In 1963, Dan Greenburg was a twenty-seven- year-old writer from Chicago working for Eros, a slickly art-directed hardcover magazine about sex. He often dined out for lunch with his editor, Ralph Ginzburg. It was over one of their meals that Greenburg had a life- changing revelation that had nothing to do with sex.
“He was a bit overweight and I was always underweight,” Greenburg recalled. “It turned out we essentially had the same Jewish mother urging us to eat. He responded by eating too much and I responded by eating too little. All of the things that each of our mothers told us turned out to be the same in terms of instilling guilt for not eating. Instilling guilt in general. I said, ‘My God, where do they get this? They must have some kind of Jewish mother’s handbook.’ It suddenly occurred to me that I ought to write one.’”
Soon after that conversation, Greenburg ran into Roger Price, the writer and TV comedian who was part owner of the publishing house Stern Price Sloan. Built off the wildly successful series of Mad Libs game books, Stern Price Sloan marketed other titles as novelty items in gift shops and other locations that didn’t typically carry books. “They were called non books,” said Greenburg. He told Price he wanted to do a snob’s guide to status cars.
“I don’t know anything about cars,” said Price. “Do you have anything else?”
“Just a title,” Greenburg said. “How to Be a Jewish Mother.”
Price didn’t need to hear another word. “I’ll buy it,” he told Greenburg. The image of the overbearing, manipulative, and emotionally suffocating Jewish mother was familiar to most first-generation Americans with European immigrant parents. In October 1964, Stern Price Sloan published Dan Greenburg’s How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Very Lovely Training Manual, and the archetype was launched into new heights of notoriety. The back cover showed a photo of an adult Greenburg being spoon-fed by his own mother, Leah. It was a re-creation some twenty-five years later of a photo of Greenburg’s mother feeding her son when he was a toddler. Leah Greenburg also received credit for providing “technical assistance.” The book’s bone-dry text offered instructions on “how to administer the third helping” and “the technique of basic suffering.” The glossary included definitions of such terms as “unmarried surgeon: the answer to a mother’s prayer.” Three months after its release, How to Be a Jewish Mother was in its fourth printing.
“Word of mouth suddenly exploded that book,” Greenburg said. “Everybody was reading it. It outsold everything in fiction. Everything in nonfiction. It outsold the McCall’s Needlework Treasury. It was hundreds of thousands in hardcover. In softcover there were several editions and it went into the millions.”
Greenburg’s book was adapted into a stage show in 1967 and a bestselling comedy album performed by Gertrude Berg of The Goldbergs fame. But at the time, humor that dealt overtly with the Jewish experience was still largely exposed through comics doing short bits on television variety shows. It would take a talent agent and producer of films, theater, and TV named David Susskind, who was hosting his own syndicated late-night talk show, to make pop-culture history with a program on the subject.
Greenburg, who at the time was developing screenplays for Susskind, signed on as a guest. Susskind then enlisted his business partner Daniel Melnick to put in a call to Mel Brooks, who had just released his second film, The Twelve Chairs.“It was Danny who called me,” said Brooks. “He said, ‘You know David’s talk show?’ I said, ‘Good show. I watch it all the time. I’m waiting to see Senator McCarthy.’ I loved the show. ‘Well, he wants to do something called sons of Jewish mothers.’ ‘Ooh,’ I said, ‘Dan Greenburg?’”
Another call went out to George Segal. The actor had grown up in Great Neck, a town on the North Shore of Long Island with a large Jewish population. Segal, who had been in Susskind’s TV production of Death of a Salesman, was headed into his most successful years as a major film star. He had just made Where’s Poppa?,a bizarre, raunchy comedy in which he played a tortured lawyer whose addled but indomitable Jewish mother keeps him from getting on with his life.
Susskind also wanted David Steinberg, a hot young comic at the time. Steinberg was the Canadian son of a rabbi who infused a 1960s counterculture sensibility into a traditional stand-up comic style. He already had secured a place in television history with his rabbi’s sermon routine, which included some mildly risqué wordplay and closed with the admonition, “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas and chah back into Chanukah.” After Steinberg performed the bit on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in defiance of the CBS censors, the network canceled the show in April 1969.
Steinberg was reluctant to appear on Susskind’s Jewish sons show, but it had nothing to do with the topic. “I was very unselfconscious about talking about Jewish things,” he said. “My approach on television, even when I did anything Jewish, was anything but self-deprecating, it was sort of militantly Jewish. So this was fine for me. But I thought I was on TV so much, I didn’t want to do the show. At that point I was already guest-hosting The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show. I had cohosted Mike Douglas.” Once Susskind was committed to doing the show, he would not give up. The day before the taping, he asked Brooks to take Steinberg to lunch at the Russian Tea Room in the hope of convincing him to come on.
“Of course I remember the lunch,” said Brooks. “I paid.” Brooks clowned with Steinberg. He told the young comic that his experience studying for rabbinical school would be great material for the discussion.
“He said, ‘Come on, it will be fun. It will be good for me,’?” Steinberg recalled. “Whatever it was, you can’t say no to Mel.”
The producers added Larry Goldberg, a comedian turned entrepreneur who was writing a humorous diet book and had founded a successful restaurant chain, Goldberg’s Pizzeria. “We had food covered,” said Sam Szurek, a producer for Susskind’s talk show. But Susskind wanted one more panelist who could guarantee some controversy.
Stan Herman was a hot designer in the 1960s and president of a dress company called Mr. Mort. In those years, Herman was a go-to guest whenever fashion was a TV talk-show topic. “I was Jewish and I was famous at the time,” he recalled.
Shortly before the show’s scheduled taping, Susskind asked Herman to stop by his office for a brief conversation about it. When Herman got there, he remembered how Susskind looked at him with a “slyboots look in his eye” and said, “Most designers are gay, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Herman replied.
“Would you be willing to talk about it on the show?”
Herman’s sexual preference was known among his friends and in the fashion industry, but not far beyond that. He was on the verge of transforming his status as a big name on Seventh Avenue into the highly lucrative business of designing company uniforms. He had just completed a job for Avis Rental Car and had just secured a contract from the fast-food giant McDonald’s, a potentially huge source of income. He wondered how his new clientele would react to having its image shaped by a New York Jew who announced to the world on television that he was a homosexual. Herman later called Susskind back and said he would discuss his sexuality if it was handled properly and not sensationalized.
A half hour before the taping started on November 12, 1970, Mel Brooks went into the bleachers in the studio at WNEW, New York City’s Channel 5, and warmed up the crowd. It was like he was back to his days as a tummler working the crowd in a Catskills resort. “He was in the audience doing shtick,” Greenburg remembered. “He was so on it was unbelievable.” Laughter rumbled through the set by the time Susskind started his introductions at the top of the program. Usually unflappable, Susskind was breaking up as George Segal lovingly blew thick clouds of cigar smoke into the host’s face.
Within moments, Brooks went into overdrive. He announced in all the years he lived with his mother, he had never seen a piece of furniture. Sheets to keep the dust off had always covered it. “But what’s criminal is that my mother has four great paintings that we’ve never seen,” he proclaimed. When Goldberg talked about how the small Jewish population was dispersed in his hometown of Kansas City, Brooks said: “I bet they all get together for pogrom—gathered in one big Jew cellar while the Gentiles go thundering by!”
Susskind started Steinberg off by asking if his mother were still alive. The comic stared into space as if he were trying to remember. He then described a dream in which they were in a ballroom on a luxury liner. “We danced until dawn,” he said. “I’m three and she’s 52 and I’m just about to get her into my crib—and I wake up.”
Brooks topped him later by claiming he had left the Jewish faith because the sign of the cross was easy to make in a time of panic. He demonstrated how a Star of David would require both hands. “Two triangles,” he said. “That’s a lot of work!”
The show became a joyride powered by a relentless, unpredictable Brooks, who could fill any pause in the conversation with a routine or a song. The performance had the technical crew in the show’s control room rocking with laughter. Assistant director Jim Shasky said the camera operators on the studio floor laughed so hard they were unable to keep their shots steady. “The live audience really set the tone,” said Herman. “I remember one of my assistants, a redhead, was the only person not laughing. She was a nice non–Jewish girl from California. I don’t think she knew what was going on.”
“It was anarchy,” said Segal, who sent the studio audience into convulsions when he got up from his chair to do a song from his days as a Dixieland jazz bandleader and stepped on the cord of the lavaliere microphone that hung around his neck. He started to choke when the cord tightened like a noose. When Susskind got face to face with Segal to help him, the actor looked in the host’s eyes and said softly, “What are you doing later?”
But it was Brooks who kept on taking command. He thought of the rest of the panel as straight men, and they knew it. “They were all funny,” he said. “As far as I was concerned they were very, very good, but I was better. It was just give me the mike and stand back and I’ll take care of the evening.”
“Mel has got that streak in him, that ‘I’m taking this over no matter what,’?” Segal said. “Welcome to the Mel Brooks Show. But that was okay. He was being Mel and that was the best part of him really. I don’t know what you call that kind of aggression, but it certainly worked on that show. Mel was totally comfortable with David Susskind. David kept giving him rope and Mel kept advancing.”
“Mel and I were sort of discovering each other there,” said Steinberg. “You could see me half improvising and finding material I didn’t even know I had on the show. At some point I realized all I wanted to do—whatever subject David Susskind hasn’t found, I wanted to find another one for Mel.”
Brooks did not let anyone, even Susskind, slow down his momentum, at one point dismissing a ponderous question from the host with a playful “Shut up, David!” “It was my favorite moment in the whole show,” said Greenburg. “Everybody wanted to say ‘Shut up, David’ for years. People roared with laughter.” So did Susskind.
Stan Herman remembered being uneasy during the show’s early moments as he wondered how Susskind would approach the subject of his sexuality. Less than ten minutes into the discussion, the host zoned in on Herman. Susskind asked how Herman’s mother viewed his choice of profession, positing that mothers “don’t rear their sons to be fashion designers.” Herman rambled on a bit with a story of how his Jewish stepmother removed many of the doors of his Passaic, New Jersey, family home to make it look larger.
“That’s so you don’t do private things,” Brooks said, once again cracking up the panel and the audience.
There was no lock on the bathroom door, either. “It tended to open all the time at the most embarrassing moments,” Herman said.
“So you never had a normal boyhood?” a persistent Susskind asked.
“No,” said Herman. “No doors. No locks.”
He came back at Herman a few more times, asking about his mother’s attitudes toward the “idiosyncrasies” and “lifestyles” in the fashion world, but never directly asked the question about being gay. Brooks and Steinberg kept on using Susskind’s dead-serious inquisition as setups for jokes. “Mel was very good to me,” Herman said. “He saw how nervous I was at the beginning. There was one point where he wanted to get me to sing. Then I realized David wasn’t going to ask me about the homosexual thing, so I relaxed a little more.”
The humor of the show allowed the famous sons to offer glimpses into how they dealt with assimilating and their cultural identities. They revealed their neuroses, such as Steinberg admitting he owned a Volkswagen until he was overcome by his childhood fears that the cars would be used to drive Jews back to Germany. They talked about the modest circumstances of their immigrant homes (Brooks recalled using old jelly jars for drinking glasses), and how they had to explain the kind of big money they currently earned to their disbelieving parents.
They talked about introducing their parents to non-Jewish girlfriends for the first time (Steinberg’s advice was to bring home a black girlfriend first). Steinberg believed it was the first time the term “Jewish princess” was ever used on TV. They explored the need for some Jews to alter their names and noses. “If you’re really funny, you get a lot more truth than talking seriously about the same subject, so the themes start to come up out of the woodwork whether you want them to or not,” Steinberg recalled. “Once you start saying, ‘Okay, we’re talking about Jewish mothers,’ you start to talk about what we were proud of, what we were ashamed of. You notice that Mel is probably first-generation like I was. My parents came over from Russia, as did his parents. What you start to get is the outsider feeling. Jews weren’t as assimilated then as they are now. Right now my daughters wouldn’t understand any of the stuff we’re talking about.”
For Segal, the show was remarkable for having such an unfettered and intimate TV discussion about being Jewish when the notion of being “too Jewish” for Hollywood was still fresh in his mind. “Just a few years before this time there were all those Warner Brothers shows like 77 Sunset Strip with all these cute guys,” said Segal. “I went up for a thing that took place in a tobacco field and it was going to be shot in Connecticut. The casting director for Warner Brothers at the time—I believe Jewish with quite a honker on him—said to me, ‘That was a very good reading, but you can’t be in film unless you change your name and change your nose.’ That was out there still.”
Whenever Susskind realized he had a good show, his body seemed to stiffen up, an almost reflexive action that kept him from interfering with the moment. It was especially true on this night. As the session went on, he minimized the wording of his questions, sensing that all he had to do was raise a subject for Brooks or Steinberg to run with. “You can’t be that brilliant without someone like Susskind right next to you eating it up and laughing at it so you feel like you’re in secure territory,” Steinberg said. “That was remarkable in him, how he at one point was going to Mel and going to me for another idea, just enjoying seeing what’s coming out without a plan.”
Oddly enough, Greenburg, the man responsible for catapulting the Jewish mother into a pop-culture icon, got lost in the crossfire. “I was completely inundated, by Mel especially,” said Greenburg, who told the stories of his mother in the deadpan style of his book. That dry wit did not sync with the more impetuous performers on the panel. “There was a period there when I didn’t speak for an entire hour. I was afraid to say anything because these were some very funny guys.”
After being peppered with questions about his relationship with his mother, Segal decided to turn the tables on Susskind. With mock outrage, he asked how often Susskind saw his own mother. (Susskind quickly calculated that it was one and a half times per week.) Susskind attempted to move on, but Segal didn’t let him off the hook. Segal accused the typically detached Susskind of pursuing his inquiry of the panel as if he himself did not have a Jewish mother. Susskind said, with great pride, that he did.
Brooks piled on, wanting to know about financial support: “What do you give her, David?” (“I was so rude,” Brooks said looking back.) David Susskind’s mother, Frances, was an outspoken and often overbearing woman who recognized her son’s abilities early on and reveled in his success. As Susskind ascended in the television and film industries, his mother frequently bragged about “my son, the producer.” She was also the subject of the most repeated personal anecdote about her son. Frances Susskind once brought a group of her friends to a guided tour of his offices, which she treated as her son’s personal fiefdom. At one point, she opened the door to a small office that had been provided to writer Robert Alan Aurthur, who was at work on a novel. “And this is where my son David keeps his writers,” she boasted.
When Segal brought Frances up on the Jewish sons show, the inquiry momentarily unsettled Susskind. “He didn’t want to be a participant,” said Segal. “He wanted to be above the battle and yet he was central to it. The question he was asking, I think, was how he felt about his mother. He had the Jewish mother of Jewish mothers on that panel. There was the irony, I guess.”
After Susskind said good night to his guests and the credits were rolling, director Arthur Forrest told the technicians and producers in the control room that they had just seen a classic in the making. “This is going to last forever folks,” he said. “It’s never going away.” Over time, Forrest was proven right. “How to Be a Jewish Son—Or, My Son the Success!”—as it was called in the newspaper television listings—first aired on November 29, 1970.
The following day the switchboard at WNEW lit up with calls from many viewers who were not amused. “Vile,” “vulgar,” “disgraceful,” “the most insulting thing Mr. Susskind has ever done” were among the comments that came in. Brooks was denounced as an apostate not only for his Star of David gag but also for his answer on whether he asked his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, to convert to Judaism (“She don’t have to convert, she’s a star!”). One caller who described herself as a Jewish mother said, “This is how Jew-haters are made.” Susskind received an angry letter from a representative of the Anti-Defamation League who called the show an example of Jewish anti-Semitism. “The reaction was, how dare you show the worst aspects of us,” said Szurek.
The callers turned out to be an infinitesimal minority. Brooks, Steinberg, and Segal saw their status only rise in the eyes of the public and the entertainment industry after the show aired. “The center of the television power at the time was still in New York,” said Steinberg. “So everyone was aware of this show. You couldn’t miss it. You had five stations to watch. Everybody talked about it the next day. I remember the experience of walking down the street in New York after that show. They went nuts. ‘That was great.’ ‘The funniest show I’ve ever seen.’ This was bigger than doing The Tonight Show. Everywhere I went people were talking about the Susskind show. Not just show business people. Everybody. My career took off after that.”
Steinberg recalled his initial doubts about showing up. “This is an example of how little you know about your own career,” Steinberg said. “I remember sitting in the bleachers before the audience came into the studio and pouting because I thought the show was such a dumb thing for me to do, when I don’t want to be one of those people that’s just on TV all the time. I did the show and I felt I had done fine. I enjoyed Mel so much, and George Segal and I became good friends and saw each other a lot after that show in Los Angeles and in New York. And after a year or two, I had the feeling that the show was the thing that moved my career to the next place. Somehow it was the subject, Mel, me. I don’t even know, when I look at it now, why it did that, but it did. But the thing for years that people always mentioned to me was this Susskind show.”
Brooks didn’t recall any immediate response to “How to Be a Jewish Son.” After viewers clamored for Susskind to run it again, the show was repeated annually around New Year’s Day. Its popularity and legend grew along with Brooks as he became a major comedy box office attraction as a director and performer during the 1970s with Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie. “Suddenly I’d hear about the show from one person and another,” he recalled. “It was very much like The Producers,” referring to his first film, released in 1968. “It made an explosion when it opened, and it was kind of quiet and little by little it gathered its own steam and its own force and moved forward. It got to be legendary. The same thing happened with this show. You never know what’s going to happen. Who knew that this little roundtable interview show, certainly not a great forum for my talent, would be one of the best things I ever did in my life? It would launch me as a first-rate comic personality. Who the hell knew? It was amazing.”
Jon Merdin, a Susskind employee who was on the set the night of the taping, said it was clear Brooks’s on-camera madness was a revelation for the audience. “He didn’t have a public face outside of being a performer, and then suddenly you realized that he was as nuts as a person as he was as a character,” he said.
George Segal said for years fans praised the Jewish sons show as part of his body of work. “There are certain movies, like Blume in Love or A Touch of Class, and they shake your hands with two hands because it meant so much to them. It was seminal for them,” he said. “They’re thankful in a certain kind of way, and those are the same kind of looks I would get from that Susskind show. There is a kind of chicken soup warmth in it.”
Greenburg may have gotten lost on the panel, but How to Be a Jewish Mother was a gift that kept on giving. His series of paranormal adventures, The Zack Files, launched him into a new career as a successful children’s book author. But he was still getting residual checks from Europe for stage performances of How to Be a Jewish Mother more than forty years after he wrote it. What struck him the most was how the experiences described in his book and on the Susskind show were universal. “As I said in the book, you don’t have to be Jewish or a mother to be a Jewish mother,” he said. “I would meet Korean guys, Japanese guys, certainly Italians, who said, ‘You’re talking about my mother.’ You’re talking about a specific type of behavior that isn’t only Jewish, like wanting to control the child a lot and using various devices like guilt. I don’t think there’s a culture in the world that doesn’t use guilt to control children.”
The lasting legacy of Susskind’s Jewish sons show did not make everyone happy. Stan Herman’s story about the missing doors and locks in his house angered his stepmother for years. “When Susskind replayed the show every New Year’s she kept thinking I was on again, repeating the same remark,” he said. “I’m not kidding.”
Susskind soon found out the show was an inspired, lightning-in-a-bottle type of event that could not be easily duplicated. After a story about Jewish princesses appeared on the cover of New York magazine in March 1971, he jumped at doing a show on the subject. “David loved the idea, some might say probably because it was demeaning to Jewish women,” said Szurek. “We spun our collective wheels for the longest time trying to book it. But no self-respecting, accomplished, smart woman would do it. So we ended up with a panel of nonentities. A terrible show was taped and I don’t believe it ever aired.”