Mel Brooks, the comedian in search of eternal laughter

At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, a video went viral in the United States in which the writer and screenwriter Max Brooks urged people to maintain social distance, especially with the elderly, and to self-isolate. He did it from the garden of his father’s house, the comedy legend Mel Brooks, who appeared inside the house and waved through a glass door before urging his young son to leave. Yes, the director of The Producers, Young Frankenstein The The Last Madness (Silent Movie), the creator of Super agent 86, one of the few EGOT (artists who have won the big four: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), was alive. And not only did he star in videos: he took advantage of the confinement to write his memoirs, All About Me!, which were published in your country last December.

All About Me! is Mel Brooks for the good and for the bad. The young son of a family of Jewish immigrants, the Kaminskys, from the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, the New Yorker acknowledges that until he was five years old he does not remember “having set foot on the ground.” “They would throw me up in the air, kiss me and throw me up in the air again,” he recalls. His father had died of tuberculosis, and his older brothers, his mother, and his many uncles poured out for him. That feeling that he still lives in his happy childhood is projected in the 460 pages of the book. Brooks turned 95 years old last June, but after having introduced readers to some of his best friends and collaborators (other comedy legends like Carl Reiner, great performers like Madeline Kahn or Gene Wilder) he hid their deaths. “Laughter is a cry of protest against death, against the long goodbye,” he writes. And for this reason he prioritizes humor before more complex feelings. He doesn’t even mention his first wife, Florence Baum, mother of his three eldest children. Or he tiptoes past the death of Anne Bancroft, the love of his life, his partner of 45 years. Sometimes Brooks hides behind that five-year-old boy so as not to delve into his pain.

In Brooks there is a single commandment: anything goes to make people laugh, and the bigger the laugh, the better. There is projected his need to feel loved, to maintain the status of center of attention that he enjoyed in his childhood. He did not expect anything less from life, and his talent has allowed him to achieve this triumph. Talent and work. Only the best jokes count. When in 2001 he turned his movie into a Broadway musical The producers —the story of a theatrical producer and a timorous accountant determined to strike it rich with a financial ruse by creating the worst show, Spring for Hitler, ever seen—, Brooks enjoyed the previous tour in Chicago before premiering the work in New York: he polished jokes and eliminated jokes according to the reaction of the public, because only “what propels them from the seat to the floor, to Laugh until your stomach hurts.” He will be a lover and genuine defender of farts and all kinds of wild jokes (he says that he robbed a collaborator twice during his television stage just because the places they were walking were optimal for it), but also of working ardently in pursuit of comic excellence.

Mel Brooks as Bronski dressed as Hitler in ‘To Be or Not To Be’.

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His All About Me! not as fun as apropos of nothing, Woody Allen’s memoirs, another princess of New York humor, but records the methodical work of a lifetime dedicated to laughter. And of its author’s commitment to teamwork. His childhood, happy, was not exempt from deprivations of the great depression (“Everything went very well until I turned nine and started doing homework”). Her older brother decided that Mel should not study aviation mechanics as a teenager because he knew she “had something special.” And although his first impulse was to be a drummer (which helped him to absorb the importance of rhythm and prefer musical films to comedies), he ended up in the Borscht Belt, the circuit of resorts for Jews in the Catskill Mountains, upstate New York, as a sour cream stocker at the buffet, as pool tummler (the guy who humorously woke customers up from their afternoon siesta at the hotel pool) and finally comical.

New York humor

After World War II (the four Kaminsky brothers miraculously returned home safe and sound at the end of the war) he became part of the writing team of Sid Caesar and his programs at the age of 21, especially Your Show of Shows, for a decade the most watched on American television. At the end of those television years they entered as writers of sketches two other greats: Neil Simon and a teenager gifted for verbal knives, Woody Allen. Brooks takes the opportunity to explain: “I don’t think my humor is strictly Jewish. He’s a New Yorker, which goes beyond Jewish humor. It has a very specific rhythm, intensity and cadence. Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Mason, and the comedians of the stand-up like me we are not simply Jews. We are New Yorkers. And there is a big difference.”

Anne Bancroft y Mel Brooks.
Anne Bancroft y Mel Brooks.AP

Brooks’s career has been a continuous in crescendo. When Caesar’s star faded, he recorded with Carl Reiner 2000 Year Old Man, a series of albums that made him famous for himself. On February 5, 1961, he had his first date with Anne Bancroft. And he launched himself to earn money as it was, with carambola as stupendous as giving voice to The Critic, an animated short that won the Oscar. In 1965 he created the series Super agent 86, an earthquake that changed television. “But there is a big difference between movies and television. Cinema allows you as a writer all the time you need to develop characters and stories […]. And films last forever, while TV is forgotten a week after it is broadcast”.

“I don’t think my humor is strictly Jewish. He’s a New Yorker, which goes beyond Jewish humor.”

The film director, genre crusher and box office winner Brooks kicks off with The producers (1967), which was to star Zero Mostel and Dustin Hoffman. But Hoffman calls him one night and implores him to break the contract: he has been called from Hollywood to star in a movie with a great friend of Brooks, Mike Nichols, and his wife, Bancroft: The graduate. His replacement will become Brooks’ fetish actor: Gene Wilder. that’s how they arrived The mystery of the eleven chairs (1971), hot saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) —buys handkerchiefs for the crew to put in their mouths and stop ruining the shots with their laughter—, the latest madness (1976) —silent film, parody of Hollywood, in which only one person speaks: the mime Marcel Marceau—, maximum anxiety (1977), crazy history of the world (1981)… Up to eleven comedies. In all of them, dynamite the satirized genre and make people laugh at all costs. All About Me! becomes a collection of Hollywood anecdotes, a story of their struggles against reluctant producers from big studios. Brooks is also generous in naming everyone who participates in the collective effort that a film entails. And he confesses that he rolled I am or I am not (1983), remake from Lubitsch classic To be or not to be, for finally sharing the screen with his wife and for once again making fun of Hitler, the character to whom he has dedicated the most time and effort in his life.

There is a little-known facet of the comedian that he is rightly proud of: his work as a producer with the company Brooksfilms. With it he raises more risky projects: Fatso (which Bancroft directed), Frances, The Elephant Man, The Fly (from Cronenberg) or The final card. And of course, his passion for musical composition, which leads him to accept the challenge of turning The producers in a musical for Broadway, the beginning of his theatrical stage in which he has focused on this 21st century, along with receiving well-deserved tributes. And due to his eternal search for a laugh born from the live audience, he continued to perform until the pandemic. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Mel, what is the secret to a long life?’ I always answer: ‘Not to die’.

Teri Garr, Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman on the set of 'Young Frankenstein' with Brooks. Lying down, Peter Boyle, like the monster,
Teri Garr, Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman on the set of ‘Young Frankenstein’ with Brooks. Lying down, Peter Boyle, like the monster,

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Mel Brooks, the comedian in search of eternal laughter