Among the back-cover accolades on Mel Brooks’s long-awaited autobiography is a glowing review from one Mel Brooks. Thus is the project’s tone established before one so much as cracks the spine.
All About Me!, the literary debut from the 95-year-old director, screenwriter, and national treasure, is the kind of joyful read that can distract one from the political outrage cycle for hours at a time. Beginning with its author’s Brooklyn childhood and stretching through his “third act” as a National Medal of Arts recipient, the memoir is at once an uproarious filmography and a celebration of the Hollywood of yesteryear. Never less than marvelous company, Brooks is a walking compendium of hilarious stories, kudos, and epiphanies. One occasionally gets a break from laughing, but it is the hard-hearted reader indeed who will proceed with anything other than a smile.
Born in 1926 into a tight-knit Jewish family, Mel Brooks (ne Melvin Kaminsky) was the youngest of four boys and the beloved favorite of their single mother, Kitty. (Brooks’s father died when the future auteur was only 2 years old.) A classic child of the Depression, Brooks constantly fled to the sanctuary of the movies, where, armed with a salmon and tomato sandwich, he happily whiled away whole days for the price of three milk deposit bottles and a borrowed penny. Rather than delaying the narrative’s forward motion, the chapters dedicated to this and other boyhood adventures are among the book’s most delightful and moving. Where else might one encounter such priceless figures as Uncle Lee, whose Passover routine included zany mistranslations of the prayer book? Or experience, along with the author, the strange thrill of seeing the countryside for the first time at the relatively advanced age of 6?
Having captured his earliest years with compelling specificity, Brooks moves with relative speed through his adolescence and war service, a period that takes him from the Catskill region’s famed “Borscht Belt” to the villages of just-liberated France. Throughout these travels, the irreverent genius that would eventually land Brooks in the “EGOT” club (for winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) is already evident in nascent form. Allowed onstage during a summer at a Jewish resort, Brooks compensates for breaking a glass prop by shattering the fourth wall, as well. (“Sorry, folks. I’m only 14!”) Fighting in Europe, he startles a band of Germans with an Al Jolson impersonation, sung from across a river via bullhorn.
Upon returning to the states, Brooks found work first as a Broadway production assistant and later as a writer for the up-and-coming television host Sid Caesar, whose variety program Your Show of Shows enthralled so many that “restaurant and taxicab profits” took a hit during its 90-minute run time. Parlaying this success into Hollywood screenwriting gigs, Brooks made the connections that ultimately allowed him to create the 1960s secret-agent spoof Get Smart. Though the future filmmaker was undeniably brilliant even as a young man, one can’t help noticing, reading this section of the book, just how dramatically the entertainment economy has changed in the ensuing decades. The P.A. job that Brooks stumbled into in 1947 would be an unpaid internship today. The people in charge would turn away Harvard graduates.
As All About Me! settles into the film-by-film chronology that comprises the bulk of its page count, readers have ample cause to be grateful that Brooks’s career unfolded as smoothly as it did. Here, recounted in rollicking detail, are not only the popular masterpieces Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein but such lesser gems as Silent Movie and The Twelve Chairs. A born raconteur, Brooks traces each movie from inception to release and provides enough showbiz anecdotes to satisfy even the most insatiable gossipmonger. While it would be a crime to spoil too many of these stories in this review, a pair of them will do to give the flavor. Initially cast in the Gene Wilder role in The Producers, Dustin Hoffman abandoned the project to star in The Graduate opposite Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft. Recording narration for History of the World, Part I, Orson Welles demanded payment in cash. He then spent his entire $25,000 fee on cigars and caviar.
Among the recurring themes in All About Me! is Brooks’s wolfish refusal to level with or pay heed to the studio executives overseeing his movies. Like David Mamet, whose Bambi vs. Godzilla covers much of the same ground, Brooks believes that one should “always agree with [executives], but never do a thing they say.” In support of this contention, the filmmaker marshals a series of studio notes simply breathtaking in their wrongheadedness. No punching a horse in Blazing Saddles. No flatulence, either. No swastikas in The Producers’s garish “Springtime for Hitler” climax. By the time Brooks arranges, in 1981, to secure his own foreign distribution rights with a scheme that amounts to blackmail, the reader is ready to stand up and cheer his audacity. It isn’t just that Brooks is a scrappy underdog confronting a soulless studio monolith. It’s that his shamelessness is so quintessentially American that one can’t help tipping one’s hat.
Indeed, Brooks’s greatest artistic virtue may be the similarly democratic belief that the audience rather than the auteur is the ultimate judge of a movie’s quality. “If [a joke] was supposed to be funny [but] didn’t get laughs,” Brooks writes, “it went the way of all the misfires that preceded it, onto the cutting-room floor.” If such humility seems vanishingly rare among today’s creative class, that’s because it is. In large part, contemporary artists are too busy “educating” us to investigate what we actually enjoy.
That Mel Brooks had no higher goal than to suss out precisely that knowledge goes a long way toward explaining his extraordinary accomplishments in Hollywood and beyond. A comedian to his bones, he wanted, first and always, to make us laugh. He succeeded.