“Being funny is just a gift,” speculated Mel Brooks, the extremely gifted writer, producer, director, and actor, who is one of the few people to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony Award. “Maybe it’s in the genes. Jews from Russia had to make the Cossacks laugh, so they wouldn’t kill you.”
According to Brooks, the creator of such parodies as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein , “For every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast-beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one….”
While Brooks said he “knew it was my destiny to be outrageous,” he thinks the notion that Jewish comedians were denied love and thus craved it from the audience is “all wet.” Instead, he was “showered with love” by his mother and brothers, of which he was the youngest of four, and “got into show business to keep the love going.”
Not wanting to go to work in the garment district as most of his teenage friends in his Brooklyn (New York) neighborhood were destined to do, Brooks got his start in the “Borscht Belt” – the summer hotels featuring Jewish entertainers in New York State – at the age of 14. He was a drummer and a pool “tummler” (a somewhat outrageous entertainer who encourages audience participation) who got a last-minute role as a district attorney in a play called Uncle Harry at Grossinger’s Resort when the actor who was supposed to play the part got sick. Brooks found out he was funny when he accidentally dropped a glass of water, took off his fake beard, and said, “I’m only a kid.”
Thus, Melvin Kaminsky evolved into Mel Brooks, a name that was short enough to fit on a drum and borrowed from his mother’s maiden name, Brookman. Brooks knew that he was someone “not born for dramatic acting,” and he proceeded to learn about the timing and role of comedy. He continued his comedic pursuits by organizing shows with soldiers in the U.S. Army. After World War II, Brooks worked as a standup comic as resorts in the Catskills and started writing comedy. He got involved in the early days of television in the 1950s, writing, along with Woody Allen and Neil Simon, for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. During those days, he also teamed up with Carl Reiner and worked with Steve Allen.
After Your Show of Shows folded, Brooks said he hit “a rough patch” with the end of his first marriage and his financial difficulties. It was at that time that he met Anne Bancroft, who was starring in The Miracle Worker. They were married for 41 years, producing a son who is also a writer.
During the 1960s Brooks began to write parodies, including an Oscar-winning short parody of modern art called The Critic and the Oscar-winning feature-length debut, The Producers, starring Zero Mostel. In 1974 he wrote the Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. His other parodies include Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, Spaceballs, and High Anxiety.
Brooks has never been afraid to be irreverent or politically incorrect. He thinks that some of those films “laid down pathways for other comics and comedy moviemakers to have more guts.” In his words, “You don’t get away with it; you pronounce it. The comic is the king’s jester. He has to be brave and tell the truth.”
He added, “The job of comedy is to strip away the pretense and tell it like it really is. Give it a twist and relieve the pressure. That’s what we do as comedians.”
There is an element of seriousness to Brooks’ comedy as well. For instance, the African-American sheriff in Blazing Saddles was spoofing racial prejudice. “All comics have sneaky power by telling the truth while making people laugh,” he said.
As for Young Frankenstein, the theater version of which runs from July 27 to September 5 at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles and from September 12 to 25 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, there is a serious message underlying the humor. Brooks thinks that Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was a genius. “I think that unconsciously she was talking about womb envy, because only women can create life. Dr. Frankenstein was jealous. It’s a Freudian principle.”
Young Frankenstein can be touching too, according to Brooks. There is the father-son relationship with Dr. Frankenstein and the monster and the knowledge that the monster will triumph.
He continued, “What makes it funny is that we’re entertained instead of scared to death, especially when the monster does ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.’ There’s a lot of funny stuff that came out of the film in the theatrical production. The band’s numbers are flat-out glorious. We’re getting standing ovations every night, even in San Antonio.”
With the success of the theatrical production of Young Frankenstein, Broadway wants to put money into a production of Blazing Saddles. Brooks is mulling it over.
“The first thing you owe an audience is an incredibly entertaining evening,” he said. “You have to see that your work will be sensationally entertaining and memorable.”
The new Mel Brooks musical, Young Frankenstein, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, will be held from September 12 to 25. The new musical comedy, based on the Oscar-nominated smash hit 1974 film, is led by the creative team of the 12-time Tony Award-winning smash The Producers, and features a book by three-time Tony Award winner Mel Brooks and three-time Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan, as well as music and lyrics by Brooks. For ticket information, call (714) 556-2787 or visit the website at www.ocpac.org.