Mel Brooks has beaten the odds all his life.
He was the sickly runt of the street in Brooklyn where he grew up, yet he’s still around and kicking, not to mention working. He got a job as a Borscht Belt entertainer after World War II , wrote for one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and ended up winning an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy, not to mention the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award for his work.
Despite having a mug that wouldn’t necessarily stop a clock, but could sure slow it down some, he was married to the beautiful and classy Anne Bancroft from 1964 until her death in 2005. At 86, he’s not only still the funniest guy in any room, but he seems to remember everything that ever happened to him.
And aren’t we lucky for that?
Brooks sits down for an interview with Alan Yentob, the creative director of the BBC, in a one-hour show for HBO called “Mel Brooks Strikes Back,” produced by Brooks himself. Yentob is either woefully ignorant, a terrible interviewer or both. He begins by asking Brooks what it was like growing up as a Jew in Brooklyn.
I’m sorry, what?
He follows that probing question by asking why they call the Catskills “the Borscht Belt.”
By that point, you realize you can pretty much ignore him and let Brooks be Brooks, which he does brilliantly (Brooks will be the subject of a PBS “American Masters” documentary next year). He holds forth telling wonderful stories about his childhood, about working as a “tummler” at Grossinger’s, what it was like working with Sid Caesar and his enduring love for Gene Wilder, whose role in “Blazing Saddles” initially went to Gig Young, in between clips from too few of his many great films and TV work.
In the latter category, we see a skit from “Your Show of Shows,” featuring Caesar as a surprise honoree in a “This Is Your Life”-type show. The host is Carl Reiner, and Caesar’s uncle is played by the greatly goofy Howard Morris. We also see Reiner and Brooks in a bit from their classic “2000 Year Old Man” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with Brooks explaining the origins of applause, said to have been invented by Murray the Coward.
The TV clips, as well as one from the film “High Anxiety,” featuring Brooks singing the title song, and another clip from “The Producers,” take up quite a bit of time for an hour-long show, leaving room for only a snippet from “Blazing Saddles” and nothing from “Young Frankenstein.”
He tells great stories about why his Ukrainian-born mother spoke English with an Irish accent, how his cinematic vision may have been born the day his mother placed him in a huge revolving serving dish to stay out of trouble while she played cards, why he didn’t make a cameo appearance in “Young Frankenstein” and how Jews expired by singing “Dancing in the Dark” in the wrong key.
The film also includes glimpses into another side of Brooks. He reminds Yentob that he also directed the film adaptation of the classic Russian satire “The 12 Chairs,” produced “Frances” and was one of the producers of the film “The Elephant Man.”
When Yentob observes, with uncanny insight, that Reiner was the straight man when he and Brooks did “The 2000 Year Old Man,” Brook jokes that Reiner was the straight man because he was “terrible.” But he follows with the astute observation about another classic comedy duo: “It’s (Bud) Abbott who chases Lou Costello and gets the best out of him.”
Reiner always got the best out of Brooks as well, but then again, when you’re talking about Mel Brooks, it’s been a career filled with “bests.”