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All About Mel Brooks

An exclusive interview with the famous 95-year-old funnyman, and a review of his new book 'All About Me'

By Steven Reiner

Editor’s note: Steven Reiner, a cousin of the late comic Carl Reiner, recently interviewed Mel Brooks, a close friend of Carl's, about his illustrious career, as well as his views on family, friendship and loss. Following the interview is Steven Reiner's review of "All About Me."

Steven Reiner: What did it mean to you to put your life in show business all down in one place?

Mel Brooks: I got to relive all of the experiences of working with such amazing people. I felt like I was reliving some of those wonderful times, so much fun. I got to write again at a time when I wasn't working.

Mel Brooks wearing a white button up smiling and pointing at the camera. Next Avenue
Credit: PBS American Masters

So many of the people you worked with over the decades are no longer alive; Sid Caesar, Dom DeLuise, Gene Wilder and of course Carl Reiner, your lifelong friend. Aside from recalling the joys of working with them, did you also feel the sadness of losing them?

You put it succinctly, and exactly right. I did. Especially Carl. Carl Reiner was something special, a great man, a great friend. I miss him every day.

You lavished praise on dozens of people and weren't shy about praising yourself at times. But you don't consider yourself a genius. Has anyone else come even close to producing your body of work and with such success?

"I'm just a clever guy with a good sense of timing. I was in the right place at the right time."

I'm not a genius. I'm just a clever guy with a good sense of timing. I was in the right place at the right time. I was there at the beginning of television...I was there when movies really exploded.

The only time in this book that you acknowledge fear and frailty was when you were first working for Sid Caesar in the early 1950s. You were overcome with anxiety.

There were only three of us who had to write an hour-and-a-half of fresh comedy every week for the Admiral Variety Hour. I didn't think I could do it. I'm not a writer, I'm a talker. There was a writer on the show, Mel Tolkin. I said, 'Mel, I'm throwing up between cars.'

He told me I needed to go into psychoanalysis. I went to a guy who was analyzed by another psychiatrist, and he was analyzed by Freud. I did [psychoanalysis] for three years. At the end, the psychiatrist told me to ask for a raise and I got one and a promotion. But the show lasted only one season. Admiral canceled it because they were selling too many TV sets and couldn't keep up.

You love Russian literature, particularly Nikolai Gogol, who you said had both an understanding of the human condition and was also absolutely mad and insane. Where does your brand of insanity come from?

Book cover of "All About Me!" by Mel Brooks. Next Avenue
Credit: Penguin Random House

I had an Uncle, Lee Kaminsky; at Passover he'd sit at the kids' table while my grandfather read Hebrew. We didn't know what was going on. My uncle would pretend to translate. But instead, he said things like 'There's a fly ball deep into the outfield, the runners are advancing' ...he'd call play-by-play for baseball games.

I had another uncle, Louie. Back in Minsk, he'd throw bricks through store windows on Saturdays. The family told him 'These people are not Jews, they didn't have to close their stores on the Sabbath.' He said he didn't care. I think I got my insanity from him.

You say so much of what you did over the years was due to the support and the confidence of Anne Bancroft, your wife of more than forty years.

She encouraged me to write the music to 'The 12 Chairs.' She gave me a pad and a pen and said 'Go inside the other room and write,' and I did. I came out with a song. She encouraged me to write not only music, but the libretto. She did it with 'The Producers.' She told me I could do anything.

And she was Italian: Ann Italiano was her real name. She was a great cook, could make the best pasta and sauce. I would come home and tell my mother, 'You make terrible spaghetti.' When I was growing up, she would get these flat Mueller noodles and bake them with ketchup on them until they were dead, and then cut them into squares.

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We know what you saw in Anne Bancroft, a beautiful and immensely talented actress. What did she see in you?

She thought I was smart and she thought I was funny. She taught me how to dance. She would lead. She was a great dancer.

You and Carl Reiner, who died last year, were both married to very strong, accomplished women. His wife of sixty-four years, Estelle Reiner, died in 2008, only four years after Anne passed away. How did you help one another with the grief you both shared? Did that deepen the friendship, which went on for many years after your wives' deaths?

Yes. We were there for one another. After Anne died, Carl asked me to sleep over at his house. When Estelle died, I was there for him. To have someone who knows what you are going through, to understand that, is very important. We gave each other support. It brought us closer. Someone to eat with. We would take walks, we would watch television together.

"After Anne died, Carl asked me to sleep over at his house. When Estelle died, I was there for him."

How important do you think friendship is in life, particularly as you get older?

It's very important. Without it, you have nothing. You need to have someone who understands you. Friendship can prevent depression.

What's the most important thing about Mel Brooks that someone will learn after reading this book?

The most important thing is not to worry if you're short. Comedy can make you tall…being funny can make you tall.

Book Review: 'All About Me' by Mel Brooks

In 1934, eight-year-old Melvin Kaminsky was run over by a car. Not all of him, just his stomach, which, quite fortunately for young Melvin, bounced back with the resiliency of an indestructible inflatable. The result: Three days in a Catholic hospital, the most harrowing [experience] of which was a nurse's order to the young Melvin to urinate on demand.

"If you don't pee, we'll have to shove something up your peepee to get it out" warned the nurse, who wore a nun's habit and, to the eyes of this very small Jewish boy from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, resembled "a huge penguin."

So goes a story related by Mel Brooks, 87 years later, in "All About Me," ostensibly a memoir or an autobiography, but perhaps more revealingly, a collection of hundreds, make that thousands, of remembrances and stories, from an astoundingly long and phenomenally successful career in show business.

Brooks' father Max died when Mel was two years old. By the time he was six, he writes, "I realized that other kids had fathers and I didn't. It was a brushstroke of depression that really never left me, not having a father, another wellspring source of love that every child is entitled to."

Born to Be Funny

It's argued that comedy comes from pain, but Brooks chooses not to reveal much of the latter. The youngest of four loving brothers, he writes that it is mostly the joy and fun of a wonderful childhood that he's tried to recreate all these many years. So adored by his mother, his siblings and aunts and uncles, hugged and held aloft, Brooks writes that he can't remember his feet ever touching the ground until he was five.

The altitude certainly wasn't high (and everyone was short) but whatever Brooks was breathing back then has fueled him for almost a century.  

At times, it's a master class in filmmaking; at others a juicy backstage remembrance, or for those of us of a certain age, a trip down show biz memory lane.

He writes that he knew early on that he was very funny, that he loved show business and loved the movies, that he possessed the rhythm of a drummer, which he was, and, yes, he knew that he was going places.

Brooks changed his name in his teens. First, to his mother's maiden name, Brookman, and then again, when he couldn't fit the name Mel Brookman on his drum kit.

He did basic training twice; in the Army, where he served with distinction and kept everyone laughing and again as a tummler, entertaining guests poolside in the Borscht Belt, honing his skills and his shtick.

He was hardly well off, sometimes out of work, talking people into giving him jobs for which he was pretty much unqualified — and he was a smash hit just about each and every time. He was just so astoundingly, crazily funny and apparently fearless. And then, in the rare instances when he stumbled, he just figured it out.

Mel Brooks was an unheralded writer for the comedy great Sid Caesar when television was born. Caesar, who was immensely strong and emotionally fragile, was given to vodka-fueled stunts like dangling the diminutive Brooks out of a hotel room window when his young writer complained about the smoke from Caesar's cigar.

Brooks could also hand out his own version of comic abuse.  

Years later, on at least two occasions, he decided, just for laughs, to threaten — then mug — Howard Morris, the even smaller Caesar third banana, making him empty his pockets and leaving him to wade waist deep in the Central Park lake. Go figure.

If it's names you want, and comic yarns to go along with them, "All About Me" overflows. There are stories about Cary Grant, John Wayne, Alfred Hitchcock and Bob Hope to name just a few.

A black and white photo of Mel Brooks sipping on a cup of tea. Next Avenue
Credit: PBS American Masters

And, of course, Caesar, Madeline Kahn, Gene Wilder, and Carl Reiner, Brooks' lifelong best friend, who first thought up the legendary "2000 Year Old Man" comedy routines only as a private amusement.

Steve Allen, another famous comedian, urged Reiner and Brooks to make a record. The rest is history -- including the fact that the actress Anne Bancroft was already a fan of his record when Brooks first met her on the set of the "Perry Como Show," and after, loudly professing his instant love, they began a relentless, oddball courtship that led to more than 40 years of a wonderful marriage .

Brooks devotes just a few sentences to Bancroft's death in 2005 at the age of 73.

In more than 450 pages, Brooks struts through his greatest moments and greatest hits — audacious, silly, wildly inappropriate, show by show, movie by movie. At times, it's a master class in filmmaking; at others, a juicy backstage remembrance or, for those of us of a certain age, a trip down show biz memory lane.

An Iconic Career

Just the movie titles conjure those memories of cringeworthy hilarity: "Blazing Saddles," which put Brooks on the map; "Young Frankenstein" and "High Anxiety" to name a few of the 11 iconic films he directed in the 1970s and '80s.

His later comedic movies did not fare as well, but serious films which he produced, like "The Elephant Man" were mostly well received.

In his greatest feat of career and comic reinvention, Brooks wrote both the music and the lyrics for the Broadway version of "The Producers," which starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. In 2001, the musical adaptation of his 1967 movie would go on to win 12 Tony Awards, the most in history.

His audacious climb from the bottom rungs to the top of the show business ladder as a comedic jack of all trades and master of it all is unlikely ever to be matched.

Not everyone has always loved Brooks' humor: the flatulence jokes, the pokes at Jews and just about every other religion, and of course, The Producers' song, "Springtime for Hitler," which offended just about everyone.

But now, it seems Brooks' detractors have gone into hiding and his longevity and fearless lunacy pretty much inoculate him from critics. After all, having an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy is a World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and NBA championship all in one athlete's trophy case.

If you are looking for wisdom in "All About Me", the 95-year-old Brooks' take on life and mortality and the meaning of it all, you will have to read between the punch lines to find it.

"Comedy has the most to say about the human condition," Brooks writes. "Because if you can laugh, you can get by."

And that he certainly has.

Steven Reiner is a former executive producer of NPR’s "All Things Considered" and a former producer for "60 Minutes." He is a lecturer at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University in Orange County, California. Read More
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