When Mel Brooks was growing up, he thought comedy was Jewish. He didn't think 'goys' were capable of being funny. Until he discovered Irish writers. (Whether Irish writers have quite the exhilarating comic genius of the New York Jew is up for debate, but let's take the compliment).
"Sean O'Casey, Beckett, Yeats, James Joyce. When I discovered they were all Irish writers - the best f***ing writers in the world - and not one of them was a Jew, I had a nervous breakdown," he told TV host Conan O'Brien, indulging in a little chutzpah. "I cried for about a month. I was only restored when they told me Modigliani was a Jew."
So when he came across a character in Ulysses called "Leopold Bloom", an Irishman and a Jew, he decided the name was his to steal for his 1967 film The Producers with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, now a musical coming to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre next week.
In The Producers "Leo Bloom" (Jason Manford) is an accountant who dreams of showbiz. "When is Leopold Bloom gonna get his share? When's it gonna be Bloom's Day?" he implores.
He meets a corrupt and penniless producer named Max Bialystock who convinces Bloom that you can make more money on a flop than a hit. You will be forced to close on the first week and can simply keep investors' money. So they scout out the worst play imaginable, called Springtime for Hitler, written by a deranged Nazi, and put it on complete with Gestapo can-can chorus ("Don't be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi party!"), girls with pretzel-shaped bras, and giant swastika dance formation.
It's the kind of thing only a Jewish person could pull off. Or perhaps, only Mel Brooks.
Mel Brooks will be 89 tomorrow. The 5 ft 5 inch comedian auteur grew up in the tenement slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the youngest of four brothers. At age two, he lost his father to tuberculosis. His mother worked at night for garment factories to bring in money. Mel shared a single mattress with his three brothers. Williamsburg, said Mel, "was like a sci-fi movie. We were all robotically destined for the garment centre".
He broke into performing as a teen, and after high school, enlisted to fight in World War Two, an experience he found abysmal.
Jewish humour, Mel said, is "based on misfortune". For hundreds of years, Jews performed their own theatres, and "if there was a hunchback or cripple, he was grist for the mill". Of all his films (Blazing Saddles, Robin Hood: Men in Tights to name two), The Producers must be his most wickedly controversial in its attitude to that misfortune.
The film was originally to be called Springtime for Hitler. That evoked such dangerous anti-Semitism that his producers tamed it down to The Producers. Universal wanted him to change the story to 'Springtime for Mussolini', which Mel refused to do.
After the film came out in 1967 (in the same year his wife Anne Bancroft was Mrs Robinson in The Graduate), Mel received letters from dismayed rabbis telling him to "think twice" before writing something like this. It became an immense success, and made Mel Brooks very rich, though critics had initially judged it in poor taste.
Hitler was "still so fresh", Mel said, in 2001 when the stage musical was first performed on Broadway. "In the middle of Act 2, a big guy stands up, starts screaming at the stage and walking up the isle, saying "Where the f*** is Mel Brooks? This is such an outrage, how dare he?' This man said 'I was in World War Two'. I said, 'I was in World War Two. I didn't see you there'."
He's very funny, but Mel Brooks is serious when it comes to defending satire. "You can't get on a soapbox with Hitler, you've got to ridicule him, you've got to bring him down with laughter, or there is no way to get even," he said. "When things are politically correct, it usually makes for a wonderfully dull show." Which makes you think what a faulty measuring stick politics is for what is correct.
The Producers is at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, July 6-11