audience a knee-slapping moment. It’s a simple sight gag, but it’s relevant.
Then in 1993, this joke was reused in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, on a significantly less relevant level. In fact it’s not relevant to the genre or source material at all. At 23:12, it starts again with an exterior shot, but this time of a castle, and we hear Maid Marian for the first time singing a cheesy song about searching for her love. It zooms in closer for a bit, then cuts again to an exterior shot of the closed stained glass windows on Marian’s balcony, coming in even closer to the window. Then it cuts away to Marian in the bath brushing her hair and singing some more, and then right at 23:58, you hear glass shatter and Marian turns to see a camera has broken through her window. Probably the best part about this is that she acknowledges it, looks confused for a split second then goes back to hopefully singing.
While the joke wasn’t nearly as poignant as in High Anxiety, it’s still chuckle worthy. Sometimes you just have to put a funny joke in there even if it isn’t necessary to the spoof. Speaking of necessary…
4. Is it Nece…?
Once again we turn to High Anxiety. I almost forgot about this one, but as I was going back to watch the probing camera bit, I rediscovered a great bit of silly word play at 15:25, when Brooks’ character, Dr. Richard Thorndyke is reconnecting with his old mentor Professor Lillolman. They’re discussing Thorndyke’s mental state and that he may be suffering from a condition called High Anxiety (oh, they said it!). Lillolman insists that he helps Thorndyke overcome this with psychoanalysis starting the following day. Then this gem happens:
Thorndyke: But professor is it really nece…?
Lillolman: It is nessa! I know what is nessa! Don’t tell me what’s nessa! I tell you what’s nessa!
Now I don’t know if it’s just him cutting off the word “necessary” that’s what’s so funny about this, or the fact that it’s delivered by an eccentric old German man determined to be right, but it doesn’t matter, I giggle every time. I like the silliness.
This joke comes back in the 2005 musical movie The Producers.This time the setup is that, after securing the director and script for Springtime for Hitler, Max and Leo come back to the office and relish on their accomplishments towards putting on the worst Broadway show. Right around 57:00, a gorgeous Swedish actress named Ulla comes in to audition. Leo says to her that they aren’t casting yet, but Max, determined to take advantage of the perks of producing, insists that they are…
Ulla: Would you like Ulla make audition?
Leo: Oh no, miss. That won’t be nece…
Max: Yes, it is nessa! Extremely nessa!
Ha! Horny men are funny. And I love that essentially the same joke plays out in a COMPLETELY different way, proving that context is EVERYTHING in comedy. Keep that insight for the next time your anecdotes fall flat at a party.
3. Heil Myself!
The “Heil myself” line is most prominently remembered from The Producers(2005) because it’s a whole damn song in the Hitler musical. Of course, in this case it’s Roger DeBris, replacing the author/actor Franz Liebkind, playing Hitler and being as flamboyantly gay as possible. It’s a delightful, traditional Broadway jam, with lyrics like
Heil myself, Heil to me
I’m the Kraut Who’s out to change our history
Heil myself, Raise your hand
There’s no greater dictator in the land
However, this joke first appeared in To Be or Not to Be (1893) at 9:20 into the movie. This movie is not as well-known as say Blazing Saddles and it was not written or directed by Mel Brooks. It does star him, alongside his beloved wife and Mrs. Robinson herself, Anne Bancroft. It’s set in Poland at the time of the Nazi invasion, and Mel and Anne play actors who, among other things, satirize modern politics. Mel, playing Fredrick Bronski, has a sketch called “Naughty Nazis” in which he plays Hitler. As he enters, everyone says, “Heil Hitler!” and he calls back, “Heil myself!” and the audience in the movie laughs along with the audience at home. Again, simple humor, but sharp and it plays on the bravado that is expected in a dictator.
Debate all you want if To Be or Not To Be should be considered a Mel Brooks film, but because the essential idea and comedy is extremely Brooks-like, I’ll count it. In the 1968 version of The Producers, the hippy version of Hitler played by Lorenzo St. Dubois (aka LSD to his friends) has a “Heil, Baby” moment, with the same idea of making fun of Hitler.
It’s no secret that Brooks constantly makes fools of Nazis. As a Jewish man and a WW2 vet, he has said that he has made it his life’s goal to ridicule Hitler and the Nazi ideology so much that it can never be taken seriously again.
2. Jews in Space or Men in Tights?
I’ll let the videos do the talking on this one.
From History of the World, Part 1 (1981) –”Jews in Space”
From Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) – “Men in Tights”
1. Walk this Way
This joke is so classic, it has its own Wikipedia page and it inspired Aerosmith to write one of their most notable songs. Brooks first uses it in Young Frankenstein (1974) at 16:58 when Igor and Dr. Frankenstein meet each other for the first time. They make their way to the wagon, and Igor says, “Walk this way…” and he hobbles with a cane down the stairs. Igor turns back to Frankenstein, who is walking normally and insists, “This way,” and hands the cane over. Frankenstein starts to hobble with the cane down the stairs himself, until he realizes how stupid that is. Fun fact: that is MY FAVORITE SCENE in the whole movie. You can tell because I used all caps.
We see this gag again in History of the World, Part 1, in the Ancient Rome vignette. As Comicus and his friends escape Caesar’s palace after a bad stand up show, they follow Miriam to safety. At 40:30, she says to them, “Now hurry! Walk this way.” She sashays off like a girly girl, and Comicus, Josephus, and Swiftus sashay with as much feminine attitude as the vestal virgin. Again, it’s silly, it’s a throwaway gag, but damnit, Gregory Hines is amazing, and I adore this moment in the movie.
And the last time that we see this joke is, once again, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Robin has just been arrested after the archery contest, and Marian offers herself to the sheriff of Rottingham in order to prevent Robin from begin hanged. The sheriff still takes Robin away at 1:41:42 and says again, “Walk this way.” He swishes his hair and walks away with pomp and arrogance. Robin and the guards shrug to each other and follow, mocking his attitude.
This one isn’t as punchy, and pales in comparison to History and Frankenstein, but that seems to be the trend with Robin Hood. Thank goodness that it has enough of its own original moments to make it worthwhile.
Maybe that’s the moral of this article… Robin Hood is funny but not as funny as everything prior. Hm.
Honorable mention: Moving body features of which the bearer is unaware: the hump in Young Frankenstein (“What hump?”) and the mole in Robin Hood(“I have a mole?!). I’ll let you find those on your own, kiddos.