“Good evening ladies and Jews.”
That, Mel Brooks explains, is the way he used to start his shtick in the Catskills resorts where he honed his craft. It’s also how he begins his outstanding January 31 HBO stand up (and given his 86 years, partly sit-down) special, “Mel Brooks: Live at the Geffen.”
Brooks offers humorous patter about his amazing life and sings some of the songs he wrote for films and other projects.
This is not the first time Brooks has shared biographical details. He was already a semi-regular on HBO, with revealing and witty conversations in 2011 (with Dick Cavett) and 2012 (with Alan Yentob), the latter at this same Geffen theater. He was also the subject of an extraordinary American Masters documentary in 2013. Therefore and not surprisingly, some of his material will prove familiar to Brooksophiles.
But it is a tribute to the comedian’s genius and his lengthy list of accomplishments that he still has baskets-full of farm-fresh anecdotes to offer.
Brooks talks about his early military career, when he was assigned to Ft. Sill’s Field Artillery Replacement Training (or FART) Center.
He was part of the genius comedy stable of Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” While on a lunch break in Manhattan with fellow scribes Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon, three nuns walked towards them. Simon immediately whispered in Brooks’ ear, “Please don’t,” as though a caution would actually prompt Brooks’s silence. It didn’t work.
When they got close, Brooks yelled at them: “Get out of those costumes. The sketch is cancelled.”
Brooks remembers the difficulties he had trying to sell the concept for “The Producers” to the major studios. Lew Wasserman of Universal was set to buy in. “We’re on your team,” he told Brooks. “All we want is one small change. Instead of Hitler, could you make it Mussolini?”
Brooks recalls he was about to cast Dustin Hoffman in the role of Franz Liebkind, but Hoffman demurred. He was going out to Los Angeles to audition for a role opposite Anne Bancroft in a little film called “The Graduate.”
Brooks, even back then a show business maven, gave young Hoffman sage advice:
“Don’t go. You’re a mutt. They’ll never cast you.”
Although hard to imagine in retrospect, “The Producers” did not get great reviews, particularly from Renata Adler, at the time chief film critic of The New York Times. “I don’t know the names of the ones who like me,” Mel confesses. “I just know the shit heads who gave me the worst reviews.”
After intermission, joined by pianist Gerald Sternbach, Brooks sings a few of his hit compositions, including “High Anxiety” and “Blazing Saddles.”
That is followed by a Q&A with members of the audience, including, sadly, a very frail-looking Carl Reiner.
Brooks has some trouble hitting the high notes, but none whatsoever with his timing. It is impeccable and impossible to replicate in print.
Brooks is naturally funny, but he’s also a mensch. You can see and hear that when someone asks what he considers his greatest accomplishment to be. His response: getting Anne Bancroft to marry him.
More than that, though, he’s one of the last links to and reminders of old Jewish New York neighborhoods, in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Before they — and we — became gentrified. And that, like his special, is a very good thing.