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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.