Mel Brooks’ comedic genius revealed in new DVD box set
BY MIRIAM DI NUNZIO Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org December 27, 2012 6:52PM
"The Incredible Mel Brooks — An Irresisitible Collection of Unhinged Comed" box set
Updated: January 29, 2013 6:05AM
‘Funny is not a creative thing. Funny is a strange accident — how a thought or incident hits you. Funny is laughing out loud so hard that your stomach hurts.”
Coming from legendary comedian/actor/producer/director/writer/composer Mel Brooks, the words are a window into his creative genius (he’s one of only 11 people ever to win Tony, Oscar, Grammy and Emmy awards). With some of the funniest films to his credit including “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Producers” and “Silent Movie,” it’s hard to decipher just what makes Brooks tick. For that you’ll need to pick up a copy of “Mel Brooks — An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy” (Shout! Factory, $89.99), a six-disc collection of Brooks’ work. Not a collection of his films, but a collection of Brooks’ television appearances, series episodes, music videos, commercials, short films, documentaries, interviews (including some gems from Dick Cavett’s long ago), and yes, the iconic Brooks/Carl Reiner “2000 Year Old Man” routine. A new featurette titled “I Thought I was Taller.. A Short History of Mel Brooks,” has the funny man discussing every one of his films as only Brooks can.
In a recent phone conversation, Brooks was eager to discuss his life and work — much of the material revealed on the box set — and to encourage readers to purchase the DVD set “at a brick-and-mortar store where they should try to bargain down the price.”
As for his uncanny ability to create comedy that is both hilarious and provocative (who knew Hitler could be funny?), Brooks sums it up thusly: “You live and you die. You’re gonna die anyway, so you might as well light a few explosives along the way.”
Brooks generally takes no prisoners when it comes to comedy writing. He, however, suffered the most “un-funny” moment in his career while guesting on the hit game show “Eye Guess,” hosted by the legendary Bill Cullen, in 1966. He regrets it to this day, he says.
“Bill Cullen was the very best game show host there was. He wore those great, thick, black-rimmed glasses. I was a guest along with Julia Meade, the beautiful actress. Bill used to stand behind this little dais never came out from behind it. The show was over, we were off the air, and Bill says to me, ‘Mel that’s the funniest show I ever did. I gotta hug you.’ So he steps out and comes toward me with the wildest walk I ever saw, with this wild flailing of legs. And I’m thinking, Okay, we’re doing Jerry Lewis. So I start walking toward him with this crazy Jerry Lewis walk and over my shoulder I can hear Julia screaming, ‘No! He had polio. He’s crippled.’ Too late. We got to center stage and he hugged me laughing, and told me ‘God bless you. No one ever had the courage to do that.’ He laughed so hard. I was mortified. Still am.”
Brooks is very proud of his body of work — just ask him. His two favorite Mel Brooks films are not those that most of his fans would immediately call to mind.
“My two favorite films are ‘The Twelve Chairs’ (1970) and ‘Life Stinks’ (1991) because they have the most to say about the human condition. And I just think they’re c-o-m-p-l-e-a-t — like Isaac Walton. All of my other pictures are good; I can’t make a bad picture. I’m too talented. But some can be more frivolous and out there just for laughs. Some have secret messages. ‘Twelve Chairs’ is really heartfelt. Dom De Luise, never funnier, never sweeter.
“’Life Stinks’ came out of the little depression we were in the 1980s. In the 1930s they made those great Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake films to lift people’s spirits during the Great Depression. I thought somewhere in the ’80s we needed a bit of that. We needed something about man’s humanity. And I thought, well, I have a big ego; I can make it funny and still get across the need for love and the need for man’s humanity to triumph. And I knew I had to play the part of the ruthless billionaire. I knew it was THE role for me. The film didn’t make any money, but then it didn’t cost anything either.
“To this day, the most letters I get are about two films: ‘Life Stinks’ and for some reason I can’t comprehend, ‘Spaceballs’ (1987). That one just goes on and on.
“My favorite films that I didn’t’ make? I could show off and say ‘Grand Illusion’ or ‘La Strada,’ ‘Les Enfants du Paradis.’ But my real favorites were Fred Astaire’s ‘Top Hat’ (1935) and ‘The Gold Rush’ (the 1925 iconic film starring Charlie Chaplin). And ‘Random Harvest,’ (1942) with Greer Garson and Ronald Colman in one of the most beautiful movies ever made.”
In 2001 Brooks brought “The Producers” to the Broadway stage (and later back to the big screen). It would be followed by the stage version of “Young Frankenstein” in 2007. Broadway was a life-changing experience for him.
“I saw the films in a whole new way. On stage, there was INSTANT payment. When Bialystock says ‘There are two cardinal rules on Broadway: Never put your own money in a show.’ And then he yells it louder, ‘NEVER PUT YOR OWN MONEY IN A SHOW.’ It’s instant laughter, instant payback. You make a movie called “The Producers” and you wait 14 to 16 months for your first laugh. The stage versions were a chance for another part of me to be awakened and flourish and blossom: writing songs. My liking of Broadway was natural. I wanted to be a big Broadway producer. And then there was the genius of Susan Stroman, and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and Gene Wilder didn’t hurt, either.”
Brooks says his characters are easy to write because they are thinly veiled versions of people he knows, including himself.
“They’re all just minimal extensions of people I have known in my life. Bialystock (from “The Producers’) was this guy on 48th Street in New York, a schlocky producer I worked for when I was a kid. He used to raise a little more money for his shows than he needed. He would live in his office to save on rent. He would hang his underwear to dry right there in the office.
“I was Leo Bloom (from “The Producers”). I was this little caterpillar who wanted to be a Broadway butterfly. Some parts just beckoned me. I knew I was meant to be that evil billionaire in ‘Life Stinks.’ Originally I was gonna be Igor in ‘Young Frankenstein.’ But Gene Wilder said — as only he can — ‘If you’re in ‘Young Frankenstein’ I’m not. Cuz you’re gonna have fun with it and I want to be sweating stones. I want the real McCoy.’ So he talked me out of a good part. But he was right. Marty Feldman was born to be Igor.”
Brooks’ early career was spent writing for television comedies and legendary comedians such as Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, and working with some of the best writers in the business including Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Buck Henry. The box set features his skits from classic comedy series.
“Sid Caesar was so good, that writing for him became my passion. He raised comedy to a new level. Every other actor I ever wrote for in comedy lowered my material. He elevated it. His nuances, his sincerity, his sheer talent.
“I also got a lot of joy and comedy education from Jerry Lewis when I worked for him. Also got a lot of heartache. He’d take things I wrote that I thought were perfect, and he would twist them to make them his own. He may have been right. But I still say he was wrong.
“There were so many who taught me things about comedy, the kind of comedy where you hold your belly and really laugh out loud. Charlie Chaplin films, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy. Everything escalated when the Marx Brothers came along. They were just so free and easy. Abbott and Costello, maybe the funniest duo of all. They all made you laugh out loud. That’s great comedy. That’s what funny is.”