Mel Brooks gets serious in HBO special— but there’s plenty of shtick, too

December 19, 2019

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(JTA)—Mel Brooks’ new HBO special is a departure from the comedian’s typical belly-laugh fare. In place of the slapstick gallows humor—though there’s plenty of that, too, in Mel Brooks Unwrapped—is a more introspective, documentary-style reminiscence of his nearly 60-year career.

“You got it right on the nose,” Brooks says in a phone interview. “It is kind of a walk through my life, a memoir. Some of it is funny, and some of it is moving and touching. It’s a very different kind of behind-the-camera look at me.”

Now 93, could it be that his advancing age accounts for the change of tone?

“It probably does,” he says, adding quickly, “But I’m not as old as Carl Reiner.”

Originally a BBC production, Mel Brooks Unwrapped is the work of Alan Yentob, the British network’s former creative director.
Brooks is more wizened than in the earlier clips, but still physically active and mentally as sharp as ever. He even drives. Yentob’s camera shows him driving to the supermarket, picking up some fixings and heading to Reiner’s house to cook dinner.

Reiner, 97, is Brooks’ longtime collaborator and comedic partner, and Brooks says they visit once or twice a week. But cooking dinner isn’t a regular thing. Normally it’s Reiner’s housekeeper who makes the food. Brooks claims to be there only for the free meal.

Brooks himself needs no introduction. He is one of only 15 people to earn an EGOT—an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Over the course of his decades in showbiz, his work—including the 1974 classic Blazing Saddles, the various incarnations of The Producers, and dozens of other films, television shows and comedy albums—has won him countless honors. In 2016, he won a National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.

But Brooks isn’t just a veteran of show business, he’s also an old hand at the interviews that go along with the trade. He insists he never gets bored answering the same questions again and again.

“I couldn’t be who I am if I didn’t love the questions and making up answers and lying about my life,” Brooks says. “When you’re a comic in the Mountains, you have to be prepared for anything.”

The mountains, of course, are the Catskills, where thousands of New York City Jews used to escape the summer heat. Brooks, a Brooklyn native, got a job as a dishwasher at a Catskills resort as a teenager. Later he was allowed to perform some routines he had written.

Brooks and Reiner achieved early acclaim in the 1950s writing and performing on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and its follow-up, Caesar’s Hour. Success after success followed, including the spy spoof Get Smart that Brooks co-created with Buck Henry.

You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy. When the subject of his early years in the borough comes up, you can almost hear Brooks break out in a smile as he recounts his childhood memories.

“I remember my mother washed the floors,” he says. “Then she’d spread the newspaper down, the [Yiddish daily papers] Freiheit or the Forverts, to help the floor dry. Once my brother Irving came in and walked on the papers. I was about 5 and I yelled at Irving, ‘You’re cursed. God is going to kill you.’ I thought because the papers were written in Hebrew Yiddish, I thought the words were sacred.”

Brooks’ trademark Borscht Belt style owes everything to his childhood growing up in the heavily Jewish tenements of Brooklyn.

“I didn’t know any other life,” Brooks says. “When you grew up in Williamsburg and somebody goes by you who’s not Jewish, you feel sorry for them. I thought the whole world was Jewish—until I got into the Army.”

“What you’re doing will work out,” Brooks says. “You always worry that you’re gonna fail. I got news for you: You didn’t fail.”

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