In my ongoing project to list favorite jokes as suggested by Gene Perret’s Comedy Writing Workbook (page nine) which is on sale now at Amazon and perhaps a book store near you (my copy was $12.95 but that was a long time ago), I’ve decided today to say a few words about the partly planned and partly improvisational comedy skit “The 2000 Year Old Man” made famous by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.
Two comedians working together in a stand up routine is not as common as it used to be. Nowadays most stand up comedians just stand alone and talk directly to the audience, but the comedy duo or more archaically “The Double Act” is a classic tradition that dates probably even before the time of Burlesque shows. Two men would stand on a stage, one would feed the straight line and the other guy would say the punch line. The idea was to artificially perform a conversation that seemed natural but had the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. Reiner & Brooks both came from backgrounds where they had honed this parlor trick into an art form.
In case you can’t see the above video for some reason, allow me to describe how this worked. The 2000 Year Old Man was a comedy skit that began with Carl Reiner coming out on the stage dressed in a suit and tie, consciously trying to be as unjewish as he could be. Reiner was the straight man in this bit, and conveyed the demeanor of a television reporter preparing to interview a celebrity. Please understand Carl Reiner’s role in this routine appears to be easier than Mel Brooks’ role but it’s not. Being the straight man is very difficult, and that Reiner makes it look so easy is a testament to his talent. The straight man must not laugh (or “corpse”) during the routine because that usually ruins the magic of the moment. He has to feed lines to the comic and act as the foil to help make the comic, y’know.. funny! Without the straight man, the comic’s just standing up there talking to himself, basically. Nowadays we don’t mind so much.
Carl: Sir we know that many many hundreds of years ago, most men had more than one wife.
Carl: Did you practice polygamy in those days?
Mel: I never practiced it. I was perfect at it!
Reiner would address the audience cordially and then introduce with some pomp and circumstance the one and only Mel Brooks as if he were the oldest man alive, having just exited the nearby Mayo Clinic with a clean bill of health from his doctors. The two men would then carry on a conversation which consisted of Reiner asking the kinds of questions a reporter journalist would ask of any celebrity who claimed to have lived throughout history, and Mel Brooks would open his mouth and gemstones of comedy would fall out of it.
As I understand it from interviews I’ve read and seen involving Reiner and Brooks, the impetus of The 2000 Year Old Man began at a private party. Brooks had recently undergone some discomforting surgery and quipped that he felt like a 2000 year old man, to which Reiner started asking Brooks questions about what it’s like being so old & to the laughter of their friends they created an impromptu comedy skit on the spot. In one of the many versions of this story, Steve Allen was at the party that night with a tape recorder. He captured some of Reiner & Broooks vamping and then played it for a few people. Steve Allen then insisted they make a recording of this for public consumption and he was instrumental in getting the first vinyl record of 2000 Year Old Man produced. I rather imagine there’s a half dozen other schmucks who had been there that night and each tell similar stories.
In the interview above towards the end of the video, Carl Reiner tells the story differently. The story seems to change every time they tell it. Part of the fun of the history of this routine is that the guys who made it happen don’t even remember how it happened, which is all part of the beauty of what makes this joke work.
We think it’d be great to talk to a guy who was there during all the great historical moments in history, but if that guy wasn’t a guy trying to commemorate the occasions of history cuz when he was living in history he didn’t know it was history, his recollection of the events wouldn’t be all that dependable. They’d still be interesting, but we wouldn’t necessarily understand the event any better from having first hand accounts. This schtick doesn’t even mock and satirize history, but personal accounts of any kind. We have a judicial system in America that often depends much on eyewitness accounts of events. I can’t even remember what I did last Tuesday. If I were to find myself in the midst of an historic event as it happened, I rather imagine I’d spend the rest of my life sounding like Mel Brooks trying to describe how fire was invented. Or music. Or cave politics.
Tragedy is I stub my toe. Comedy is you fall in an open manhole and die.
There is no one joke here that I can pinpoint and say that’s the best joke. There are several great gems among the performances. What makes this bottled lightning so great is that these guys just enjoy one another’s rhythm and approach to comedy. It’s a classic approach to entertainment with a timeless premise that’s all about time. Perhaps if I must pinpoint one particular joke for purposes of Perret’s workbook assignment, I’ll tell one I remember from memory but at present can’t find a YouTube video to complement it.
Carl Reiner asks Mel Brooks about how religion began and Mel explains that the first god everyone used to pray to was Phil. Phil wasn’t so much a god as he was the toughest of the cavemen. Nobody could defeat Phil. Phil was so far as they could tell the biggest meanest toughest person who ever lived so everyone worshiped Phil but then one day it started raining for the first time and everyone got scared cuz they thought the sky was falling on them so they all ran inside to the caves but Phil remained outside and everyone was motioning for Phil to join them in the cave but Phil refused saying he’s Phil and he’s not afraid of the sky falling. Then a lightning bolt struck Phil and burned him to a crisp.
At which point we realized,” Mel says after a beat, “There’s somebody bigger than Phil!
That’s one top-notch joke, and my pitiful recitation from memory here pales in comparison to Mel Brooks’ delivery. All in all there were six albums and an animated special as well as the movie “History of the World” inspired from these two guys having fun with history and each other. I can’t remember the first time I heard this routine but it must have been at a very young age cuz every time I am reminded of this routine, I feel like a kid again and the whole world feels fresh and new. Like I can observe reality again for the very first time. Great skit. Great comic minds. Genius jokes. Lotta fun.