Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The great Mel Brooks

Great PBS special last night on Mel Brooks – truly one of the funniest people in the galaxy. I recently got the box set DVD's of his work and it's been a true joy revisiting the laughs.

Happy to say I've met him several times. The first was when I was working at the KIIS Broadcasting Workshop. He was at the radio station promoting his new movie, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Even then he was an idol of mine. Between THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES, and the 2000 YEAR OLD MAN he was already a comedy God. I tentatively approached him the hallway, introduced myself and when I said my last name (pronounced La-Vine) he got me in a headlock and said, “From now on it's pronounced La-VEEN!”

A few years later when my partner David Isaacs and I were on MASH, one of our staff members was Ronny Graham (a funnyman worthy of his own post). Ronny was good friends with Mel. They had worked together in sketch reviews and wrote together on numerous projects (including SPACE BALLS). MASH was filmed at 20th and Mel was based there as well.

Sometimes at the end of the day Mel would wander into the writers room and hang with Ronny... and us. And always he was entertaining. So quick! So funny! Imagine getting a private show from Mel Brooks!

In most interviews Mel will tell a story about once being at a studio and meeting Cary Grant. He was completely in awe of him. Eventually he mustered the courage to introduce himself and they wound up going to lunch. Cary had such a good time he invited Mel to lunch the next day too. This continued day after day until finally Cary called his office and Mel said to his secretary, “Tell him I'm not here.”  I bring up this story for a reason.

So one night after work we're in the MASH writing room watching a dramatic Dodgers-Phillies NLCS playoff game when Mel pops in. He sits down and is hilarious as usual, except this time we really want to watch the game. It was the Cary Grant story. Three years before I was so in awe I almost couldn't approach him and now I was thinking, “Jesus! When is he gonna leave?”

But that was one isolated incident. Otherwise, I cherished the times I was privileged to be in his presence.

I still see him from time to time in our neighborhood sushi joint. God bless him, he's still holding court and delighting audiences, be they two or two million.

Most nights he has dinner with his dear friend, Carl Reiner. What I wouldn't give to be at one of those. And the Dodgers suck this year so there'd never be a reason to want to watch the game instead.

Thanks for the laughs and inspiration, Mel. Keep going for another 80+ years.

37 comments:

normadesmond said...

i loved that he finally spoke publicly about anne.

JT Anthony said...

Mr. Brooks is great-- non-stop stream-of-consciousness comedy. Wish this anecdote had been different; it lacked a certain punch besides name-dropping a famous legend.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I'll do the name dropping here. I saw Ken and David Isaacs on TVland's "MASH Reunion" last night. The program looked a bit dated (too many now-deceased players).

Mr. Hollywood said...

I have had the joy of interviewing Mel a number of times and he is truly comedy royalty! One the the funniest men ever ... and when I watch his films I marvel at their brilliance. A shame that what passes for comedy today (the "Apatow School") cannot hold a candle to his work.
God Bless You Mel ...keep us laughing dear man!

Tudor Queen said...

I'm so envious that you know Mel Brooks, even a little. He's truly, perennially funny and more versatile than his style of comedy might indicate - writer, producer, actor, stand up, composer...

Ironically, I was talking about Mr. Brooks with my husband the other day. At some point I mentioned that he must miss Anne Bancroft terribly. Then I said she was a smart woman, because looks can fade, strength can fail, but a guy who can make you laugh is a prize you'll cherish forever.

Why yes, my husband still makes me laugh after twenty years.

Chris said...

Got to see him at the Egyptian Theater when they showed "Blazing Saddles." Both the movie and he were hysterical. Comedies like that need to be seen with a large audience--even though we couldn't hear some of the lines for the laughter. A Friday question, if I may. The M*A*S*H* reunion show reminded me of this. Why did no one ever address Loretta Swit's very, very anachronistic hair in that show? I'm sure she was/is a lovely person, but man, does that hair not work for that show.

Michael said...

Mel Brooks had what may be the funniest line ever uttered about celebrity. He was on Hollywood Squares--the good one, not the Whoopi Goldberg version.

Peter Marshall: Mel, does Barbra Streisand consider herself a star?
Mel Brooks: A star, no. A Jewish planet, yes.

A genius. An absolute genius. It was a great show, worthy of him.

Geoff said...

Ken, did you ever see the Carl Reiner/Mel Brooks episode of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?" It's as close as you could come to getting to hang out with Mel and Carl for dinner. Hilarious!

sanford said...

Mel is the best. For those of you who don't listen to the Mark Maron podcast, He did 3 interviews with Mel, Carl Reiner, and Dick Van Dyke. The best was with Mel, but the other two were excellent.

Anonymous said...

A storm front came through and took out our cable service. I had the special set up to record. Sigh. Now I will have to go to the PBS website to see it. That will be days before it is available.

In 1978, a local theatre was showing a twin bill of Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein. I had to bribe my Dear Hubby to go because he didn't think I knew from funny. Young Frankenstein was first and he loved it. He talked about how funny it was all through the intermission, waiting in line for more popcorn and in line for the restrooms. I told him that he hadn't seen anything yet. I thought he was going to pass out, laughing, during Blazing Saddles. He never questioned my judgement of what he would think was funny again.

Pam aka sisterzip

GeneP said...

My father was in the same platoon with Brooks in WWII. Said he was funny then too.

RCP said...

I loved every minute of it.

MikeFab said...

Besides the obvious halarious movies he wrote, I believe he was also a contributing writer on one of the funniest t.v. sitcoms ever...."Get Smart".

sanford said...

For the person whose cable went out, check your local PBS web site. They might repeat it.

sanford said...

just to let everybody know. I just checked my local PBS station and they are repeating it in a couple of weeks. I suspect other PBS stations will do so.

Mac said...

God - imagine being at that sushi table with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner? They're both still so sharp and fast. I guess comedy keeps them young at heart (and brain).

Tom Quigley said...

Watched the PBS special last night. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is one of my alltime favorites. Worked at MAD ABOUT YOU when he guest starred in a couple of episodes and while I didn't meet him, met Anne, one of the loveliest women I have ever met (the smile she gave me just melted me), who laughed continually through all his scenes.

Paul Duca said...

MikeFab...Mel and Buck Henry CREATED "Get Smart!"

VincentS said...

When he and Carl Reiner released THE 2000 YEAR OLD MAN on CD I got to meet them at a BARNES & NOBLE signing. I said to them, "You guys have been making me laugh since I learned how to laugh!" One of the great moments of my life.

Victor Velasco said...

As a lifelong Giants fan, I hope you have many, many more opportunities to talk to Mel and Carl this year.
P.S. I have June 27 in the 'fire Mattingly' pool

Ron Greenfield said...

Always enjoyed his films. Always had incredible talent and used really funny people - Madeline Kahn, Ronny Graham, Dom DeLuise, Harvey Korman. The sausage scene in "Blazing Saddles" still makes me laugh.

Ron Greenfield
www.aspectsofentertainment.com

chuckcd said...

Love Mr. Brooks work!
Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies of all time!

"lets play chess..."

Johnny Walker said...

I'll second the recommendation for the recent interviews on the WTF Podcast.

The host, Marc Maron, initially interviewed Mel Brooks at his office, and when Mel had such a great time he told Carl he needed to do it, too. So then came the interview with Carl in his living room.

Both we're great.

After that he got to interview Dick Van Dyke, too.

All three are great set of long-form interviews that are far above the usual empty banal interview fare -- they're closer to genuine conversations.

They won't be available for free forever, so now's a good time to grab them if you're interested.

Henry said...

Do you really pronounce your name La-Vine?

Ellen said...

I've been listening the NPR interviews with Mel Brooks these past few weeks, and they're even better than the documentary. The program is Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. Here's a podcast: http://castroller.com/podcasts/SoundOfYoungAmerica/3555906

benson said...



I tried to to get the show from the PBS website this morning. It's up now, but with a lot of annoying pop ups

I'd love to see the outtakes of Mel Brooks on Mad About You. Those episodes just slay me. "Firm Embrace!!!"

Thanks to all for the podcast recommendations. Looking forward to them.

Tom Quigley said...

benson said...

"I'd love to see the outtakes of Mel Brooks on Mad About You. Those episodes just slay me. "Firm Embrace!!!""

I don't know if any outtakes exist, but I can tell you from what I remember, no two takes of any scene he was in were alike.

Rob in Toronto said...

Carol Burnett tells the same Cary Grant story , with the same punchline ( only this time with Tim Conway ) in her book "This Time Together".

D. McEwan said...

All hail Mel!

I've had the joy of meeting Mel a few times also. The first time was at a preview of Blazing Saddles in Westwood. I found myself after the movie, talking to Mel and Gene Wilder while Anne Bancroft stood one foot from me, close enpough to smell her aroma. I'm gay, but even so, being that close to Anne Bancoft was intoxicating. The woman was a goddess.

The second time I know I've told Ken before. In January, 1974, after a tip-off from my friend, the late Larry "Seymour" Vincent, that Mel was shooting Young Frankenstein at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica that week (Larry was in the show that was running on the stage evenings). I went down there, dressed nicely, put an "I belong here" look on my face, and snuck into the shoot. I spent most of the afternoon watching them shoot some of the "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene.

When they were shooting close ups of Froderick Fronkensteen and the monster (And Eyegore, though those shots are not in the finished film) being pelted with vegatables, it was, of course, Mel pelting them personally. Marty Feldman grabbed a cabbage tossed at him in mid-air, bit into it, and then threw it back at Mel.

You have to understand that, as a big Mel Brooks fan and also a huge fan of the Universal Frankenstein films, I was obssessed with Young Frankenstein from the first moment I heard about it going into production. It was like they were making me a personal present: the movie I would most want to see ever.

On the set, I did not speak to Mel. Rule #1 for sneaking onto movie sets: Never draw ANY attention to yourself! At one point, watching a shot go down and laughing with everyone else once Mel yelled "Cut," I turned to remark casually to the person standing next to me on how funny the shot was. The person turned out to be Gene Wilder. I nearly passed out. (I was 23.)

Third time was at a preview of Young Frankenstein, not the final cut yet, so we saw some gags not in the film. (And not in the DVD "Deleted Scenes") After they'd declared the show sold out and were turning folks away, from inside the theater I saw one of my closest friends (and one of the funniest people I know), outside being turned away. I went to an usher and lied, saying that Jim was "The rest of my party," whom I'd been waiting for. It worked. Jim was let in and we saw the movie together. After, I again got to speak with Mel and Gene, and inhale Anne, as I told them I thought it was "The best Frankenstein movie since James Whale stopped making them."

The shot in the PBS show last night I loved the most was the shot of Mel's star being unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The reason is also a personal one: I was standing beside the photographer when he was shooting it. A few minutes later, talking to Mel, I confessed my sneaking onto his set decades before. (Mel: "You didn't. Really? Bad boy.") Mel did his bit where he slaps a comb under his nose and sig heils. I called out: "Look! It's the Pope!" and Mel Brooks laughed!

Getting a laugh from Mel Brooks is up there with getting a laugh from Gore Vidal and from Barry Humphries, as the three laughs I've received that I most most treasured. I was giddy with joy the rest of the day.

As for Carl Reiner, I've been blessed enough to have worked with him in VERY minor capacities on two occasions, and he always treated me like an equal. Carl Reiner is the biggest mensch on earth.

Johnny Walker said...

Great stories, D!

Daddy Background said...

Mark Evanier has posted the American Masters episode to his site. I'm at work which means I can't play the video to confirm it works, but if you like, you can play link roulette from here: http://www.newsfromme.com/

Mike Donovan said...

Someone seems magical when you meet them, then eventually you don't really want them around. Sounds like my ex-wives.

AndrewJ said...

The story goes that Carl and Mel had just recorded the first 2,000 Year Man LP and were worried that Middle America wouldn't get this specifically Jewish-American brand of humor. Cary Grant was a neighbor of Carl's and came over once to take some copies of said record album. After a trip to Europe, Cary told Carl he'd played the album one evening for some dinner guests of his who loved it... namely, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

Carl and Mel realized that if the world's biggest shiksa could enjoy the 2,000 Year Old Man routine, they were in business.

Storm said...

Douglas, darling, there you are! I was starting to wonder about you; haven't seen you comment in a while.

Just when I think I couldn't be more jealous of you, you go and tell the "Puttin' On The Ritz" story. You, Sir, are extremely far up on my list of People I Want To Share A Joint With And Enjoy Their Stories. Please, continue to rule with benevolence.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

WV: "wholly feBackn" As in "Wholly feBackn, D. McEwan has met Anne Bancroft, the lucky schmoe!"

Breadbaker said...

I can only add two things to the wonderful tributes to this man I idolize. First, no one has mentioned The Twelve Chairs. If you're not familiar with it, find it and see it. Frank Langella, Ron Moody and Dom Deluise, based on a Soviet novel by Ilf & Petrov. Very unusual for Mel, but a sweet and wonderful film (made between the Producers and Blazing Saddles).

Second, Mel turns 87 on June 28. I know this because he is 30 years older than me to the day.

D. McEwan said...

Thanks, Storm. I'm still here. You bring the joints and I'll yap all you like.

Breadbaker, it's been a really, really long time since I saw The 12 Chairs, but I do remember liking, not loving, but liking it. I vividly recall Dom's cry to Heaven when his shot at the diamonds is gone: "Oh lord, you're so strict!" It was, by the way, Frank Langella's screen debut. Mel was touting Frank as his new "Discovery," as he touted Gene Wilder before. Mel "discovered" Langella co-starring with Mel's wife on Broadway. I must assume their friendship has cooled after the catty and not-at-all-nice things Langella wrote about Anne Bancroft in his book last year, Dropped Names, which is a really fun read, except for the places (such as his chapter on Rita Hayworth) where it's sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this. It was an amazing program and I loved every minute of it. He's always been (one of) my comedy idols and I loved hearing the stories. I remember seeing Blazing Saddles for the first time and how hilarious it was. I loved that he talked about his wife, she was such a class act. I'm a huge fan of Mel Brooks and this show was a real treat.