Book Review – All about me! Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks

From an early age, young Brooklyn native Melvin Kaminsky had a goal: to do crazy shtick that would make people laugh.

When young Melvin changed his name to Mel Brooks, that goal still remained with him; only this time, there were more opportunities available to him. This included being a TV comedy writer/creator/producer, performer, recording artist, screenwriter and above all, movie director. And for more than 70 years, Mel Brooks has created an impressive track record of crazy shtick that made millions of people laugh: writer for the classic TV variety shows “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour”, co-creator of the 60s sitcom “Get Smart”, “The 2,000-Year-Old-Man” albums with Carl Reiner, and of course, director of such classic movie comedies as “The Producers”, “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”.

Mel Brooks
All about me! Mel Brooks

And throughout his life, Mel Brooks also carved out quite a reputation as a storyteller par excellence (his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show are vivid proof), and that strong storytelling ability has been applied to good use with the recent publication of his memoir All About Me!

This anecdote-filled memoir reads like the transcript of the recent series of onstage Q&A shows Brooks has done with Dick Cavett, in which he regaled audiences with a selection of stories from his multi-faceted career in show business. From his time as a Catskills resort comic to the organic evolution of The Producers from a cult classic comedy movie to a smash hit, multi-Tony Award winning Broadway musical, and everything in between, what readers get is the complete Mel Brooks in his own inimitable, appreciative, self-deprecating manner.

And there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes for the Mel Brooks fan to enjoy, as he delves into his showbiz life in a chronological, project-by-project manner. For example, there’s the time in 1950 during a writer’s room conference in a Chicago hotel for a two-week in-person engagement Sid Caesar did shortly after the first season of Your Show of Shows. Caesar demanded new material for his show. Brooks asked him to open a window to clear some of the cigar and cigarette smoke that permeated the atmosphere and let in from fresh air. Caesar responded with his famous quick temper by opening the window, and then proceeded to grab Brooks by his collar and belt and dangled him out the window, asking him “Got enough air?”

When he was casting for the role of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, Brooks originally approached John Wayne and then Gig Young. Wayne read the script, like it very much, but turned down the role, saying that the movie was “too dirty” for him. Gig Young accepted the role, but after his first day of shooting was rushed to the hospital because he suffered from a bad case of severe alcohol withdrawal. Gene Wilder was shortly cast in the role that he made his own.

And speaking of Gene Wilder, he went through his own kind of withdrawal after shooting wrapped up for Young Frankenstein. Brooks found him sitting in the middle of one of the sets with more scene ideas he wanted to suggest to Brooks for the picture. His reason for this suggestion? He told Brooks that he didn’t want to go home from the studio. “I want to stay here. This is the happiest time of my life,” said a rather despondent Wilder.

What I found so interesting about the book besides Brooks’ wealth of behind-the-scenes stories is that he doesn’t take a negative tone with anyone he has worked with or with any aspect of his career in TV and movies, whether it be his examinations of the forgettable final two movies he directed – Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It – or even the studio bosses who demanded changes or deletions of some of his most controversial scenes. This was greatly exemplified during the production of Blazing Saddles, when the head of Warner Brothers demanded a whole laundry list of changes, which included deleting the campfire scene and when Mongo punched the horse. After the meeting, he realized that he might end up with the shortest film in history if he abided by these changes. In typical Mel Brooks fashion, this is how he reacted to these suggestions: “I sat down after he left, tore the page of notes off the yellow legal pad, crumpled it up, and tossed it into the wastepaper basket.”

All About Me! is an entertaining, rollicking memoir of a living comedy legend who broke the rules to make people laugh at things they were too shy to even talk about, let alone laugh at. And only someone as audacious as Mel Brooks can make a fulfilling career of pulling such crazy shtick and getting away with it.

Stuart Nulman
By: Stuart Nulman – [email protected]

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