For many of the many of us who were coming into or passing through adolescence at the beginning of the sixties, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks were an initiation; Reiner’s extemporaneous interviews with “The 2000 Year Old Man” and other Brooks characters were a shibboleth of comic sensibility, when comic sensibility was most of sensibility. 1 Johnny Carson was a similar case to a lesser degree. No one doubted that Carson’s jokes were an evolutionary advance on Bob Hope’s, and it was a revelation that the approach to and retreat from jokes could be funnier than punchlines. But Carson still worked within or, more impressively, around the edifice of the joke. What Brooks did with Reiner was create humor whose syntax no one could parse. Years later, nostalgic fans of academic persuasion could satisfy themselves that the humor of Brooks and Reiner fit none of the paradigms erected by joke analysts.
As an experiment, ask anyone who can recite the classic Brooks-Reiner routines, and who once thought of humor as a sign of grace, to identify the defining passage of all the “2000 Year Old Man” records. Here is the consensus answer. Reiner says, “I think most people would be interested in leading a long and fruitful life.” Brooks answers (before Reiner has formulated a question):
Fruit is good, you mention fruit. Fruit kept me going 140 years when I was on a very strict diet.
Mainly nectarines—I love that fruit. Half a peach, half a plum, so it’s a hell of a fruit. [big laugh]
Not too hot, not too cold, you know, just nice. [halcyon moment]
Even a rotten one is good [big laugh]—that’s how much I love them. I’d rather have a rotten nectarine than a fine plum, what do you think of that? [big, startled laugh]
“The 2000 Year Old Man” is one of the classic bits of the first era of contemporary stand-up—which is one of the most powerful if least investigated forms of postmodernist expression 2 —and the essence of contemporary stand-up is inexplicable, context- and comedian-specific, humor, not the Bob Hope joke, expropriable by Milton Berle, dear to joke analysts. 3 Nevertheless, if Mel Brooks, along with Lenny Bruce and a few others, is one of the harbingers of postmodern comedy insofar as he does not deal in gags, still it is the case that [End Page 121] comedy cannot be formless, since comedy is deformity that is self-measuring. 4 Thus the nectarine, not because it is rotten, but because its decadence is contemplated and desired by a brilliantly formal mind, can serve as emblem of the comedy of our time. 5
Brooks begins with a pun on “fruitful” that is so weak as really not to be a pun at all, rather a literalization; to put it precisely, it is a weak pun whose humor is that it counter-indicates a fiercely literal rather than punning mind. This is followed by an attempt to loop the newly literalized issue of fruit back to the general theme of the sketch, since there is a modicum, maybe, of humor purely in the longevity (“Fruit kept me going for 140 years”) of a peculiar diet. Brooks is waiting for his inspiration; when it comes, it is revolutionary. “Mainly nectarines,” he says, suddenly invigorated. “I love that fruit. Half a peach, half a plum, so it’s a hell of a fruit.” What revolutionary thing, exactly, has happened?
First, it flashes upon Brooks that something about the nectarine once felt as uncanny as a dream to him (I divine this): to be in the presence of the mongrel fruit was to be in the neighborhood of a mystery, arithmetically apprehensible yet ontologically obscure. What occurs to Brooks, in the moment that is granted an improvising comedian to make a decision, is that still to be charged as an adult by the childhood equivalent of priestly or Pythagorean knowledge would be funny, slightly more so if the adult is two-thousand years from his nonage. “So it’s a hell of a fruit” caps this impulse of the bit...