It’s been a brutal week of artistic companies facing eviction, shows postponed or cancelled on both side of the Atlantic, an upward spiral of statistics inspiring the panicky pursuit of boosters, masks and safety.
It’s not what you expect in the lead-up to Christmas.
Before we could get in to see Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch, killing some time in the Indigo store in the Manulife Centre, I grabbed a copy of Mel Brooks’s memoir All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business.
There’s a great photo of him guffawing on the front page.
I read almost the whole book today, over 450 pages that flow with the effortless ease of a friendly conversation.
Brooks is very good at making people laugh. If you didn’t already know that the creator of The Producers or Young Frankenstein has a gift for humour, (and chances are you pick up the memoir as I did, eager to hear from a comic legend who already has made you laugh many times) the book will show you that gift, at times giving you a reason to laugh on every page, sometimes big belly laughs.
Today, as I shrank away from the world and its horrors, I was captured completely by Brooks’s story.
At times I wondered what it’s like facing the pressure to be funny. When Brooks wrote for television –in the years before he became famous—he was required to be funny, to create humour week after week. What a miracle but also, what a position to be in. Does that make you neurotic about being funny, perhaps make you compulsive about joking and humour? I wondered even as I sped through page after page of effortless story-telling. Brooks is telling us about his life, and also describing the funny things he created along the way. It’s exciting to read about his creations, how they were inspired, financed, cast, filmed, eventually released, and then embraced by the world.
I knew him for the famous films. I think Young Frankenstein is under-rated, a perfect gem of cinema. I’ve seen it so many times, yet never tire of it, great writing, perfect performances. The Producers is probably the funniest thing I have ever seen on film, even if the movie is uneven. Blazing Saddles is a piece of anarchy full of laughs. I also love The Twelve Chairs and Spaceballs, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed To Be or Not to Be. There are other films I haven’t seen, as I never made it all the way through High Anxiety, History of the World, or his Robin Hood & Dracula spoofs. When we come to that part of the book, thankfully there’s less to slog through because Brooks knows we’re not hanging on his every word, the way we are reading about his greatest films. And yet it’s still entertaining writing.
In reading the chapter about High Anxiety –Brooks’s attempt at a Hitchcock parody– I feel certain I now understand why I didn’t like the film. We read about how Brooks and Hitchcock actually discussed jokes in the film. Aha. I don’t know about you, but I found the film was a cluster of gags, some hitting their mark, some far too precious and respectful of Hitchcock to actually be funny. I’m sure some people like the film given its apparent success at the box office.
And later we come back to an early film. I never thought I’d like the musical version of The Producers (his own stage adaptation of his own film with songs he wrote himself) that I’ve seen staged and then filmed, but it surprised me, better than expected. In the book Brooks carefully takes us through the creative process step by step. The funny thing with Brooks is that, while he has a huge output, while he’s arguably a great auteur, at the same time the language is unpretentious, mostly humble. Oh sure, he’s telling us of successes, but they never seem inevitable. There’s no arrogance here, indeed Brooks sounds as surprised as anyone else at his success.
In such a long life, the book takes us into a whole series of other creative activities from Brooks. Did you ever watch Get Smart? That was Mel Brooks too. Before that Brooks was part of the team writing for live television such as Your Show of Shows, featuring Sid Caesar in the 1950s. And before that, in the borscht belt and earlier when he was in the army, Brooks was learning the basics of his craft as an entertainer.
Later there were the Brooksfilms projects. I knew of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. But I was surprised to read about Frances, The Fly, 84 Charing Cross Road. And to discover that one of my favorite films, My Favorite Year, also came from Brooksfilms. Remember how one of the writers for the show always whispered his comments? In chapter four of All About Me (the Sid Caesar Show of Shows chapter) we discover a real-life writer who also did that, none other than Neil Simon, in the years before he became a famous playwright.
I think Brooks is pretty honest in what he’s reporting even if he’s telling us the story of his successful career. Or maybe I’m just desperate for a happy story. I’ve devoured it far too quickly, the prose very fluid. Of course Brooks is a writer. No wonder.
There are moments that seem genuinely risky. More than once we hear about a producer insisting on cuts that Brooks would politely acknowledge, and then ignore. When you’re 95 years old you can afford to be blunt. Was he always this way? Perhaps.
There’s a great deal to enjoy in this book, lessons to be learned. It doesn’t matter if you are short so long as you can make people laugh; that way perhaps they won’t beat you up. Or so he tells us. For me it’s mostly diversion, but alas, I’m almost finished. I can’t escape from the world much longer. Writing this blog is a chance to prolong the experience for a few moments more.
You won’t find a better gift to give your friends for Christmas or any other occasion. I bought it for myself and I’m glad I did.