June 6, 2013

It’s Still Good to Be the King

Filed under: Movies,TV — DB @ 4:00 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Mel Brooks is having a moment. A few weeks ago, he was the subject of a profile on the esteemed PBS series (“esteemed PBS” – is that redundant?), American Masters. Tonight, Brooks will be honored by the American Film Institute with its 41st Life Achievement Award. It’s one of Hollywood’s great annual traditions, bringing out many of the collaborators who have worked with the honoree throughout his or her career. Unlike many similar awards given out by other bodies — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Screen Actor’s Guild — the AFI presentation is not made by just one or two people who are closely associated with the recipient. Rather, it’s an all-star tribute, with a slew of friends and colleagues taking the stage or rising from their table to address the evening’s celebrant.

On that count, as much as I’m looking forward to watching Brooks feted when the show airs on TNT next Saturday night, I’m also saddened to think how few of the people one might expect to salute him are still with us. At 86 years old, Brooks has outlived many of his most notable associates. Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, Harvey Korman, Marty Feldman, Zero Mostel, Cleavon Little, Richard Pryor, John Candy, Slim Pickens, Gregory Hines, Charles Durning, Alex Karras, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Larry Gelbart, Don Adams, Leslie Nielsen, and of course his wife, Anne Bancroft. All gone.

There are a few others whose attendance, or even participation in pre-taped segments, is questionable given their general distance from the limelight these days. We don’t see much of Teri Garr, Rick Moranis, Sid Caesar or Gene Wilder anymore. I hope Wilder, at least, will make an appearance. How can you hold a tribute to Mel Brooks without Gene Wilder? And yet the actor only appeared in archival interviews on the American Masters special.

It’s not like the room will be devoid of celebrities. The award itself will be presented by past winner Martin Scorsese (an interesting choice given his lack of professional connection to Brooks). Carl Reiner is still kicking, and you can bet he’ll be on hand, while I would think Cloris Leachman will probably be there too. Plenty of younger actors who worked with Brooks in his later films like Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It may be in the room too. Hopefully Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will be there representing Brooks’ Broadway triumph, The Producers. Maybe even Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman, who starred in the film adaptation of the musical? And then there are people that Brooks has worked with as a TV guest star, like perhaps Paul Reiser (Brooks won three consecutive Emmys for his recurring guest role on Mad About You) or Larry David (Brooks and Bancroft appeared as themselves in a classic season-long arc of Curb Your Enthusiasm). Could we be so lucky as to get an appearance by the wonderfully offbeat David Lynch, whose film The Elephant Man was produced by Brooks? Either way, there are plenty of notable stars, writers and directors from throughout Brooks’ career that are still around and could be in attendance; it’s just sad to think how many of them won’t be.

Often when it comes to these lifetime achievement awards, I think, “If this person doesn’t get it soon, they won’t be around anymore.” But rarely have I considered the need to honor someone before all of their closest or most frequent collaborators are gone (and Brooks is someone who worked with the same people over and over again, to legendary results, which will accentuate their absence). I don’t know how the AFI makes the decision each year about who to recognize with their Life Achievement Award. The list of recipients is impressive, but I’ve often questioned why people like Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford and Meryl Streep received the award at such relatively young ages, prior to obvious people who’d been around longer and were still waiting. Look down the list of winners, for example, and one glaring absence is Paul Newman. How could the AFI honor Hanks and Spielberg before getting around to Newman? I wonder if the person has to accept the honor and agree to participate in the celebration evening. If that’s the case, I can imagine Newman saying, “Hey, I’m honored, really, but that kind of event where I sit for three hours listening to people praise me makes me uncomfortable. Thanks but no thanks.” I have no idea, of course. It’s just that Newman seems like too obvious a candidate for the AFI to simply not have gotten around to before he passed away. (Still breaks my heart a little bit every time it crosses my mind that Paul Newman is dead.) And where are the AFI honors for Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton? For Peter O’Toole and Woody Allen? (Allen’s another guy I could see politely declining, if that’s the way these things work.)

Pardon that tangent; these are things I think about. Back to the man of the hour. Beyond those who he has worked with directly, Brooks has been an influence on many comedians who came after him, so the room will probably include some famous fans as well. Whether he’ll be there or not, one such fan is Jerry Seinfeld, who last year featured Brooks (and Reiner) in an episode of his excellent web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

(Click Image for Video)

It’s great to see the AFI pay tribute to a guy like Mel Brooks, whose contributions to film are much sillier but no less significant than many others who have received the honor before him. Already in the rare company of EGOT recipients (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), he adds the AFI award to his 2009 Kennedy Center Honor, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and numerous other accolades he’s collected over the years. It seems unusual for a comedian — especially one as broad and naughty as Brooks — to be so celebrated; we tend to think of our most Serious Artists as the ones most decorated. But Brooks has earned his place, in part, by helping us all take Seriousness down a few pegs. He famously said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” I’ve always loved that quote. Another twist on the same theme is spoken by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (though I’m not sure if the quote originates with Allen): “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” And has there ever been someone whose body of work epitomizes that statement more than Mel Brooks? He has practically made a career out of finding the comedy in the 20th century’s greatest purveyor of tragedy, Adolf Hitler. From The Producers‘ “Springtime for Hitler” to History of the World Part I‘s brief “Hitler on Ice” to the Nazi lampooning To Be or Not to Be, Brooks has delighted in taking one of the least funny things in history and making it into a punchline. Then there are the stereotypes he attacked head-on in Blazing Saddles, taking the risk of offending not just morals, but good taste. So it’s nice to see him recognized as a daring artist. He absolutely deserves the awards and attention he continues to collect.

I’m sure there will be plenty of people at the AFI event to share their appreciation of his life and work. While the program will of course feature memorable clips from throughout his career, here’s one I suspect may be overlooked, and which provided my first introduction to his comic genius: his cameo in The Muppet Movie, annoyingly spread here across two clips. (He enters around the 1:28 mark of the first.)

The AFI Life Achievement Award for Mel Brooks will air on TNT next Saturday, June 15, at 9:00 P.M., and again July 24 at 8:00 P.M. on Turner Classic Movies, where it will run alongside other films and specials highlighting Brooks’ work. His episode of American Masters continues to air over the next week.

Congratulations Mel, and may the Schwartz be with you.


  1. I think there’s a very strong case to be made that The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein (the last two of which were released in the same year…imagine that!) paved the way for modern comedies. I can’t think of any movie comedies before them that had the same rapid-fire delivery of jokes, same sense satire, same desire to simply get you to laugh at anything no matter how base or obscure. Can’t we draw a straight line Zero Mostel shtupping little old ladies to the bean scene in Blazing Saddles to Jeff Daniels destroying a toilet in Dumb and Dumber to Jason Biggs f**king a pie in American Pie?

    Roger Ebert re-reviewed The Producers for his Great Movies series and he had a fantastic little story about his experience with Brooks back in 1968 that I have always found a perfect encapsulation of Brooks and his attitude toward comedy: “I remember finding myself in an elevator with Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, in New York City a few months after The Producers was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, ‘I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.’ Brooks smiled benevolently. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘it rose below vulgarity.'” Perfect…just perfect.

    Comment by dazizmor — June 6, 2013 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

    • No doubt those Brooks movies you mentioned helped pave the way for today’s comedy, though you’d probably agree that Brooks was always operating on another level. Jason Biggs getting intimate with an apple pie might be funny and raunchy, but American Pie’s humor doesn’t reach for anything more than that. And that’s fine; it doesn’t have to. But there was a level of social commentary and/or just pure filmmaking skill employed by Brooks that can’t be found in Dumb and Dumber, American Pie or many other “bad taste” comedies. On the other hand, that spirit hasn’t totally disappeared. Borat leaps to mind…

      Comment by DB — June 7, 2013 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

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