Brooks, Mel (1926—)

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Brooks, Mel (1926—)

A woman once accosted filmmaker Mel Brooks and angrily told him that his 1968 comedy The Producers was "vulgar." "Madame," he said with an air of pride, "it rises below vulgarity." Mel Brooks spent a career as a comedy writer, director, and actor offending vast segments of his audience, while simultaneously making them laugh uproariously. His series of genre spoofs meticulously recreated the feel and look of westerns, horror films, and sci-fi classics, only to upend cliches with an assortment of double-entendres, anachronisms, musical production numbers, Jewish American references, and jokes about bodily functions. The creators of such 1990s phenomena as South Park and There's Something About Mary are direct descendants of Brooks' comic sensibility.

Brooks was born Melvin Kaminsky on June 28, 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. A boyhood friend was drumming legend Buddy Rich, who taught Brooks how to play. Brooks performed at parties and, during the summers, at largely Jewish resorts in the Catskills in upstate New York. After World War II, Brooks started performing comedy while social director of Grossinger's, the most prestigious Catskills resort, where he became friends with comedian Sid Caesar.

In 1950 Brooks joined the writing staff of NBC television's variety series Your Show of Shows, starring Caesar and Imogene Coca. The anarchy of these writing sessions was immortalized in Carl Reiner's 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and Neil Simon's 1994 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Nobody, Caesar's colleagues agreed, was more anarchic than Brooks. When Your Show of Shows lost an Emmy for best writing, Brooks stood up from his seat in the auditorium and yelled, "Nietschke was right—there is no God!"

Reiner and Brooks would often improvise comedic characters during the manic writer's meetings. One morning, Reiner introduced Brooks as the only living witness to Christ's Crucifixion. The persona of the "2000 Year Old Man" was born. What began as a private joke eventually became the subject of five comedy albums over a 35 year span. Brooks' character had seen it all and done it all over two millenia, yet his needs and demands were small. "I have over 42,000 children," he once proclaimed, "and not one comes to visit." The Stone Age survivor claimed that the world's first national anthem began, "Let 'em all go to hell, except Cave Seventy Six!"

With Buck Henry, Brooks created the television sitcom Get Smart!, a savage sendup of the James Bond films, in 1965. Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) was a thorough incompetent who could not master his collection of Bond-like gadgets, such as a shoe-phone. The bad guys were usually caught with the aid of Smart's truly smart assistant, Agent 99. The series lasted five seasons.

During the 1950s and 1960s Brooks worked on several unsuccessful Broadway shows, and he began wondering what would happen if two guys deliberately decided to produce the worst musical ever. The result was the 1968 classic The Producers, Brooks's directoral debut. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder played the title characters who decide to stage "Springtime for Hitler," a lighthearted toe-tapper about the Nazi leader (complete with dancing SS troopers). Mostel and Wilder collect 100 times more capital than needed. To their dismay, "Springtime for Hitler" becomes a smash hit and the pair, unable to pay their many backers, wind up in jail. The film became a cult hit, and Brooks won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Blazing Saddles (1973) inverted virtually every Western movie cliche. Black chain gang workers are ordered to sing a work song—and quickly harmonize on Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You." Cowboys eating endless amounts of beans by the campfire begin loudly breaking wind. The plot had black sheriff (Cleavon Little) unite with an alcoholic sharpshooter (Wilder) to clean up a corrupt Old West town. Brooks himself appeared in two roles, a Yiddish Indian chief and a corrupt governor. The film offended many (some thought the village idiot, played by Alex Karras, insulted the mentally retarded) but became the highest grossing movie comedy of all time.

Brooks followed with what most consider his masterpiece, Young Frankenstein (1974). Gene Wilder starred as the grandson of the famous doctor, who himself attempts to bring a dead man (Peter Boyle) to life. Once resurrected, Boyle ravishes Wilder's virginal fiancee (Madeline Kahn), to her ultimate pleasure. Wilder devises a brain transplant with Boyle; Wilder gives Boyle some of his intellect, while Boyle gives Wilder some of his raging libido. The film was beautifully shot and acted, and the image of Peter Boyle as the Frankenstein monster in top hat and tails singing "Putting on the Ritz" to an audience of scientists ranks as one of the most inspired in cinematic history.

Silent Movie (1976) was the first Hollywood silent movie in four decades. Brooks, Marty Feldman, and Dom Deluise played film producers trying to sign film stars (including Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Liza Minelli, and, Brooks' real-life wife, Anne Bancroft) to appear in their silent comedy. High Anxiety (1978) satirized Hitchcock films, starring Brooks as a paranoid psychiatrist. History of the World, Part One (1981) sent up historical epics; the most memorable scene was a musical comedy number set during the Inquisition, ending in Busby Berkeley style with nuns rising from Torquemada's torture tank atop a giant menorah. Brooks continued his series of movie satires during the 1980s and 1990s. Spaceballs (1987) sent up Star Wars, while his other films included Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Upon being introduced to his future second wife (since 1964), the glamorous stage and film actress Anne Bancroft, he told her, "I would KILL for you!" He occasionally did cameo roles in film and television, winning an Emmy as Paul Reiser's uncle on the situation comedy Mad About You. In inimitable fashion, Brooks once defined comedy and tragedy: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger on a can opener, and it bleeds. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Adler, Bill. Mel Brooks: The Irreverent Funnyman. Chicago, Playboy Press, 1976.

Manchel, Frank. The Box-office Clowns: Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen. New York, F. Watts, 1979.

Tynan, Kenneth. Show People. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Yacowar, Maurice. Method in Madness: The Art of Mel Brooks. New York, St. Martin's, 1981.