Mel Brooks, the Manic Comic

Mel Brooks
By Patrick McGilligan

There’s a revealing moment early in “Funny Man,” Patrick McGilligan’s comprehensive biography of Mel Brooks, the relentless, redoubtable comedian and filmmaker. It’s not so much an anecdote as a recitation of a musical number from Brooks’s formative days as an entertainer — an Al Jolson-esque ditty that he performed in the Army and later on the borscht belt circuit before it became an enduring part of his repertoire. Its lyrics run as follows:

Here I am, I’m Melvin Brooks!

I’ve come to stop the show.

Just a ham who’s minus looks

But in your heart I’ll grow!

I’ll tell you gags, I’ll sing you songs

(Just happy little snappy songs that roll along)

Out of my mind. Won’t you be kind?

And please love Melvin Brooks!

This isn’t enough to fill a book and yet it tells you almost everything you need to know about Brooks, whose singular career encompasses genuine classics like “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” as well as irresistible schlock like “Spaceballs” and “History of the World, Part I.”

To get where he has gotten — to have secured a place in the comedy pantheon and to have won the show-business quadruple crown known as the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) — Brooks, of course, had to be funny and inventive. He had to have a fierce conviction in his own abilities, an unwavering determination to be in front of a crowd and a caustic wit to wield against enemies, or turn on himself when necessary. But he had an obvious neediness, too, as most comedians do — a part of himself that craves approval and bristles at the mildest rejection. The end result is a dynamic that compelled Brooks, even in success, to keep throwing everything he had at his audiences, sometimes to his own detriment.

As one of his frequent collaborators, Thomas Meehan, is quoted as saying late in the book, “Mel’s a fountain of genius. Remarkable things no one would think of pop out of his head, 100 ideas a day. Many are wonderful. Many aren’t. And he wants you to tell him which ones.”

A similar case could be made about “Funny Man,” which is teeming with fascinating details about Brooks’s life and career, but doesn’t always seem to know which way to point its fire hose or when to turn it off. McGilligan, who has written books about Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, among others, says in his endnotes that he has “never been faced with as many people who either did not reply to inquiries, expressly declined to cooperate with an interview or spoke on the condition of anonymity” (he speculates that this may be because “people feared Brooks’s temper or litigiousness”).

This doesn’t seem to have hindered McGilligan. There’s plenty of information in “Funny Man,” and it’s often illuminating. Like Brooks’s tablet-tumbling Moses in “History of the World, Part I” the author probably could’ve dropped a portion of this material to no one’s harm. Despite its overstuffed nature, the book nonetheless paints a portrait of Brooks as a wildly talented — emphasis, occasionally, on wild — artist whose intensity both advanced and impeded him.

Born Melvin Kaminsky on his mother’s kitchen table in Brooklyn in 1926, the future Mel Brooks was the youngest of four brothers. His father died at age 36, when Mel was just 2 years old. As early as his teens, Brooks was performing in his own comedy sketches, and after serving in World War II he had the good sense and the tenacity to attach himself to Sid Caesar, who was already rocketing to stardom in the clubs and on television. On the earliest episodes of “Your Show of Shows,” the influential NBC variety show, Brooks received no official writing credit and was paid out of Caesar’s own pocket, kept around as a joke-writing “topper” and personal jester. (The volatile Caesar is also said to have dangled Brooks by his feet from a high hotel window after tiring of his insistent pleas to go out and enjoy the nightlife.)

Brooks’s major hits were spread out over several years, but when he scored, he scored big: the comedy record “2000 Years With Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks,” released in 1960; “The Producers,” his 1968 directorial debut about two Broadway shysters, which won him an Academy Award for its screenplay; and his endlessly quotable genre parodies “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” both released in 1974. During these years, Brooks’s first marriage, to the actress Florence Baum, ended acrimoniously, he fell in love with and married Anne Bancroft and he fretted perpetually about the accomplishments of peers like Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart. Brooks also arrived at a crucial formulation that he would steer away from throughout his work, for better and for worse. As he put it in his own words: “Low key plus inoffensiveness equals mass acceptance.”

If you’re looking for a behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow on the making of the campfire bean-eating scene from “Blazing Saddles,” McGilligan is happy to supply that in all its abundant, flatulent detail. And he is diligent in documenting what comes across as Brooks’s rapacious need to receive the lion’s share of recognition on works he produced with collaborators, sometimes undercutting creative partners like Buck Henry (to whom Brooks would later apologize for not more fully crediting his contributions in the making of the television series “Get Smart”).

But as “Funny Man” marches on, the book makes the mistake of giving equal emphasis to every phase of its subject’s career, lavishing excessive attention on events that don’t merit them and leaving other, more significant plotlines underdeveloped. I, for one, would have liked to hear more about episodes like Brooks’s difficult (and ultimately unfruitful) team-up with his idol Jerry Lewis, on what would become Lewis’s 1961 comedy “The Ladies Man,” and far less about, say, the competing distribution deals that Universal and Paramount offered for “The Elephant Man,” which was produced by Brooks’s film company. By the time McGilligan gets to important late-stage developments like Brooks’s triumph with the 2001 Broadway musical adaptation of “The Producers,” or Bancroft’s death from uterine cancer in 2005, you can feel him racing to the finish line, rushing past moments that would have benefited from closer examination.

Still, it is worth seeing “Funny Man” through to its conclusion, where Brooks attains the status of a reluctant elder statesman and starts to reckon with his legacy. In an interview, his friend and colleague Carl Reiner said that Brooks wasn’t always comfortable seeing dirty jokes on television, and that he was bothered by a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that he felt relied too much on fart gags. As Reiner told the interviewer, “I said, ‘Mel, you started it!’”

Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter for The Times. His latest book is “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams.

Mel Brooks
By Patrick McGilligan
Illustrated. 624 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $40.

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