A Comedy Lesson From Mel Brooks

A few weeks ago the MPAA Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences honored one of America’s treasures, Mel Brooks. I was happy to read about this acknowledgement from the Association and I felt that if AMPAS can honor him, well, so can I. I have the great pleasure of knowing Mr. Brooks, which amazes […]

A few weeks ago the MPAA Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences honored one of America’s treasures, Mel Brooks. I was happy to read about this acknowledgement from the Association and I felt that if AMPAS can honor him, well, so can I.

I have the great pleasure of knowing Mr. Brooks, which amazes me to this day. When I was growing up I collected comedy albums; Jonathan Winters, Stan Freeberg, Lenny Bruce, et al, my favorite was: "The Thousand Year Old Man" with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.

I didn’t set out to memorize it, I just listened to it endlessly and it left its tread marks on my brain … "Sigmund Freud? Sure, I knew him, he was a good basketball player."

In the late ‘60s, I sat in a movie theater watching "The Producers" for the first time. I gasped for air, for it made me laugh uninterrupted for all of its 91 minutes. "That’s our Hitler!"

 A few years after seeing Mel’s first film and prior to "Blazing Saddles,” I met Mel on New York’s Fire Island. I was staying there for a weekend in September, and my hostess just happened to mention that Mel and Anne Bancroft had a summer place down the beach. I extracted the necessary info from her and proceeded to haunt the place for the balance of the weekend.

The Brooks’ beach house was on pilings, so you could walk under it, and when you emerged your head was level with the Funnyman’s deck. After several attempts, I despaired of every seeing my comic idol but tried once more. I popped up head-high to his decking, and there he was with his wife Anne reading the paper (so brazen,I was young and so I was … stupid).

I was shocked to actually see them sitting there. Mel greeted me with a curious tone. I immediately started gabbing at high speed about how I was a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama and that one of my teachers, Mildred Dunnock, had told me that she knew the two of you and that if I were ever to meet them to say that I was a friend of Millie’s and to please be kind. And they were.

I decided after two or three minutes that I had already taken enough of their time and I excused myself. They certainly could have called the Fire Island Police (I think they have police there) or told me to beat it, but they were so very gracious and Mel was of course funny and every time he made me laugh, Anne would look over at him and then over to me and smile the most endearing smile.

That was my initial encounter with Mel.

Years later, I was working in Los Angeles as a writer on "The Tracey Ullman Show" that was shot on the 20th Century lot on Pico. Mel had an office there and I would see him in the Commissary oftentimes, never daring to interrupt his meal (I was older, less stupid — thought now, a lot older and back to stupid).

James L Brooks, one of the creators of the Tracey show and the man who imported me from New York, offered Mel a role on the show. Mel, who was a great admirer of Tracey, accepted and somehow or another I got the nod to write the segment. I went over to his office and sat down with him, choosing not to reveal that we had met once before when I trespassed on his property.

Mel had an idea about a guy who gets a new chair for his office and just keeps sliding out of it ever time he sits down (he was probably in his 60s at the time … physical humor, a staple of comedy), and then I pitched him an idea, incorporating the "chair bit" about a movie director who was down on his luck and had to convince an A-list" movie goddess (Tracey doing a dead on impersonation of Kathleen Turner) to appear in his film.

Mel responded favorably to the story line and sent me off to write it.  As I was leaving his office he asked me what he was going to get paid. I informed him that all of our guest stars recieved the SAG minuimum. He made a face and said he wanted a dollar more.

Funny. I wrote the piece over the next few days with great trepidation, for this was Mel Brooks, I was writing for the man who defined " funny.”

Finally done, I walked it over to Mel’s office and left it with his secretary and then waited; waited like a man who is about to be hung and is hoping the Governor will commune his sentence.

Silence. I tried not to think the worst (You stink!). I went to lunch and when I returned there were two phone messages, one said "Fabian called" the other "Mel Brooks called.”

I called Mel back first (sorry, Fabian).  Mel loved the sketch, which I titled, "Due Dilligence." Mel’s character was Buzz Schlanger … he thought it was funny and sharp and was looking forward to doing it.

After I got off the phone with him, I walked around the lot thinking that I was hallucinating from my tuna melt — Mel Brooks liked my sketch. Amazing.

When we were in rehearsal for the show, he came over to me and suggested a change. One of the punch lines was, "Yeah, he’s going up Thursday." Mel asked if he could change "Thursday" to "Tuesday.” Of course, I responded. Mel instructs, "Tuesday is a lot funnier then Thursday.” Now, I was hardly going to argue with Mel about the comic validity of switching days of the week — that would have been like me arguing with YoYo Ma about how to play the Prelude from Bach’s Cello suite No.1 (YoYo Ma — funnier reference then Joshua Bell or Midori — Mel would approve.)

On the night of the filming, I stopped by Mel’s trailer, to wish him well. He asked me to step inside. I joined him in his camper and he confessed that he was very nervous about the shoot. We had an audience and he told me that he had not played a role in front of a crowd in a very long time. He did not want to screw up. I ran lines with him and reassured him that he was going to be "tops in taps.” He was showing a seldom-seen vulnerable side, and I felt honored that he was willing to share that with me.

He was Mel Brooks, but even Mel can get stage fright. Amazing.

Mel was great in the sketch, and his stage fright seemed to evaporate the moment he hit the studio floor. (And by the way he did the "chair bit" about seven times — big laughs every time.) After we wrapped for the night, I walked the maestro back to his camper and told him that working with him and getting to know him was a high water mark in my life; he suggested a solution of bleach and water might make it go away.

I then told him the story about how we had met on Fire Island in the early ‘70s and although he didn’t exactly recall it, he was curious if he had been nice. "Yes Mel you were incrediby nice to me."

"Hmmmnnn, he said, maybe I sensed that one day we would be working together and I shouldn’t piss on you.” Funny.

I came to know Mel as the Thousand Year Old Man … I hope he lives that long.