The title of Mel Brooks autobiography is a visual pun. But like most autobiographies it conceals more than it reveals. A better title is All about Me! That I Care to Disclose. When you finish it, you won’t know much more about Brooks than you did on page 1. The man behind the outlandish jokes remains unseen. He doesn’t even mention his first wife’s name – Florence Baum. He does name the three children he had with her. He barely mentions the death of his second wife of more than 40 years Ann Bancroft, though her loss was clearly a blow to him. The inner life of the over the top comedian remains undercover. This reticence from a super extrovert who spent several years getting psychotherapy says a lot about who Mel Brooks really is.
As you would expect from the anything goes comic, the book is very entertaining. But don’t read it! Get the audiobook read by Brooks himself. It’s another bravura performance. He sings recites, and performs the jokes he’s writing about with all the panache expected from the 95 year old entertainer who has spent virtually all his life performing – even when he’s not onstage.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, a few years before Woody Allen with whom he shares a similar cultural milieu as does the untalented writer of this review, he had a childhood quite the opposite of Allen’s. He loved everything about it, save his father’s early death from TB. He loved his parents, his siblings, his relatives, in fact just about everybody he came to meet. This generalized fondness carried over throughout his adult life. Virtually everybody he came to know is described as a close friend.
Brooks decided as a child that he wanted to be in show business. Initially, he intended to be a drummer. Realizing that Melvin Kaminsky was not a perfect name for an entertainer, he decided on Mel Brooksman, but ran out of space after s when he tried to paint his new surname on his drum. Hence, he became Mel Brooks.
World War II interrupted his career. At 18, after enlisting at 17, he found himself marching into Germany. When he heard some German soldiers singing across a river, he got a bullhorn and imitated Al Jolson singing ‘Toot, Toot,Tootsie’. He thinks he heard them reply “Sehr gut.”
When he returned to New York he got a job writing for Sid Caesar. He previously had worked as a pool tummler in the Borscht Belt. To keep the guests entertained he jumped into the pool wearing about 20 layers of clothes such that he had the buoyancy of an anchor. Were it not for the intervention of a lifeguard his career would have sunk before it started.
He credits Caesar for his subsequent success. Among the writers he worked with were Woody Allen and Neil Simon. He really liked them both – of course. Brooks antics were constantly madcap and inspired. He broke into a production meeting about Caesar’s show headed by the head of RCA General Sarnoff. He had been explicitly told he was not part of the meeting. He ran in and slid along the conference table shouting “Lindy has landed.” Undeniable, but a bit tardy. He thinks Sarnoff got a laugh out of the intrusion. He wasn’t fired.
After Brooks went on his own, the book becomes a recitation of every movie and show he produced, wrote, directed, and/or appeared in. Unlike Woody Allen who claimed never to read reviews of his work, but who knew them all by heart – Brooks read all the reviews and quotes the best ones at length. He occasionally gives the bad ones a few words.
He’s also very proud of all the awards he’s won and spends a considerable time listing them. The only sour note is his refusal of the Kennedy Center Award from President George W Bush. A rather petty behavior, but given his origins and professional ambiance, predictable. He was delighted to accept the award from President Obama; he asked if he could have two given that he had refused one earlier. He was told only one to a recipient.
The book surprisingly has a lot of cliches in it. But given that Brooks is somewhere between 95 and 2,000 years old understandable, perhaps they weren’t cliches when he first heard them.
Who’s this book for? Anybody who likes Brooks florid and insane humor will get a lot of laughs listening to it. Don’t read it; get the audio version. If you thought campfire scene in Blazing Saddles was hysterical and one of the highlights of American Cinema, then this bio is for you. Just don’t expect to learn anything about the inner Mel Brooks. I’m sure there is one, he’s just not in this book. If you think the scene stinks, then stay away.