Mike Nichols. Elaine May, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen's "New Cabaret"
: Underground Jewish humor and the evolution of the new Hollywood aesthetic

  • Peter Scott Lederer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Which alternative ways can critics understand the aesthetic and cultural achievements of New Hollywood? This thesis takes the novel approach of interrogating film using close readings that focus on subculture (“milieus”) to better understand how aesthetic innovation can be explained through often overlooked “extra-cultural” experiences. It offers the argument that artistic phenomena are not always reactions against contemporary cultural trends and conditions from within, but may be “extra-cultural” events instigated by “Others.” It provides specific Jewish explanations for the evolution of New Hollywood. It proposes that the American cinematic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s emerged from the cultural disruption caused by Jewish nightclub comedians and their projection of anti-Semitism and Nazi spectacle onto American culture in order to critique it. This is demonstrated by examining four primary films: Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1968), and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). It was not simply that cultural and aesthetic innovation “articulated a strong opposition to the prevailing rules, morality, and aesthetic standards of the time” (Sobral 3), or that the “culture/counterculture divide was facilitated by the prosperity of post-war America” (Gair 4). The filmmakers here did not share the same counterculture values of their generational peers but instead developed a unique Jewish post-Holocaust sense of guilt by not being a part of an enabled underground resistance, projecting this guilt onto American society, and revamping a cabaret model of cultural and aesthetic resistance, what is here called “New Cabaret.” This research originally explores this “New Cabaret” aesthetic: the technical elements of the films as well as the cultural set of principles underlying them and how the two interact. Analyses show that the mixture of small forms intrinsically part of the cabaret stage metamorphosed into important cinematic aesthetic diminutives. These diminutives are examined in numerous readings that support the broader, comprehensive conclusion that these filmmakers rely on the externally produced, Old World representational images of Jews, simultaneously fusing these with their own personal identities, to unravel the power dynamic between American Jewish and Gentile cultures and commercial Hollywood.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsQueen's University Belfast
SupervisorPhilip McGowan (Supervisor) & Kurt Taroff (Supervisor)


  • New Hollywood
  • Jewish film
  • Mel Brooks
  • Jewish humor
  • dark comedy
  • cabaret
  • Annie Hall
  • aesthetics
  • stand-up comedy
  • stereotypes
  • The Graduate
  • The Producers
  • Woody Allen
  • Elaine May
  • Mike Nichols

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