JUNE 12, 2019
EVERY BABY BOOMER knows Mel Brooks. Cinephiles and comedy aficionados of all ages can quote his films from The Producers (1967) to Spaceballs (1987). At almost 93 years old, he’s an institution. Brooks has been a largely private person with a larger-than-life persona, and in Funny Man, veteran Hollywood biographer Patrick McGilligan takes a deep dive into his life.
Born in 1926, Brooks perfected impersonations of his neighbors in his immigrant community in Brooklyn, using comedy to escape the dreariness of the Great Depression. In World War II, he served as part of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, which saw heavy casualties in June 1944. Brooks has referred to this period as essential to his own character building. One memory stands out: when he hid under a desk while bombs fell around him. “Okay, if I get through this,” he worried, “I’ll get through anything.”
In the years after the war, Brooks’s hero was comedian Sid Caesar. Back in New York, Brooks would slink around trying to catch Caesar in between meetings to pitch him joke ideas. Eventually Caesar cracked and paid Brooks a little cash to throw him gags. Caesar established himself quickly in the first years of television and between 1950 and 1954, he became a writer for the 90-minute variety program Your Show of Shows, along with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner (who would become Brooks’s lifelong friend), and a stable of other performers. At 24, Brooks got his break as a full-time writer.
Throughout the 1950s, Brooks and Reiner developed their iconic routine, “the 2,000 year-old man.” The bit began as a routine they performed at parties to great fanfare. As Reiner told Conan O’Brien in 2017, George Burns encouraged them to put it on an album, and Steve Allen lent his recording studio so that they could record their now-historic routine, which went on to see multiple variations (Edward G. Robinson wanted to play the role on Broadway). The comedic duo became regulars on The Tonight Show, and Brooks was increasingly invited alone to other major shows hosted by Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and many others.
Although Brooks’s work in Hollywood is his best known today, the first half of McGilligan’s biography focuses on the comedian’s years working in TV. Trying to move into film in the early 1960s, Brooks first pitched an autobiographical script based on his first marriage to actress Florence Baum. The relationship didn’t end well, as evidenced by the script’s title, “Marriage Is A Dirty Rotten Fraud.” Soon after his divorce from Baum in 1962, Brooks began a high-profile relationship with Anne Bancroft. They were married in 1964, shortly after Brooks helped polish the pilot episode of Get Smart (1965–1970).
When he began his foray into feature films in the late 1960s, Brooks already had a reputation for his combative nature. He was commanding on the set of The Producers: McGilligan notes that Brooks “consciously crafted the two main characters as representations of his divided self: the Nice Mel (Bloom) and the Rude Crude Mel (Bailystock).” The production solidified a partnership with Gene Wilder that would blossom into two additional genre satires before turning sour. There was one instance in the editing room where Brooks nitpicked over a single line in the final number, eventually dubbing it over with his own voice. Editor Ralph Rosenblum said that Brooks “always seemed ready to explode. […] Once he erupted by throwing every object within reach.”
After directing an adaptation of the Soviet satire The Twelve Chairs (1970), Brooks moved on to Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974), both featuring Wilder. The films are vastly different: Blazing Saddles is uniquely politically incorrect, largely thanks to script contributions from the inimitably great and controversial Richard Pryor. Young Frankenstein was birthed from a script by Wilder, who wound up reluctantly sharing writing credit with Brooks. A sendup of the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s starring Boris Karloff, the film was much tamer than Blazing Saddles. Brooks would often refer to it as his best film.
Brooks’s next projects included Silent Movie (1976, an ode to silent comedy), High Anxiety (1977, a playful look at Alfred Hitchcock films), History of the World, Part I (1981, a satire of Biblical epics), and Spaceballs (1987, a parody of the Star Wars franchise). In these years, genre sendups worked for other filmmakers, too, most notably Woody Allen — a comparison Brooks never appreciated. While all of these “late” films have remained popular with Brooks fans, critics have either been divided or downright hostile toward them. But Brooks’s jousting with critics dates back to the days of early television when he called out negative notices on the air.
The question today, then, in an era in which comedians are under increasing political scrutiny, is: How should we view Brooks? McGilligan argues that Brooks “passed through the tumultuous sixties more like an accidental tourist.” Since then, he has consistently claimed a willful ignorance of cultural and political tides, and this is at least partly why some of Brooks’s humor can be a bit tone-deaf. A revival of The Producers on Broadway in 2001, for example, led Leon Wieseltier to write, “Mel didn’t get the memo […] It is no longer considered appropriate to make fun of the way certain highly feminized gay men walk or talk.” There is no defending his missteps at times, but one can also get the sense that Brooks is not intentionally hurtful either.
McGilligan also draws out the importance of Jewish humor as a way to contextualize Brooks’s comedic hits and misses. Coming of age in an era of collective fascination with Freud, Brooks saw an analyst who articulated the role of humor in Jewish life. Freud wrote that “comedians express […] the thoughts society forb[ids],” and like many great comedians, Brooks looked for boundaries to cross and conventions to subvert. But his best work came from subverting genre conventions and less from crossing social and political boundaries, which was an act best left to folks like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and, of course, Pryor.
Another way to view Brooks, noted by McGilligan, is through the work of Freud’s disciple Theodor Reik. Jewish humor, Reik wrote in 1962, can bring “relaxation in the ardor of battle with the seen and with the invisible enemy […] Jewish wit hides as much as it discloses.” Perhaps Brooks’s wit concealed self-consciousness that came in an era of peaking antisemitism. In a similar spirit, his use of derogatory material can be interpreted as less outwardly hateful, and more as an attempt to create community — an unholy alliance — between demonized groups. In the years since Blazing Saddles and even Spaceballs, however, it’s become increasingly easy to see his most obtuse bits of cultural commentary as jabs that punch down.
Brooks represents a brand of contrarian boomerism that may not always hold up. As McGilligan writes, “When the laughter worked, it was warm, fuzzy, rude, and crude in a balanced recipe.” His humor shows us a lot about the man behind the brand: the sharp wit, the contagious energy, along with defiance and cultural illiteracy. In all, his greatest contributions are to genre: Brooks brought genre parody to a new level, building on works like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and setting the stage for contemporary films like Zombieland (2009). This fun and accessible comedic structure, building on popular genres and familiar franchises, will be where we continue to see Brooks’s influence for years to come.