Life & Culture

Mel Brooks's 2,000 Year Old Man - is this the greatest comedy sketch ever?


George Burns threatened to steal him. Edward G Robinson wanted to take him to Broadway, and if you went to the right Hollywood parties in the 1950s, you would have met him. The 2,000-year-old man as created and largely improvised by Mel Brooks and his cross-examiner Carl Reiner has been entertaining audiences for decades (or centuries if you believe the old Yiddish fellow who had a thing with Joan of Arc).

Born out of a throwaway line — “Sir, I believe you were present at the crucifixion” that Reiner gave to Brooks when they were both writers for the Sid Caesar show — the skit was performed at the starriest soirees until the comedians were persuaded to put it on vinyl in 1961, sold five million copies, and the rest is ancient history.

Now, after more than 50 years, of schlepping his withered toches around the States, the 2,000-year old man — who is even older and definitely wiser — has finally made it to London. The Jew that time and his devoted fans simply can’t forget is coming to the cultural hub of British Jewry to share memories of the Spanish Inquisition and his marriage (one of many) to Helen of Troy’s less attractive sister.

Such a long-awaited arrival is certainly worth shouting about and JW3 is doing so with a banner stretching the length of the Finchley Road, which puts a spring in Kerry Shale’s step as, from March 9, he’ll be the one wearing those primeval sandals and hitting the boards.

Truth be told, the diminutive Canadian actor is more likely to be in a golfing shirt — or maybe a shiny silver bespoke suit he’s never had occasion to wear.

“It’s more Vegas show-time than the golf outfit which is very Miami and where the 2,000-year-old man is likely be living,” said Kerry who is taking on the monumental task of playing Brooks playing the grand wizard of senior citizens in his own adaptation of the box set of albums. The idea to do this “never attempted” interpretation came to Kerry 16 months ago when he was relaxing on a beach in Mexico with family. “I don’t normally have time to let my mind wander and I was just sitting around enjoying myself, perusing my iPad and came across the original 12-minute recording of the 2,000-year-old man on YouTube.”

In an instant, Kerry remembered how much he loved it. “Mel Brooks as that character has always been my idea of how a funny old Jew should behave and I’ve pretty much stolen that persona as a lot of comic actors have done. Plus my relatives sounded like him, so it always spoke to me.” With his proposal to perform the 2,000-year-old man fresh in his head, a tanned and rested Kerry headed straight to JW3, where he had already wowed their crowd with the venue’s first theatre commission, Listen, We’re Family.

The actor, with director Matthew Lloyd, wrote the verbatim piece based on interviews with dozens of Jewish families.

With JW3’s green-light there was just the small matter of securing the rights and Kerry didn’t have Mel or Carl on speed-dial. He doesn’t know either of them in fact, though he had met Mel and, as I had too, we regaled each other briefly with tales of Brooks encounters. My own meeting with the producer of The Producers was in New York, where, on 44th Street, I was introduced by friends to an anxious Mel struggling to make his “fakakta cell phone” work while I chatted to his patient wife, the late Anne Bancroft.

“My meeting was less intimate,’’ Kerry says. ‘‘But still memorable,” he said. “I was at the BBC in Shepherds Bush about to do Newsnight Review and spotted Mel across the lobby. Before I knew it I was running towards him and putting out my hand saying: “Mr Brooks, I’m an actor.’’ Then without missing a beat he turned to me and said: ‘You’re an actor? What a terrible profession that is. You get up in the morning and you think — who am I? I don’t know who I am. You don’t know when you’ll get a job. What a terrible profession’. I couldn’t get a word out and he did that shtick for five minutes before ending it with the unforgettable line: ‘I hope you do something else before you die.’’’

Kerry swooned as he recalled those precious seconds as Mel’s straight man and then proceeded to describe the arduous business of securing rights to the sketch which involved contacting their agent, the renowned, but unreachable George Shapiro and sharing his own CV with anyone of influence. “It took months but finally we got it and I now have a consent form signed personally by Mel and Carl,” says the actor who made his debut on the London stage in Bar Mitzvah Boy fresh off the boat from Canada.

It is Kerry’s dulcet North American tones that have made him every radio producer’s favourite narrator but, for the 2,000-year-old man, there won’t be a hint of it. Kerry has been brushing up his Brooks and plans to be the definitive Yiddish elder with former BBC Radio comedy producer, Chris Neill playing inquisitor Carl Reiner. The duo will also have wireless earpieces playing the original recordings with laugh track in their ears, so they can deliver it verbatim complete with pauses and stammers.

“Because of the way we are doing it, the rhythm won’t change,” informs Kerry. “I am very experienced in the technique as we did Listen, We’re Family the same way, but we can hear the live response from the JW3 audience.”

The idea of having Mel Brooks chattering into your ear for 57 mins and 32 seconds sounds ambitious, but for
Kerry and Chris it’s comedy gold. How can it not be when, as the 2,000-year-old man, Kerry utters such immortal lines as: “I have 42,000 children… and does even one of them ever come over to visit?”

Then there’s Carl asking about the creation of the cross and being told: “It was easier to put together than the Star of David,” and that “Jesus was a nice boy. Skinny, but nice. He used to come into my shop and ask for a glass of water. Never bought anything.”

Kerry and I laughed a lot as he delivered some of the gems he has selected from the five albums including the 2,000-year-old man’s meetings with Napoleon, Cleopatra and Freud. “I defy anyone not to laugh,” says Kerry who hopes the show will tempt a non-Jewish audience along with its devotees of the faith.

“When Mel and Carl first started doing it, everyone said they should make an album, but there was a lot of post-war sensitivity about the Holocaust,” explains Kerry. “People felt not enough time had lapsed for this crazy iconoclastic character to make his debut. But eventually it was adopted in America by non-Jews and the guys were on the Ed Sullivan show. Everybody knows the 2,000-year-old man over there, but here it is only Jews.

“Anything with Jewish content is harder to promote here and Mel Brooks was able to blast through prejudice as a
film director in the later years with The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which all have a very Jewish subtext that is undisguised, yet the films all went mainstream.”

As I left Kerry deliberating over whether to go for the shiny suit or stick with the golf shirt, he expresses his hopes of transferring the show to a West-End venue. “We just want it to have a longer life,” he says, and you’d expect nothing less from a 2,000-year -old man.

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