Mel Brooks- Comedy Legend
All about Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business
Mel Brooks 2021
Comedy is hard work. Finding the funny in a situation takes a creative mind, plenty of experimentation, and a willingness to poke fun at sacred cows. There are fewer movie comedies today than in the past because of the risks involved and large movie studios are notoriously averse to risks. There hasn't been a blockbuster movie comedy since The Hangover from 2009. (Not counting animated movies or action adventure movies with comedic elements). Looking back, there was a golden age of movie comedies, and smack in the middle of it was a small Jewish man by the name of Melvin Kaminsky (aka Mel Brooks).
Well into his 90's, Mel Brooks came out with his autobiography, All About Me, and it is a great recap of a lucky and talented man who shaped dozens of careers and entertained millions of people.
Brooks was a member of the Greatest Generation, living through the depression and World War 2, and ending up in the fertile soil of post-war New York when the entertainment industry was going through big changes. Brooks talks about his childhood in Brooklyn with fondness, even though his father died when he was two. He got his start in show business as a teenager in the Borscht Belt, a series of hotels in the Catskill Mountains where comedians went to entertain vacationing New Yorkers. Brooks went to Europe with the army at the tail end of the war and had the difficult job of helping to dispose of explosive land mines left over by the Germans. His innate musical and comedic talents came through over there as he eventually became an entertainer for the troops.
Mel Brooks give most of the credit for his big breakthrough in comedy to Sid Caesar, who discovered him and made him a central part of his comedy writing team. Brooks went on to join with Caesar, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and others in Your Show of Shows- the Saturday Night Live of its time. Caesar became one of the biggest names in comedy thanks to that fast-paced live variety show that was taped live in prime time every week. Brooks and Caesar worked together for almost ten years and remained lifelong friends, but when the show ended Brooks had trouble finding steady work in an unsteady field.
He joined briefly with Carl Reiner to produce an amazing improvisational sketch called the 2000 year old man. Reiner would interview him and he would come up with funny bits on the fly about people in history he claimed to have known personally. It was one of the most popular recordings of its time and showed up on a variety of shows over the years. Also at this time Brooks was the first ever guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a show done in black and white for which no recordings currently exist.
He got his second big break in 1964 when he was commissioned to help develop a television comedy about secret agents, which were all the rage in the early days of James Bond movies. He teamed with Buck Henry and created the immortal TV comedy, Get Smart. The show featured Don Adams as a bumbling agent Maxwell Smart and poked fun at the spy world for five great seasons. Get Smart was passed on by one network who thought it dangerously "un-American" and it broke the mold of happy sitcoms of the day that revolved around families. Brooks has said about the show ,"No one had ever done a show about an idiot before. I decided to be the first."
In 1967 Brooks had an idea about a movie featuring a crooked Broadway producer and a play guaranteed to flop, called Springtime for Hitler. He originally wanted to write it for Broadway, but was convinced to try Hollywood instead because of the costs and sets involved. What came next was a movie legend- The Producers with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, one of the funniest and ballsiest movies ever made. Only a Jewish writer could get away with making fun of Adolph Hitler, and Brooks somehow pulled it off, managing to write the songs and winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay at the same time. Incredibly, for all of that work, he was only paid $50,000, which doesn't seem like much ($400,000 in today's dollars)
The Producers cemented Brooks's place in Hollywood and he went on to create two decades worth of great comedic films, all of which he details in this book. I have now seen most of them and recommend them to any fan of movie comedies. He developed a stable of stars that kept showing up in his movies like Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom Deluise, Gene Wilder, and Harvey Korman, and he wasn't afraid to take chances. Mel Brooks movies go for dirty jokes, sacred cows, silly situations, and aren't afraid to break the fourth wall to make a point. They are silly and absurd, but most have a powerful message hidden within. Here is a list of movies and things I learned from his stories around them.
1- The Twelve Chairs- filmed in Yugoslavia and based on a screenplay about diamonds hidden in a chair after the communist takeover of Russia.
2- Blazing Saddles- a classic anti-western that subversively takes on racism. Richard Pryor was supposed to star with Gig Young, but Young got drunk and was replaced by Gene Wilder, while the studio balked at Pryor and they found Cleavon Little to replace him. Little plays a black sheriff in a racist western town, and manages to milk laughter from near death situations.
3- Young Frankenstein- a parody of early monster movies. Filmed in black and white, for which Brooks had to fight the studios that insisted on a color version. Gene Wilder collaborated with Brooks on the script, and it was their last work together. They famously argued about the musical number with the monster and Wilder was insulted when Brooks took over the Broadway production without involving him.
4- Silent Movie- A feature film made entirely without dialogue but with title cards. Cameos from Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman and Marcel Marceau, who utters the only word.
5- High Anxiety- the parody of Alfred Hitchcock movies. Brooks actually met with Hitchcock many times to share the script with him and get his input. Hitchcock reportedly loved the movie.
6- History of the World Part I- An assortment of sketches and musical numbers featuring historical events. Richard Pryor again was to star, but he had his famous accident and had to be replaced. Sid Caesar has a great part as a caveman in a tribute to their friendship.
7- To Be or Not to Be- a remake of a Jack Benny movie featuring Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft as Polish actors behind the lines of a Nazi invasion.
8- Spaceballs- A parody of Star Wars movies sanctioned by George Lucas with the stipulation that Brooks not sell any action figures. The movie pokes fun at merchandising with Spaceballs logos on all sorts of silly things. Brooks has a minor role as a Yoda like creature who says "May the Schwartz be with you."
9- Life Stinks- An odd comedy about homelessness and unscrupulous businessmen that walked a difficult line between humor and pathos.
10 - Robin Hood Men in Tights- A spoof of Robin Hood movies featuring Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, and Dave Chappelle.
11- Dracula Dead and Loving It- Brooks last comedy and the one that is hardest to find and lowest rated- starring Leslie Nielsen.
In addition, Brooks talks about his company, Brooksfilms, that produced several movies that did not involve him as writer, director, or star. These include The Elephant Man, The Fly, My Favorite Year, and Fatso. These were more serious endeavors and he made sure to keep his name off of them to avoid the expectations that they would be funny.
You would think as his movie career ended he would take it easy and enjoy his well-deserved retirement, but in 2001 he was contacted about turning The Producers into a Broadway musical. There's been a trend in theater to take known and popular movies and convert them into stage shows, and The Producers on Broadway greatly accelerated that trend. Not only was the play a hit, it won a record 12 Tony Awards, (Including getting Brooks his EGOT), and it has played all around the world with a story once deemed controversial and dangerous. Brooks himself proved to be a good songwriter as he came up with most of the songs for the Broadway version, even with his limited musical training.
Thanks to the popularity of The Producers on Broadway, Young Frankenstein was also converted to a musical in 2007, with decidedly mixed results and reviews. Brooks has toyed with other projects since then, but remains content to be a senior statesman of comedy into his nineties, which prompted him to write this book.
I tend to stay away from autobiographies, as they tend to be self-serving and slanted, and this one clearly is. Brooks has nothing bad to say about anybody and he name-drops comedy legends all over the place. He is in a league of high-powered, big ego superstar comedians like Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, and Bob Hope, and as his ego grew, the quality of his movies declined.
In 2019, a much less flattering biography of Mel Brooks came out called Funny Man, and it paints a darker and more complex picture than this book does. Brooks speaks often of the love of his life, Anne Bancroft, to whom he was married for decades and with whom he raised a son , Max. He never mentions his first wife, nor the three children that he had with her, and you have to wonder what happened in that relationship to make it nonexistent in his life story. Brooks has also been accused of stealing jokes, insulting other comics, and cheating on his first wife, so we know he wasn't a saint, like most of us. Reading All About Me, you'd think Mel Brooks had a perfect life, but like any high pressure movie star and executive, I'm sure he had his dark side. That dark side isn't evident in his movies, and for the most part he stayed away from drugs and other scandals that have derailed so many Hollywood careers.
Some of the humor of the 60's and 70's seems dated today, and that's to be expected. Women are not given many meaty roles other than bimbos or villains, and gays are uncomfortably portrayed in The Producers as an extreme caricature. Other humor was ahead of its time, especially the blatant mocking of racism in Blazing Saddles. And some of the humor was timeless, like the hilarious ending of Blazing Saddles that ended up crossing sets of the Warner Brothers studio lot. Comedy is hard, and what's funny today might not be funny 50 years from now.
In reflecting over such a storied career, I'm left with three realizations I took from this book.
First, collaboration is key when it comes to good comedy writing (and good writing in general). Geniuses like Robin Williams come along once a generation, but Mel Brooks learned from Sid Caesar and his other writers how to craft funny bits, and his best works like Get Smart, The Producers, and Blazing Saddles, were all the results of collaboration. Vanity projects that he did all by himself weren't nearly as good.
Second, any good story, especially a comedic one, needs an engine to drive it. Brooks talks about "the engine" repeatedly, and his desires to stick it to Hitler, racism, or self-important big shots drove most of his funny movies because in addition to being funny they had something important to say.
Third, it's important to have the courage of your convictions and not listen to movie executives or others who have no clue how to judge your works. Brooks was told by Warner Brothers to make changes to Blazing Saddles that would have killed the movie. He listened to them, nodded his head in agreement, and went ahead and ignored all of their suggestions. I can't get over how gutsy this was. He almost tanked Young Frankenstein because the studio didn't want to do black and white filming. Most artists only dream about having that much creative control, but if you're smart enough and talented enough,I guess you can get away with it sometimes, as long as you make people money.
This book is a must-read for any baby boomer who enjoyed Mel Brooks movies when they hit theaters. For those who were born later, hopefully they've heard of these movies and seen some of them, and this book will show them a world that doesn't exist at the moment- when comedians could make a big splash in Hollywood. Because we could all use a laugh these days, and need to regain the ability to laugh at ourselves and our situations.
And if you really want a taste of Mel Brooks and his long career, check out the American Film Institute tribute to him that was filmed in 2014.