The History of Mel Brooks, Part I

Tells Difference Between Jelly Jars and Yahrtzeit Glasses

Showman of Showmen: Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.
Courtesy of Pamela Barkentin Blackwell
Showman of Showmen: Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

By Curt Schleier

Published May 13, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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The second night, he and a group of friends often go to the nursing home where Sid Caesar resides: “He can’t feed himself, and he goes from his bed to a wheelchair, but we try to have a Seder on the second night. He may not get it, but we try.”

Folk singer/actor Theodore Bikel occasionally leads the Seder when show-biz rabbi Jerome Cutler isn’t there.

Told he sounds far more Jewish than he lets on, Brooks said: “I like being Jewish. It’s strange. I wouldn’t be anything but. But it still doesn’t mean I ever would have two sets of dishes.”

The mention of Caesar, of course, prompted discussion of Brooks’s career: Borscht Belt tummler, stand-up comic, writer of Caesar’s “Admiral Broadway Review,” “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.” He was teamed with Neil and Danny Simon, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart, among others, to create the most influential sketch comedy shows in TV history.

He went on to become the 2000 Year Old Man, a character that he and Reiner created, and, of course, to write, direct and star in critically and commercially successful films such as “Blazing Saddles,” “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein.”

The last two were turned into successful Broadway productions, as has been well documented. Less well known is when Brooks first became aware of his comic skills: “I knew it as an infant in the crib. People would peer down and laugh. I said I could do three shows a day.”

The true turning point came at a summer camp in New Jersey for underprivileged kids, funded by Eddie Cantor. At one of the Friday night shows there, Brooks did an imitation of a counselor.

“I brought the house down,” he said, “and I understood then that if you take comedy from life instead of repeating Henny Youngman jokes it works even better. He says he sealed his show business aspirations when he attended his first Broadway performance, with his uncle: “My Uncle Joe was a cab driver. If a cab came down the street without a driver, that was Uncle Joe. He was about 3 feet tall.”


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