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The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Mel Brooks

04.14.2014

Last week, we took a look at the career of Russell Crowe, an actor whose presence or gravitas is unmatched. This week’s subject has his own kind of gravitas, albeit if you compared the two they couldn’t be more different. One thrills us while this week’s guy makes us laugh until it hurts.

Mel Brooks
 

 

Nobody makes me laugh like Mel Brooks. A living legend, Brooks has been cracking people up since his early days in the 1950's as a writer on Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows” - a kind of comedy all-stars training ground where he wrote alongside life-long friend Carl Reiner (with whom he did the famous “2000 Year Old Man” routine), Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) and others. Following that he went on to co-create the classic “Get Smart” 007-TV spoof, before finally breaking into films as the writer-director of the brilliant (and ahead of its time) THE PRODUCERS, which introduced the public to the great Gene Wilder.

In the forty-five years since, Brooks has done more for American film comedy than just about anyone else. His BLAZING SADDLES to SPACEBALLS run brought us classic after classic, most of which pushed the boundaries for what was considered acceptable on the big-screen in terms of comedy. He delighted in pushing people's buttons, but he did it in such a heartfelt way that despite the gleeful tastelessness of his movies, no one could ever accuse him of not having the best intentions and a kind streak a mile long. Even at his most outrageous, with the “n-word” used no less than seventeen times in BLAZING SADDLES, I doubt anyone would ever call Brooks insensitive. There's an intellect to his comedy that puts him more in league with someone like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor (who co-wrote BLAZING SADDLES) than it does many of his stodgier contemporaries, making his work feel vital generations later.

Granted, not every Brooks film is BLAZING SADDLES. SPACEBALLS was probably his last really effective comedy (and that was undeniably toned down compared to his earlier work), although even later entries like LIFE STINKS and ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS have their moments. Around the time DRACULA: DEAD & LOVING IT came out, it looked like Brooks was going to retire, and while he hasn't directed a film since, he turned his attention elsewhere with his monumentally successful Broadway adaptation of THE PRODUCERS, which made him one of a handful of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners. Truly, no one deserves it more. I should also mention that in the mid-eighties, Brooks launched a production shingle that put out some amazing films, including THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE FLY (as well as SOLARBABIES but hey, it was the eighties. “Post apocalyptic roller-skating movie” probably looked good on paper). So not only is Brooks funny, but he's also responsible from breaking David Lynch (who he memorably called “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”) and David Cronenberg into the mainstream.

His Best Film
 

 

For days, I've been agonizing over whether to choose BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as Brooks' finest work. While YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is more sophisticated, the edge has to go to BLAZING SADDLES, not only for its envelope pushing but for the fact that it remains the single funniest film I've ever seen. If any of you out there haven't had the pleasure of seeing the late Cleavon Little team up with Gene Wilder as Sheriff Bart and The Waco Kid, and take on Harvey Korman's Hedy (that's HEDLEY!!!) Lamarr and his gang of ruffians, stop everything you're doing and watch it. Now! It's a comedic masterpiece, with jokes that never ever get old. And remember, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

His Most Overrated Film
 

 

My listing of the big-screen version of Broadway's THE PRODUCERS comes with a strong caveat. For one thing, Mel Brooks did not direct this. Second, I've never seen the show on the stage, and I've heard the film, despite everyone's best intentions, was simply unable to recapture the magic of a live show. Nevertheless, only basing my knowledge of THE PRODUCERS musical phenomenon on this film, I'm puzzled by its enduring popularity. The original 1968 film is a masterpiece, and it rubs me the wrong way that people, when they think of THE PRODUCERS, only picture Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, rather than the late, great Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Again though, I've never seen it performed live.

His Most Underrated Film
 

 

I have to give longtime JoBlo.com reader Eric Charbonneau (@RicCoalwater) credit for suggesting HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1 as Brooks' most underrated film. I was tempted to pick SILENT MOVIE or HIGH ANXIETY, both of which have their moments, but HISTORY is a riot from beginning to end. Whether it's a musical number about the Spanish Inquisition (“hey Torquemada, whaddaya say!”) to the magic joint (“so what do you think about the decline of the Roman Empire? Aw f**k it!”) to the famous “it's good to be the king” line, HISTORY is Brooks' lost masterpiece. It's not BLAZING SADDLES or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but it's close.

His Most Memorable Scene

What else could I choose here but the infamous campfire scene from BLAZING SADDLES? That said, Gene Hackman's brilliant YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN cameo as “the old blind man” (“wait! I was gonna make espresso!”) was a contender.

His Top-Five Films

5. SPACEBALLS
4. HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1
3. THE PRODUCERS (1968)
2. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN
1. BLAZING SADDLES

Up Next

At eighty-seven, Brooks is mostly retired these days, although he's often interviewed on TV, and maintains a Twitter account (@MelBrooks). Meanwhile, his son Max wrote the amazing WORLD WAR Z, and is growing into something of an icon in his own right.

Source: JoBlo.com

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9:52PM on 04/17/2014
I love Mel Brooks. While his later (PG-13) movies were disappointing, his classic movies will always remain just that - classic. I know Spaceballs by heart, I love Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and History of the World Part I is in desperate need of a sequel.
I love Mel Brooks. While his later (PG-13) movies were disappointing, his classic movies will always remain just that - classic. I know Spaceballs by heart, I love Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and History of the World Part I is in desperate need of a sequel.
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9:27AM on 04/14/2014

I LOVE Mel Brooks!

BLAZING SADDLES was my dad's favourite movie, and I remember laughing my ass off even though I didn't get half the jokes (what can I say? I was 8 at the time). I would have picked either the 'Camptown Ladies' or 'I'm Tired' sequences as my favourite from that film (the first is still pushing the envelope 40 years later) but 'Campfire' is still a great scene.
BLAZING SADDLES was my dad's favourite movie, and I remember laughing my ass off even though I didn't get half the jokes (what can I say? I was 8 at the time). I would have picked either the 'Camptown Ladies' or 'I'm Tired' sequences as my favourite from that film (the first is still pushing the envelope 40 years later) but 'Campfire' is still a great scene.
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8:32AM on 04/14/2014
He and his wife (Anne Bancroft) were one of my favorite Hollywood couples. Catch the commentary for The Simpsons episode "Fear of Flying" from season six and learn how Mel was with Anne when she recorded her guest spot and how he stepped in to help direct her performance. I almost want to pick To Be Or Not To Be as my favorite Brooks film. It features a slew of fun characters and he and his wife have teriffic on screen chemistry. Alas, he neither wrote nor directed that movie. I guess I will
He and his wife (Anne Bancroft) were one of my favorite Hollywood couples. Catch the commentary for The Simpsons episode "Fear of Flying" from season six and learn how Mel was with Anne when she recorded her guest spot and how he stepped in to help direct her performance. I almost want to pick To Be Or Not To Be as my favorite Brooks film. It features a slew of fun characters and he and his wife have teriffic on screen chemistry. Alas, he neither wrote nor directed that movie. I guess I will pick Spaceballs, though it is very hard to pick with Young Frankenstein and History... also being so great. One of the things that make his films so great is how rewatchable they are. They just don't get old.
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8:22AM on 04/14/2014
One of the most deserving people to be featured in this column.
One of the most deserving people to be featured in this column.
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7:53AM on 04/14/2014
Nice to see so much love for the guy, definitely well deserved. I have to say I watched Spaceballs again recently (thanks Netflix) and it is still hugely funny although I put it partly down to the chemistry between Brooks and Moranis. The musical version of The Producers can no way match the original however I find it very watchable as a huge fan of musical theatre (don't hold it against me!) put simply down to the talent of Nathan Lane and the audacity of some of the songs and the lyrics.
Nice to see so much love for the guy, definitely well deserved. I have to say I watched Spaceballs again recently (thanks Netflix) and it is still hugely funny although I put it partly down to the chemistry between Brooks and Moranis. The musical version of The Producers can no way match the original however I find it very watchable as a huge fan of musical theatre (don't hold it against me!) put simply down to the talent of Nathan Lane and the audacity of some of the songs and the lyrics.
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7:46AM on 04/14/2014
Badass indeed. Everytime his movies are on TV, they always make me laugh. My favorite film of his is Blazing Saddles.
Badass indeed. Everytime his movies are on TV, they always make me laugh. My favorite film of his is Blazing Saddles.
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5:33AM on 04/14/2014

Love em all

But I will admit I can pop on Spaceballs or Blazing Saddles anytime and still enjoy them.
But I will admit I can pop on Spaceballs or Blazing Saddles anytime and still enjoy them.
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4:40AM on 04/14/2014
I honestly think his most underrated film is Dracula Dead and Loving It. That movie never fails to make me laugh, but not too many people seem to like it.
I honestly think his most underrated film is Dracula Dead and Loving It. That movie never fails to make me laugh, but not too many people seem to like it.
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3:16AM on 04/14/2014
welcome to hanging house everyone is equal in my eye
welcome to hanging house everyone is equal in my eye
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3:04AM on 04/14/2014
I love this guy, I wish he'd team up with his son and do a zombie movie. I love both versions of The Producers and they both have aspects that I love over the other but yes the original is the superior one
I love this guy, I wish he'd team up with his son and do a zombie movie. I love both versions of The Producers and they both have aspects that I love over the other but yes the original is the superior one
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2:05AM on 04/14/2014
Thanks for giving us the glory that is SPACEBALLS THE FLAMETHROWER sir.
Thanks for giving us the glory that is SPACEBALLS THE FLAMETHROWER sir.
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2:01AM on 04/14/2014
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is still my personal favorite film of his.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is still my personal favorite film of his.
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