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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(page 4 of 5)

When Uncle Joe was about to call it quits for the night, he’d cruise around Broadway and give free rides back to Brooklyn to theater doormen. Occasionally they would pay him back with free tickets.

In the early 30s, Brooks and his uncle went to see “Anything Goes,” starring Ethel Merman. “We were up in the balcony, and I thought she was still too loud. But that’s where I decided I’m not going to go into the garment center like everyone else.”

Brooks is well known for his incredibly fertile mind, with funny lines coming seemingly from no where. At the end of the PBS special, he complained: “If this program was called ‘Dutch Masters,’ I’d have a box of cigars. But I had to be foolish and settle for ‘American Masters.’ No money in it. No cigars. No nothing.”

I pointed out to Brooks that his references to Merman and Cantor might be obscure for today’s audience. “You gotta be over 60 to understand Dutch Masters,” he said. Still, he believes that if he were to start today, “I’d still be funny and famous.”

“I’d have to change my game. I do parody and I do satire, and I would have to satirize what’s around today. I would have to start with ‘Avatar’ and stuff like that, make fun of futuristic adventure stories.”

“My crowd had to know Westerns. They had to know what scraping beans around a tin plate would produce.”

I asked if it is easy being Mel Brooks.

“I think it is,” he said. “I get into a lot of places for nothing. Sometimes it’s a little difficult when a few hundred people want to take a lot of pictures. But I don’t avoid it. I don’t try to sneak in the back door of a theater if people are waiting to see me.”

But is there a “Pagliacci” element about him? Was he the clown crying on the inside?

“No, never,” he said emphatically. “I’m sad when real things happen. When I lost my wife [Anne Bancroft], I was desperately unhappy.

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