Tuned In: Mel Brooks strikes back!
The title of HBO's conversation with the comedy legend is "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!" (9 p.m. Monday). But Mr. Brooks, 86, thinks "I Remember" would better characterize the program but would be less likely to draw viewers.
"I'll watch that, he must be angry about something," Mr. Brooks said in a phone interview, taking on the guise of a would-be viewer seeing the title "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!" in TV listings.
He's not angry at all in the one-hour program but he does get a bit perturbed at the end when host Alan Yentob, creative director for the BBC, takes questions from the audience and one viewer asks, "Where does this potty humor come from?"
Mr. Brooks begins to answer the question but then veers into indignation.
"I am BrooksFilms as well as Mel Brooks," he says, pointing out his contributions to serious cinema as the producer of "The Elephant Man," "Frances" and "84 Charing Cross Road." "You're talking to a somewhat serious intellectual character here."
A year after the taping at the Geffen Theater in Westwood, Calif., the "potty mouth" question still smarts a bit.
"I got stung a little," Mr. Brooks said. "I need a little more respect than 'potty mouth humor.'"
But he acknowledged he's tried to keep his involvement with such classy dramas hush-hush.
"I'm afraid of the Pavlovian response," he said. "I didn't want people to know I produced 'Elephant Man' because I thought if my name is attached, people might think this movie ought to be funny. I was afraid of that response. I'm proud of them all but I don't push them because I don't need the plaudits. I don't need the awards. I'm just so glad they exist."
He added "The Doctor and the Devils," a little-seen 1985 film, to his list of movies most people don't know he had a hand in.
"One day we can do a [DVD] boxed set of BrooksFilms releases for devotees of really good movies," he said, noting he might be ready for such a release after he's honored with an American Film Institute lifetime achievement award next summer. "Once I get that award, then I'm allowed to do a BrooksFilms set. Until then, I'm just a Jewish comedian from the Borscht Belt."
Ah, but he's a comedian and filmmaker with a tremendous string of pop culture hits, which he discusses in "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!" The remembrances begin with Brooks' mother, who immigrated to America from Kiev at age 3, and continue to chronicle the comedian's success on "Your Show of Shows," with Carl Reiner in the "2000 Year Old Man," when he met Cary Grant and behind-the-scenes tales from "The Producers" and "Blazing Saddles."
Programs dedicated to comedians and what makes them tick have become a cottage industry in recent years. Mr. Brooks himself appeared on an episode of Showtime's "Inside Comedy" and in 2011 he was featured in HBO's "Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again."
"People are really interested in what makes comedy work. Why comedy? How comedy?" Mr. Brooks said. "This one is really a little more memory, a little more looking back on my life as a child, a little more Proustian than the back and forth high level ping pong I did with Dick Cavett."
"Mel Brooks Strikes Back!" isn't Mr. Brooks' only new release. Last month Shout! Factory released a DVD and book set, "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy" ($89.93), that includes essays, clips from Mr. Brooks' films and rare archival TV footage.
Success in TV has eluded Mr. Brooks on some level. "The Incredible Mel Brooks" includes a failed 1963 pilot, "Inside Danny Baker." He'd go on to have success with "Get Smart," which he created with Buck Henry, but the 1970s-era "When Things Were Rotten" and 1990s-era "The Nutt House," flopped. Mr. Brooks may have been ahead of his time: He noted all his TV series were shot single-camera style, which was used sporadically until recently; now it's the predominant form for half-hour comedies.
But there's also something to Mr. Brooks' comedy that requires the live audience found in movie theaters.
"In 'When Things Were Rotten,' the humor was far out and it worked on a big screen with communal laughter but it didn't work for two or three people watching on a TV set because it was a costume piece and it was crazy and satirized a classic tale," Mr. Brooks said. "It needed a big audience."
(An episode of "When Things Were Rotten" is included in "The Incredible Mel Brooks," and Mr. Brooks said CBS will release a DVD box set of the series in the future.)
Mr. Brooks is not done yet. He gets letters to this day asking if he'll ever make "History of the World Part 2," but he has no plans. (The title was a joke playing off all the movies with "part" in their titles.)
His "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" co-writers, Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman, have a script for a horror film called "Pizza Man," that he hopes to produce if the film can find a distributor and line up funding. And he continues to consider making a Broadway musical out of his beloved film comedy "Blazing Saddles."
"It's a natural musical with Lili Von Shtupp [singing 'I'm Tired'] in the opening number. And there's another little bit with 'The French Mistake.' That's only eight bars but I could do a big 64-bar number of that one and really make it a fantastic number," Mr. Brooks said. "I may be short, but I'm always thinking."
First Published December 9, 2012 12:00 am