Robert De Niro wants to know: "Who do I have to f— to get into a Mel Brooks movie?"
The American Film Institute's three-hour honoring of Mel Brooks with a Life Achievement Award Thursday night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood proved that it's pretty easy to put on a wildly entertaining show when you've got a roomful of comedians and a body of work that includes “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and the campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles.”
“Tonight the AFI honors the arts, and the farts, of … Mel Brooks,” said Sony Pictures chairman Howard Stringer at the beginning of the night, which will be broadcast June 15 on TNT, with which the AFI has entered into a new partnership.
Some editing will be required and will be useful.
The audience that included Dustin Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Roach, Zack Galifianakis, Vince Gilligan, Judd Apatow and many more was treated to a freewheeling barrage of Jewish jokes, heartfelt tributes and filmed bits by filmmakers talking about beloved genres (Clint Eastwood on Westerns, George Lucas on the “Star Wars” movies, Robert De Niro on “Frankenstein” flicks) and then saying, “And this is what Mel Brooks did to it.”
Even when folks weren't talking about funny movies, they were funny. Producer Stuart Cornfeld, who got his start working for Brooks (“my mentor, and my tormentor”) and who received the AFI's Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal, described an early screening of David Lynch's “The Elephant Man,” which Brooks produced, for a group of studio executives.
When the execs began to offer their notes – which basically amounted to “it's really good, but can you make it less weird?” – Brooks explained to them that the screening was a courtesy because the two parties were in a business relationship. “Do not misconstrue that as soliciting the input of raging primitives,” Brooks told the executives, according to Cornfeld.
Here are 10 more memorable lines from the evening:
1. “I'll give you an idea of how Jewish Mel Brooks is: That's a nose job.”
– Martin Short, who kicked off the show with a song-and-dance medley of tunes from Brooks movies, interspersed with rapid-fire jokes.
2. “I'd like to acknowledge three people who early on knew Mel Brooks was one of the funniest people in the world: Sid Caesar, me, and Mel Brooks.”
– Carl Reiner, a member of the cast of Sid Caesar's television show in the 1950s, which boasted a staggering writing staff that included Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and others.
3. “Finally, a lifetime achievement award for Mel Brooks. What an elegant way to say, ‘Let's wrap it up.'”
– Sarah Silverman, one of a parade of comics and actors who, digs aside, were surprisingly sentimental in their tributes to Brooks.
4. “Who do I have to f— to get into a Mel Brooks movie?” -
- Robert De Niro, explaining that he's never been in a Brooks movie even though he would have been great in the title role of “The Elephant Man” or as the monster in “Young Frankenstein.” “Remember,” added De Niro, “I got the AFI Life Achievement Award back in 2003, when the award still meant something.”
5. “I have an Oscar. I won one in 1971 for ‘The Last Picture Show.’ I started working with Mel Brooks a year later, and I haven't won one since. Not even a nomination. Bupkus.”
– “Young Frankenstein” actress Cloris Leachman, whose speech in honor of Brooks was one of the night's sharpest and funniest. Leachman also offered a shout-out to her co-star Teri Garr, who waved from her seat to tremendous applause.
6. “We are going to miss you so much, Mel. You were one of the greats. Rest in peace, my friend.”
– Jimmy Kimmel, adopting an elegiac tone for his tribute. Brooks later responded: “F— you, Kimmel, I'm not gonna die. Just for that, I'm gonna be on Conan.”
7. “My arm hurts, my nose is running and I've gotta pee. So this is not gonna take long.”
– Morgan Freeman, who goodnaturedly complained to Brooks that the noble character he played in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” was mercilessly mocked in Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”
8. “From the very first time I heard that album ['The 2,000-Year-Old Man'], I thought, I can never, ever be a comedian. What's the point? Mel Brooks didn't get me into comedy, he kept me away from it.”
– Larry David, who added that the intimidation factor that came from hearing Brooks’ comedy delayed his entrance into comedy for years, and caused him to just sit around the house doing nothing, which caused his parents to worry about him and drove them to premature graves. “He killed my parents, that little Jew bastard,” said David, as Brooks laughed uproariously.
9. “Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello … That is a continuity of finely calibrated madness. This is a tradition of true greatness to which Mel Brooks does not belong.”
– Martin Scorsese, presenting the award and explaining that Brooks “has created his own tradition” that breaks all the rules and shows “a mastery of the vocabulary of film.” Concluded Scorsese, “You can be a great filmmaker just for laughs.”
10. “Normally, I don't agree with the AFI's choices. Tonight, I kind of do.”
– Mel Brooks, who wanted to know why “Young Frankenstein” was only No. 13 on the AFI's list of the 100 funniest films of all time.