For most of the past half century, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen have been regarded as the two most durable, creative, and outright hilarious people in the entertainment world.
Who’s the funnier of the two comic geniuses?
It is one of the questions I like to think about. It’s a little like choosing between Michael Jordan and LeBron James in basketball — who’s the greater player? If you love rock and roll, just try to definitively pick between John Lennon and Bob Dylan on the subject of who’s the greatest influence on a generation. London or Paris? A slice of New York pizza or Chicago deep-dish? These are all fundamentally irresolvable questions. There is no one right answer. So why do I persist?
Because it’s a lot of fun, and that’s a good reason. ‘Fun’ is what Melvin Kaminsky and Allen Konigsberg — their birth names — is all about.
One of the reasons why the debate can seem so fascinating is that more unites Brooks and Allen than separates them. Both came out of Brooklyn. Both are clearly identified as Jewish comedians. Both worked for Sid Caesar in the 1950s on Your Show of Shows, the Saturday Night Live of its era (and I’m referring to the Belushi-Aykroyd-Radner-Murray and Carvey-Hartman-Myers-Hooks incarnations of SNL).
And Allen and Brooks, of course, made some masterful comedy movies. Perhaps only the Marx Brothers can rival the string of success enjoyed by both men over the years.
But it says a lot about you, depending on which maestro you pick. Arguably, the most famous scene in Mel Brooks’ distinguished history is the one in Blazing Saddles when the hombres are farting as if their lives depended on it.
Woody Allen is best known for witty dialogue, in such films as Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters.
If you crafted one of those boxing-match ‘Tale of the Tape’ comparisons, who’d win? Woody Allen can boast the Oscar for Best Picture, for 1977’s Annie Hall. A few of his actors have win statues, too. Mel Brooks trumps Allen on Broadway, with his Tony-filled production of The Producers (which on its merits as a movie holds up pretty well).
I can remember, as a kid, standing on long lines outside movie theaters to see Woody’s great string of comedies in the 1970s, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall and Manhattan. I can vividly recall waiting anxiously to see Young Frankenstein, the long-awaited Brooks follow-up to Blazing Saddles, too.
I thought Blazing Saddles was the funniest movie since Duck Soup — until I saw Love and Death.
OK, I have to give the victory to Allen by virtue of a late-round knockout.
If your taste (like mine) runs to witty, neurotic, ironic, self-deprecating humor, Allen is your man. I once had the good fortune to watch him be interviewed on stage at the 92Y a decade ago, on the subject of, somehow fittingly, psychotherapy. The interviewer, a noted psychiatrist asked Allen to describe his mother during his upbringing.
Allen thought briefly, brightened, and said she was like Groucho Marx — “only (more) acerbic.” On Robert Weide’s excellent American Masters show about Woody, Weide included a clip of Allen doing stand up and showing off a wristwatch and telling the audience solemnly, “My grandfather — on his death bed — sold me this watch.”
Allen crafted the funniest one liner I have ever heard in a movie, too.
It occurred in 1975’s Love and Death, in which he skewered the great Russian writers. In one scene, his great love, played to perfection by Diane Keaton, informs him that she wants to have three children, to which Allen’s Boris shoots back: “Yes, one of each.”
To this day, I have no idea what Allen ‘meant’ by that joke. I just know it makes me laugh. It cracks me up every time I see Love and Death.
And that’s the whole point.