Paul Mazursky Dissects the Funnybone

06/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"An old guy is standing on a street corner, crying; he's a very old man.

A boy comes up to him and asks, 'Why are you crying?' and the guy says, 'I'm 85 years old!'

The boy asks, 'Yes, but why are you crying?'

The old guy says 'Because I've got a 21 year old girl back in my apartment. It's the best sex I ever had!'

The boy asks, 'Well, why are you crying?' And the old guy says, 'I forgot where I live!!!'"

"That's an old joke," the vivacious, nearly 80 year old Paul Mazursky shares, from across his office desk in Beverly Hills. "Now, there are variations on these things. I am not an expert on humor."

Recently paid tribute to in a retrospective on 8 of his films at the Ventura Film Festival, Oscar nominated, award winning director/writer/actor Paul Mazursky is the mastermind of such classics as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and Enemies: A Love Story (1989), to name a few.

Fans may be more familiar with his more recent acting work as Norm in Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, and his 2006 documentary Yippee, in which he interviews the participants in the 25,000 strong, 3 day celebration of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, where Chassidic Jewish men gather to sing, dance, and pray at the burial site of Rabbi Reb Nachman of Brelsov.

"Humor is...." Paul's voice trails off as he struggles to put it into words. "I know a guy, an orthodox Jew, whom you never think of as reading Philip Roth. He's very, very orthodox."

I said, "You read Philip Roth?" He said, "Yes! But in the bathroom."

"To me, that's very funny."

What is funny in this day and age?

In an era where comedians use the "F" word as a means to drive home every punch line and celebrity debutantes and tabloid reality stars are the leading fodder for late night talk show hosts and sketch television, who and what will stand the test of time to become our generation's Marx Brothers, Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, the elegant Noel Coward or Johnny Carson? And why ask Paul Mazursky what he thinks?

Well, why not? After all, his most recently public appearance involved his unusual death as Norm in Curb Your Enthusiasm's episode "The Black Swan," in which Larry breaks all rules of golf etiquette by shouting at Norm on the golf course, thereby raising Norm's blood pressure and causing him to have a heart attack. Curb Your Enthusiasm is an improvised comedy, where the actors are given the situation, but no dialogue, and then told, "Action!," and the cameras roll.

Mazurksy also happens to have a standing Friday lunch date with Mel Brooks, another funny guy in the business. Official expert or authority status notwithstanding, he's certainly more than qualified to weigh in on the subject.

Years ago Paul asked Sven Nykvist, director of photography on Mazursky's Willie & Phil (1980) and many Ingmar Bergman films, "Does Bergman have any humor?," to which Sven replied, "Jah, jah, Paul! Sometimes he has a funny nightmare."

"He didn't mean that as a joke," Paul confides, "but I thought it was one of the most hilarious things I've ever heard. I like that kind of humor that comes around the bend." When Paul relays the story, one can't help but laugh.

"I made a movie with Peter Sellers." (I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, 1968) "I wrote it with Larry Tucker. Peter's wife at the time, Britt Eklund, got the role of an Amish woman in The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), and she didn't know how to play it, so I told her to go to Amish country and spend a week there, just observe there and see what it's like, because words won't tell you what seeing and behaving would be like."

"So I spent an afternoon at Peter's house...I had had a meeting with Peter who was taking a nap, and as I left, I thanked Britt and kissed her on the cheek goodbye. The humor of it is that the next morning he accused me of having an affair with his wife. It's true! He named me as correspondent to divorce her. I was irate with anger. I didn't go near her. I kissed her on the cheek. What affair? What was this about?"

For the record, Mazursky has been happily married to his wife Betsy for so many decades, their wedding year was long before the Internet started recording time.

"I called my agent and said, 'I'm going to go over to the studio and kill him!,' Paul continues. "He said 'If you go near him, you're out.' I was supposed to direct a movie which I'd written. When the movie started, this darkness turned into something funny. Peter asked the assistant director if it was okay to come into the trailer and look at the shot we just made, as he was interested in my opinion, but he wouldn't say it to me directly. So I watched the shot and I said, 'Well, Mr. Sellars, I think it would be funnier if you tripped.' Something like that."

"A day later he changed his mind. He apologized. It's black humor. You never know where things lead," Paul muses.

Currently at work on the musical adaptation of his Moon over Parador (1988) and hoping to direct two new films for which he wrote the screenplays: An Honest Man, the true story of an illegal Mexican in Los Angeles who found $220,000 that fell off a truck and the consequences of his choice to do the right thing and return the money, and the adaptation of the Bernard Malamud book, Pictures of Fidelman, Paul isn't sure where comedy or the entertainment business is headed.

"The studios now would prefer, I think for the most part, to do tent pole pictures. Pictures that hold up the tent. Spend $150 million. 3-D. They want to do Bob & Carol (& Ted & Alice) again. I said, 'I'll only do it if you do the orgy in 3-D.' I don't want to do it. I turned it down. The only way to get a small movie done is to do it independently," Paul declares firmly.

"When I showed the original treatment for Bob & Carol, the first guy who saw it said, 'It's too dirty.'

I said, 'Well, what if I get Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to be one of the couples?'

And he said, 'Well, then it would be good. I would do it.'"

"So they've always been stupid, but they were less stupid in the old days," he ruminates.

The interview draws to a close, my parking meter well past the one hour limit, and Paul Mazursky turns to YouTube, the 21st century superhighway of instant humor, on the computer screen behind him, to locate a fan's pirate video of himself crooning "If I Loved You," in the bathroom at the Farmer's Market while taking a whiz. A private moment turned public.

Very funny. For 2010.