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Mel Brooks: The other Jewish comedy legend

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Funny Man: Mel Brooks by Patrick McGilligan (HarperCollins)

The two great comedian filmmakers of the 1960s and ’70s were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Allen has been the subject of countless books and magazine articles, yet comparatively little has been written about Brooks. Now, along comes Funny Man by Patrick McGilligan, a 600-page tome intended to redress the imbalance.

If you ask most people about Brooks, The Producers will immediately come to mind. But Brooks’s career involved a lot more than that movie (and musical).

Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, Brooks wasn’t much of a student, but was a genius at getting attention. From his beginnings as a Catskills tummler, Brooks wangled his way into comedy legend Sid Caesar’s orbit, first as an unpaid protégé, and finally as a writer on Your Show of Shows, the Saturday Night Live of the ’50s.

Pathologically ambitious and equally manic, Brooks was the wild man in the writers room, spritzing out ideas and lines, while jumping on desks and shouting his concepts over anyone else who dared to speak. According to the book, most of his ideas were useless, but the few that landed were pure comedy nirvana.

While he worked for Caesar, he became friends with the other writers, including Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and others who would dominate American postwar comedy for decades.

As Caesar’s fame began to fade, McGilligan etches a portrait of a rather desperate man trying hard to stay afloat in the cruel world of showbiz. Brooks is everywhere at this point – trying to hustle gigs on short-lived shows, playing the tables at late night delis and dating actresses with the same frenzy he brought to the rest of his life.

He pursued actress and dancer Florence Baum the hardest, and it paid off – she married him, even though she once said he was “the ugliest man I’ve ever met.” He wasn’t much of a husband, though: between his constant womanizing and career hustle, he had little time for his wife and three young children. They divorced, and the book paints a despicable picture of Brooks as a deadbeat dad, missing alimony payments and keeping his family in near poverty until Baum finally found a replacement for the reprobate Brooks.

He treated his work relationships better, because, as McGilligan writes, if Brooks was “one who never forgot a slight, he also never forgot a mitzvah.” Gratitude is a hallmark of Brooks’ character and there are countless examples of how he kept his old buddies careers alive, including his original mentor, Caesar.

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In the ’60s, Brooks, along with Buck Henry, created Get Smart, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. It’s at this point that Brooks conceived of The Producers, first as a musical, which would take decades to come to fruition, and then as a movie. Filmed on a shoestring budget in 1968, it received solid critical response, but was a financial flop. Ultimately, however, Brooks had the last laugh: the American Film Institute voted it the number 2 comedy of all time (Some Like it Hot was number 1).

After his second film, The Twelve Chairs, also flopped, Brooks hit the jackpot in 1975 with not one, but two movies that grossed over $100 million, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. At this point, Brooks was rich and powerful and had a new wife, respected actress Anne Bancroft. They stayed married and in love until Bancroft’s death in 2005. One anecdote that’s not in the book is that when a journalist asked Bancroft, a classy and refined lady compared to the earthy Brooks, how she could be married to such a man, she replied: “Every time I hear Mel’s car pull into the driveway, I think, ‘Now the fun begins!’ ”

It’s interesting to note how Brooks’s “earthiness” is an extension of his Jewishness. So many of his films are peppered with Yiddish and Jewish references: the Inquisition musical number in History of the World: Part I, the fake trailer for Jews in Space that became the movie Spaceballs and the famous line when the cowboys first encounter Black Bart in Blazing Saddles (“Shvartzes!”).

Compare that to Brooks’s rival, Allen, who seemed to be running from his Jewishness as fast as he could, with movies about upper-class WASP families and deracinated Upper West Side Jews. Brooks, meanwhile, embraced his Jewishness and made it part of his work throughout his career.

Into the ’90s, Brooks helmed a series of less successful films and it seemed that his arc was in decline until he pulled the rabbit out of his hat with The Producers musical, which ran for eight years on Broadway. Brooks has outplayed and outlasted everyone in the business. He is now 90, still working and worth over $100 million.

Mazel tov, Mr. Kaminsky.

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