At the Emmy Awards ceremony in 1957, it was, in the minds of many, a forgone conclusion that Caesar’s Hour, hosted by comedic luminary Sid Caesar, would win the trophy for Best Comedy Writing.
And why not? The writing room was populated by individuals who would go on to stake their claims as the best of the generation. Examine the following list of writers and what they are best known for: Woody Allen (Annie Hall, marrying his step daughter), Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), and Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles).
When the award was presented, the crew from Caesar’s Hour was ready to jump up on stage and accept their statuettes, but the prize went instead to The Phil Silvers Show. Incensed, Brooks began bellowing, “That writers like that can win the award and geniuses like me would be denied? Nietzsche was right! There is no God! There is no God!” Finished with his tirade, Brooks made his way backstage, found a pair of scissors, and began to cut his tuxedo into tiny pieces, vowing never to wear one again. As Brooks later explained, “I might have been a little drunk.”
This is but one of the hundreds of show biz anecdotes contained in All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business (460 pps, $29.99, Ballantine Books), a new autobiography from Mel Brooks. Both the book’s title and the preceding story demonstrate that Brooks has never been lacking in ego or chutzpah.
Again, it is reasonable to pose the question, “And why not?” Brooks is, along with a handful of artists, an EGOT, one who has been awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. Only 16 people have accomplished this feat. Not bad, as Brooks might tell you, for a kid from Brooklyn.
All About Me! is, like most of the creations that have come from Brooks’ fertile mind, a breezy ride that passes quickly and happily. Most of the stories in the book are familiar to Brooks’ fans, the anecdotes polished like gems through years of retelling. The reader can’t help but suspect that most are exaggerated, but, as Brooks might say himself, “What is this? Congressional testimony?”
There is plenty of material surrounding each of Brooks’ films, with a generous amount of text devoted in particular to The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. With all of these films, studio executives (reasonably) voiced concerns regarding content. In the case of The Producers, it was felt that Mussolini would be a more acceptable dictator than Hitler. With Blazing Saddles….well, take your pick. As for Young Frankenstein, the studio refused to make the film in black and white, afraid that the audience would think that it was not getting its money’s worth.
The lesson that Brooks learned through these experiences was to tell the studio heads “yes.” Then he would blithely ignore their directives, following his own instincts. As movie executive John Calley advised Brooks, “If you’re gonna step up to the bell – ring it!”
The book is written, by and large, in a chronological fashion, starting with Brooks’ childhood in New York and then following him through a tour of duty in the service during World War II. For all the time that Brooks devotes to the minutiae of life in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, he glosses over periods and individuals in his life without a backward glance. The reader will need to hit Wikipedia, for instance, to know that Brooks was married for nine years to Broadway dancer Florence Baum. But, to paraphrase a monarch in History of the World Part I, “It’s good to be the author!”
Consequently, Brooks doesn’t present much in the way of self-examination or insights into his character. However, when he does occasionally take a breath between stories (Brooks is not a man given to the thoughtful pause), bits of incisive comedic analysis do emerge.
In the midst of recounting lessons with drummer Buddy Rich, Brooks connects his percussive abilities with his comedic prowess. “To this day,” he writes, “I am grateful to Buddy for stressing to me how important rhythm was. I constantly still think in terms of rhythm, which is so important when it comes to comedy timing.”
“If you’re gonna step up to the bell – ring it!”
It is clear that Brooks was, and remains, a student of comedy. He presents brief but revealing analyses of the style and structure of routines by The Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, and the Three Stooges. Also intriguing is Brooks’ contention that his humor is not so much “Jewish” as it is “New Yorkish.” “New York humor,” Brooks says, “is not just Jewish humor. It has a certain rhythm. It has a certain intensity and a certain pulse. Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Mason, and stand-up comedians like me were not simply Jewish. They were New York – there is a big difference.”
Because his life and career have spanned so many decades, it is easy to forget that Brooks (along with Carl Reiner) revolutionized recorded comedy with the album The 2000 Year Old Man. Or that, along with Buck Henry (The Graduate), he created the television series Get Smart in 1964, inspired by a talent agent who observed, “Inspector Clousseau and James Bond are the biggest things in the world right now. Got any ideas?” Not to mention the fact that his company produced the film The Elephant Man.
Early in the book, Brooks relates the story of an uncle taking him to see his first Broadway show, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, in 1935. Great songs, great singing, great dancing, great belting from star Ethel Merman. On the way back from the show, Brooks tells his uncle, “I am not going to work in the Garment Center like everyone else in our neighborhood. I am going into show business, and nothing will stop me.”
It took Brooks a while to make it to Broadway, but in a gratifying bit of fulfillment, his theatrical version of The Producers took the Great White Way by storm (as they say) in 2001. Having already written the show’s book (in essence) back in 1967, Brooks also took care of music and lyrics. The production went on to win a record 12 Tony Awards. Inspired by his success, Brooks got back to work, and the Broadway version of Young Frankenstein followed in 2007.
As is the case with most autobiographies, the third act is somewhat self-congratulatory and therefore less satisfying than the material preceding it. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to forgive Brooks for taking a victory lap. After all, any fan of comedy owes him a debt of gratitude. Or at the very least, to quote restaurateur Howard Johnson in Blazing Saddles, “a laurel and hardy handshake.”