Saturday night at 9 ET, HBO presents Mel Brooks: Live at the Geffen, which is his third TV special for the network, but the first one in his entire career where he’s doing standup. So why now, at age 88?...
“That’s a very simple, big question,” Brooks said when I asked him this by telephone the other day. (He’s such a nice guy, he makes himself available for occasional chats with TV Worth Watching.) “Nobody ever asks this. How did this come to be?”
How it came to be, Brooks explained, was that he got a call from the Geffen theater management in Los Angeles. Sundays traditionally were dark at the Geffen, but they were considering an experimental 10-week festival, booking comics and musicians to expand their events calendar. Brooks was asked to kick off the festival with a show, maybe getting someone to interview him – as he had, successfully, on previous HBO specials, sharing the stage with Alan Yentob and Dick Cavett, respectively. Brooks countered with another idea.
“I said no, I might broaden it by singing a few songs, I’ll just get a piano player, and do some questions from the audience – but I really don’t need an interviewer, you know?” Brooks said he told them. “I’ll just go back to being a standup, a comic in the mountains.”
Those “mountains” were the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, where Brooks worked as a teenager, amusing the vacationing Jews poolside, and on stage – the last time he’d done standup until now, at age 88. And fittingly, on Mel Brooks: Live at the Geffen, the first story he tells, in his first official solo standup act in about 70 years, is about those days on the Borscht Belt. After that, Brooks flashes back even more, to early childhood memories in Brooklyn, before settling in for another delightful round of show-biz anecdotes. The structure, he told me, was intentional.
“I was going to start when I was born, and go chronologically through,” Brooks said, then said he reconsidered. “No. I’m going to start with the Borscht belt, because I know I can get a generous amount of laughs, and then I’ll go back to Williamsburg and my mother…
“I always say, hit them hard in the first five or 10 minutes, then relax and begin to tell your story.” It’s the same approach he used in his hit movies, including The Producers and Blazing Saddles. (“You could teach screenwriting with Blazing Saddles,” Brooks said. “You need a mashugena, wacky, noisy, crazy beginning – then take the next 10 minutes and tell us what it’s all about. Why are we watching? What are we watching?”)
On Live at the Geffen, it’s all effortlessly entertaining, and consistently funny. Brooks makes it look easy – and Friday night, during his appearance on live TV on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, he made that look easy, too, joking not only with his host, but engaging members of that night’s roundtable panel, with both jokes and political observations.
Asked, however, if he would consider taking his act to today’s premiere live comedy TV show, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Brooks expressed little interest, though he was a key writer on one of the first and best live variety shows in TV history, the Sid Caesar showcase Your Show of Shows.
“Pass,” Brooks said. “If they had asked me earlier – say, 25 years ago – I think I would have jumped at it.” Then he added, almost parenthetically, “My son Max [bestselling author of World War Z] worked there for two seasons on it. Won an Emmy.”
Mel Brooks does have one other thing to say about Saturday Night Live, however.
“When we wrote the Sid Caesar show, it was three people writing in a room. They have 18 to 21 people, and they never have an ending! They end when they run out of steam: that’s the end of that sketch. We always wrote a little playlet: a beginning, a middle, and a beautiful finish, to make sense out of the whole 10-minute sketch.”
The elder Brooks, like his son, also has won an Emmy – as well as a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. As Maher pointed out Friday night, that made Brooks one of the few people in show biz history to belong to the EGOT club – but Brooks trumped him, saying he was an EGOTAK, adding to the acronym the initials of lifetime achievement awards he’d won from the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors.
So what’s next for Mel Brooks, besides turning 89 this summer?
“I’m seriously thinking of doing this kind of show,” he said, referring to his new HBO standup act, “with maybe a third of it changed, in London…
“I’m trying to stir up enthusiasm for a production of the Young Frankenstein musical in the West End of London. It never played there. It’s got to play the West End… So if I’m there, maybe I can stir up some excitement for it.”
Other things on Mel Brooks’ front and back burners:
A Broadway musical version of Blazing Saddles – “That’s always running around in some track on the back of my head.”
A movie sequel to Spaceballs – “I might do it. I have a good title, too: a good title for the idea I have would be in the title: Spaceballs 2: Frakking the Universe. They stick straws into every planet… rob the universe of all of its goodness.”
And finally, some comments by Mel Brooks on comedy-related issues of the day:
On the costly reactions to satire, from the slaughter of French satirists to the hacking of Sony computers because of lampooning North Korea in The Interview – “Just get a regiment of shock troops and rangers to surround everybody – the filmmakers, just protect them. Say whatever you want. Just get more guys with guns around you, that’s all, but say whatever you want.
To say [of the satirists], ‘That wasn’t so smart,’ even one inch in the wrong direction is really a sin. You say we can’t make fun of this guy because he’s liable to take vengeance upon us – we, the jesters of the world, you’ve got to be unfettered completely. I don’t think it’s ever smart to be wise and smart about these things. Don’t be smart. Be totally childish and foolish and honest. Say what’s in your heart, and let the chips fall where they may.”
On his reaction to fellow Sid Caesar writer Woody Allen’s headline-generating deal to make a TV series for Amazon, without knowing what it would be: “Really, honestly? I didn’t know why Woody would do that. The only reason to do that – nothing should ever start with a deal or money, ever. It should always start with an idea. ‘I see a fat guy and a skinny guy. And the skinny guy is timid, and the fat guy is overbearing, but they love each other.’ The idea is critical. It’s everything.
“So I read where Woody said, ‘I have no idea what it’s going to be about.’ Well, why would you waste a minute of your time? Time is a lot more important than money. And the joy of doing something you love is a lot more important than just working on something. So I don’t get it… It ain’t going to do him any good unless he has something to say."