Melvin Kaminsky was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 28, 1926. Some time after WWII, he changed his name to “Mel Brooks.” Under this new moniker, he went on to become one of the funniest men of the latter half of the 20th century. Shout Factory’s The Incredible Mel Brooks, a career-spanning, non-linear retrospective, provides a wealth of Brooks’ humorous talents as a writer, as a performer, and while sitting for interviews, which he regularly turned into performances as well.
Brooks’ TV work makes up the majority of the collection. There are complete episodes of shows he was involved in creating. Inside Danny Baker (1963) is a television program based on William Steig’s Dreams of Glory about a young boy with a vivid imagination There are also episodes of more notable series, such as the Get Smart Pilot: “Mr. Big” (1965) and When Things Were Rotten: “The French Dis-connection” (1975).
“Mel’s Television Debut” finds him playing a small role during a sketch on Texaco Star Theater in 1951. During a comedy pilot for a 60 Minutes spoof called Peeping Times (1978), created by his associates Barry Levinson and Rudy de Luca, he plays Hitler in a newly found home movie. A sample of his recurring role as Uncle Phil in Mad About You, for which he won three consecutive Emmys as Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy Series, is available in “The Penis.” Brooks also did vocal work in children’s programming, heard here in a brief clip from PBS’ The Electric Company and Free To Be…You And Me Sketch: “Boy Meets Girl.”
When a camera or a microphone was around, Brooks was frequently engaged in entertainer mode, as demonstrated in the funny clips from talk shows and interviews. There are six different appearances, not eight like the liner notes state, over 20-plus years from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and an edited version of The David Susskind Show: “How To Be A Jewish Son” (11/29/70) that makes it look like Brooks is the only guest. Brooks sat down with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes (4/15/01) shortly before The Producers became a smash hit musical on Broadway.
He was also appreciated by the British as seen in An Audience with…Mel Brooks and an appearance on Wogan, both recorded in February 1984 while he was promoting To Be or Not To Be. Brooks offers very thoughtful analysis about the themes of his films in I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks (1981) from the BBC series Arena, demonstrating how seriously he takes being silly.
Dick Cavett and Brooks have had a long show-business relationship. They did a series of commercials for Circus Nuts in 1967, available on the CD. There are two of Brooks’ appearances (4/16/70 and 1/21/72) from Cavett’s talk show and an uproarious interview Cavett conducted in front of a live audience at the Saban Theater in Los Angeles, circa 2010. It was edited and shown on HBO as Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again and is presented here with an additional 30 minutes from the night.
Brooks has had a longer and more substantial relationship with Carl Reiner, first working together for Sid Caesar. “In The Beginning: The Caesar Years” presents clips from PBS’ Caesar’s Writers (1996), which brought together Caesar and nine writers from Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. Brooks and Reiner developed a classic recurring bit, which is celebrated in Excavating The 2000 Year Old Man (2012) and bonus routines. Brooks delivered a tribute the only way he can to his dear friend when Reiner was being honored at the American Comedy Awards (1991).
A look at Brooks’ career would not be complete without covering his film work. Each DVD concludes with one part of a new five-part series entitled Mel And His Movies where he reflects on the films and their creation. A number of classic songs like “Springtime for Hitler,” Madeline Khan singing “I’m Tired” from Blazing Saddles, and “The Inquisition” are available on the CD. The Academy Award-wining short film “The Critic” (1963), featuring his hysterical performance as old man watching an experimental film, is one of the set’s highlights. Brooks also did funny voiceover work on the trailer for the Italian swords-and-sandals picture known as My Son, The Hero (1963), which was likely not as entertaining.
The Incredible Mel Brooks is a must-own for his fans and makes for a great entry point for those curious about the man and his work.