To Brooks, laughter most important thing Comedian inspires new generation to 'Mel it up' in series
Category: EntertainmentVia: john-russell • 6 months ago • 7 comments
Mel Brooks is a sophisticated guy. He collected fancy French wines and did a tasting on Johnny Carson's show. He was married for 40 years to that epitome of elegance, Anne Bancroft. He was a favorite lunch companion of Cary Grant, the suavest man who ever lived.
But in the new Hulu show "History of the World, Part II," you can still find all the Mel Brooks signature comedy stylings.
"I like fart jokes," Brooks, 96, said from his home in Santa Monica, California. "It adds some je ne sais quoi to the comedy. A touch of sophistication for the smarter people helps move the show along."
After all, with the percussive campfire scene in his 1974 comedy classic, "Blazing Saddles," where the cowhands sit around eating beans and passing wind, he elevated flatulence to cinematic history.
The comedy legend behind outlandish, hilarious movies such as "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein," "Spaceballs," "High Anxiety," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "History of the World, Part I," no longer lives in a time when he can have "absolutely no restrictions on any and all subjects," as he said about writing "Blazing Saddles."
And he has lost the two loves of his life, Bancroft and Carl Reiner. But Mel Brooks is still a ball of fire.
Having lived through nearly a century of history, Brooks is sneaking up on his famous character, the 2,000 Year Old Man. But his taste in comedy is still as merrily immature as ever. He has sharp takes on world history, greed and hypocrisy. He knows who the villains are and what the stakes are, and yet he's not afraid of the lowbrow.
Mel Brooks' parents were immigrants, his mother from Ukraine and his father from Germany. Born Melvin Kaminsky, he fought in the U.S. Army against the Nazis and dealt with antisemitism among some of his fellow soldiers.
Brooks, who was sometimes bullied as a child, learned to use comedy as a weapon. When his musical version of "The Producers" in 2001 - with a singing and dancing Hitler - held a preview in Chicago, "some big guy kept storming up the aisle and saying: 'How dare you have Hitler? How dare you have the swastika? I was in World War II risking my life, and you do this on a stage?' I said, 'I was in World War II, and I didn't see you there.' "
"History of the World, Part I," the 1981 movie on which the Hulu series is riffing, was a raunchy romp through different eras, from the Stone Age to the French Revolution. It featured Madeline Kahn as Empress Nympho, Nero's wife; Sid Caesar as the cave man who invented music and the spear but could not quite figure out fire; and Brooks in multiple roles. He played Comicus, the stand-up philosopher; a singing Torquemada with a bevy of synchronized swimmers; and a libidinous Louis XVI, having his way with women and crowing, "It's good to be the king."
Brooks tacked on "Part I" to the title as a joke, he said, but then "I was plagued with about a billion calls, 'Where's Part II?' I never intended to do Part II."
But he and his producing partner, Kevin Salter, eventually gave in to popular demand. Brooks said he thought: "What the hell? Let's try Part II." They reached out to comedian Nick Kroll in 2020. He recruited Wanda Sykes, Ike Barinholtz and showrunner David Stassen.
"I've been laughing at comedy, some of which I didn't create," Brooks said, "which is very weird for me." The writers did remind themselves, as Sykes said, to "Mel it up."
Brooks, who narrates the final product with a muscly CGI body, helped the comedians decide which slices of history to explore in the sequel, and joined the Zoom writers' room sometimes to weigh pitches or offer jokes from his vault of unused material.
And like Part I - in which Comicus pulls up in a chariot to Caesar's palace during the Roman Empire but it turns out to be the Las Vegas Caesars Palace - Part II has plenty of fun anachronisms, like Galileo on "TicciTocci" or Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad morphing into the New York subway.
Barinholtz said Brooks' instruction was: "Don't get too esoteric. Play the hits." He said they didn't use the racial and sexual epithets that peppered Brooks' movies in the 1960s, '70s and '80s but stuck to the same themes. Brooks, too, said he would no longer use the inflammatory words he used so freely back in the day.
My first memory of laughing until I cried was watching Sid Caesar cavort on "Caesar's Hour," the sequel to "Your Show of Shows." Brooks wrote for both, as part of the most famous writers' rooms in TV history. Brooks worked in those rooms with Mel Tolkin, the head writer; Reiner; Neil Simon; Larry Gelbart; Lucille Kallen, one of the first women writing for television; Aaron Ruben; and a very young Woody Allen.
Brooks not only has an EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), but also Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. At the ceremony, the comedian pretended to pants the president as the crowd howled.
When Brooks switched to the big screen, he thought his movie career was over before it got off the ground. In 1968, Renata Adler reviewed "The Producers" for The New York Times and called it "a violently mixed bag. Some of it is shoddy and gross and cruel; the rest is funny in an entirely unexpected way." She said she was torn between leaving and laughing.
"I said, 'The New York Times didn't like it, so maybe I should go back to television where they liked everything I did,' " Brooks recalled. He remembers Bancroft telling him, "No, you were born to make movies, and you just keep making them."
Now, "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" are all on the Library of Congress' National Film Registry of cherished American films.
Certainly, Brooks and Bancroft are one of Hollywood's greatest love stories. People considered them an odd couple, the short comic with the funny mug and Brooklyn accent, and the gorgeous actor who created the indelible portrait of the seductress Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," even though she was only 35.
But they fell in love nearly instantly after meeting on the set of "The Perry Como Show." After she died in 2005 from uterine cancer, Brooks never dated again.
"Once you are married to Anne Bancroft, others don't seem to be appealing," he said. "It's as simple as that."
He is happy, as we end our interview, because we have laughed a lot, and laughter, he said, is the most important thing to him.
"Money is honey, funny is money," he said blithely, echoing a Max Bialystock line from "The Producers." "I really care about saying things that make people roar with laughter. I was on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and we took questions in the last part of my stand-up. One of the questions was, 'What do you wear - long shorts or briefs?' I yelled, 'Depends!' It's a thrill to get a big laugh."