Awesome Men Throughout History: Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks is not only long overdue for a spot in the ranks of Awesome Men Throughout History, he’s done enough in his life to count as several Awesome Men. Throughout his exceptionally long career in show business, he’s been a film director, a screenwriter, a composer/lyricist, a standup comedian, a producer, and—showing just what he was willing to endure in the name of success—an actor.
Mel was born in the late twenties and went from being a sickly target of bullies to a comedian working in resorts throughout the Catskills. Mel was a typically schticky Vaudeville comedian, which is where a lot of the humor in his movies comes from; for example, Mel often woke up unresponsive audiences by randomly jumping into the resort’s pool, then completing his act in his drenched suit. A lot of his movies go to similar lengths (or depths, as the case may be) to get laughs out of an audience, and there’s a sense of manic energy throughout his best films.
Blazing Saddles, for example, was both lauded and lambasted by critics for its wall-to-wall gags and vulgarity. Vincent Canby (who panned the movie) said Saddles looked “as if it include[d] every gag thought up in every story conference…nothing was thrown out,” and Roger Ebert (who loved the movie) called it a “crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.” They’re both right, honestly.
Blazing Saddles is a triumph even above his other classic films because of its culturally significant content (Brooks has since called it a movie about 1974 set in 1874). The movie’s numerous anachronisms (one of Brooks’ favorite devices) touch on provocative racial issues in a way that’s equal parts crude and poignant. Sheriff Bart’s quip that the hardest part about thwarting the evil Mongo (played by actor and pro wrestler Alex Karras) was inventing the candygram, which he doubts he’ll even get credit for, is both one of my favorite lines and a good example of Brooks “laugh with, not at” sensibilities. The fact that he and co-screenwriter Richard Pryor wrote Black Bart as a witty, urbane black man set among a town full of dumb white hicks factors into this as well.
Saddles was also the first major motion picture to include a fart joke, which Brooks defended to outraged Warner Bros. executives as the logical consequence of cowboys in old westerns eating beans and drinking coffee all the time. I doubt the studio bought his defense, but the infamous campfire scene stayed in, and now the movie is in the National Film Registry, which probably took Brooks by surprise as much as anyone.
Currently, Brooks’ career has returned to Broadway, where stage adaptations of The Producers (originally a 1968 movie that won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and Young Frankenstein are doing quite well for him. He keeps saying that Blazing Saddles will make a Broadway appearance too, but we’ll see. I mean, dude’s almost 90.
Still, old or not, Brooks has a way with the press. I’ll end with this clip of him talking about his Young Frankenstein musical.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.