In the old show business, we never even would have known what Mel Brooks looks like. We might possibly have heard his high raspy voice on those brilliant Bic Banana TV and radio commercials he used to do in 1973 (writing with Bic bananas is better than writing with prunes because whatever you write with prunes will wind up “wrinkled and dopey”) but we’d never have seen his face.
Much less seen the kind of one-man show he’s bringing to HBO at 9 p.m. Saturday with his show “Mel Brooks: Live at the Geffen.”
Brooks would have remained what the gods, in their infinite wisdom, no doubt preferred – a comedy writer, by any assay one of the most brilliant ever. He’d have remained as unknown to us as a performer as, say, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin and Neil Simon’s older brother, three of the other stalwarts of Sid Caesar’s legendary writers room.
But Brooks wanted desperately to perform himself, just as he’d done originally as a teenage tummler in the Borscht Belt. As he put it in Kenneth Tynan’s New Yorker profile: “I went into show business to make a noise, to pronounce myself. I want to go on making the loudest noise to the most people. If I can’t do that, I’m not going to make a quiet exquisite noise for a cabal of cognoscenti.”
But that, at first, is all Brooks was able to do. He and Carl Reiner would end their days as hard-charging showbiz functionaries, most famously for Sid Caesar. And then they would go to parties where they put all of their friends on the floor howling at improvised routines where Reiner played straight man and Mel Brooks played a 2,000-year-old man.
That 2,000-Year-Old Man, whose fancies were invented on the spot, was a quarrelsome, elderly, Jewish omniscient from Eastern Europe always ready to set his uptight American interlocutor straight. Inside show business, the act was the greatest of them all. But out here in the outside world, we knew nothing.
Until one night at one party, Steve Allen couldn’t take it anymore. Look, he told Reiner and Brooks, you’ve got to record this. He told them he’d pay for the whole thing, every penny. And if they didn’t like the record, they could just bury the thing in the cat box. If they did like it, they needed to release it as a comedy album – then just beginning its ’60s and ’70s heyday.
“This was for friends,” Brooks explained to Saul Kahan when the CD box set of them came out. Not the public. “I thought some of it would be too inside and I was afraid some of the stuff might be offensive to Jews and Catholics and provide more stimulus for anti-Semitism.”
They put out the disc anyway. But even after the 2,000-Year-Old Man hit us all out here in the outside world, its two practitioners deeply worried that it was still just too inside and “too Jewish” for mass taste.
And then comes my favorite wrinkle of all in the saga of Mel Brooks: one of the biggest fans of Reiner and Brooks in the massive showbiz horde of them was a movie star of some repute named Cary Grant, who was about to leap across the pond to visit some British friends.
He took the 2,000-Year-Old Man record with him. And he played it for two of those friends after a private intimate dinner with them – Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who were reportedly, along with everyone else, quite royally destroyed by the comedy of it all and became instant fans.
Which, said Brooks, finally convinced him to make the world his performing home. If the biggest “shiksa” of them all thought he was funny, how could he disagree?
Which leaves us with a bit of history that will be made in Saturday’s HBO hour. Brooks’ old friend Carl Reiner is there but you only see him sitting in the front row at the very end.
After Brooks, in tuxedo with a working pianist at his side, has finished performing, Reiner gets his old friend to do one of his lesser known specialties – the noise of a yowling cat whose tail has been trod upon by a clumsy human.
Brooks’ cat yowl is, along with most other Brooksian specialties, nonpareil.
What makes Saturday’s glass-bottom board excursion into Brooks’ world historic is this: he is performing, as Alan King used to put it sententiously “in one.” Just Brooks, no straight man.
It’s been the glory of his humor to be wailing on top of incredibly brilliant contributions from truly gifted straight men – Reiner, Dick Cavett, whatever ultra-astute and quick comic auxiliary and “interviewer” was handy.
The resultant “big noise” for the pair was usually stupendous.
Not so this time. It’s good enough, mind you – a nice stand-up personal tour of his life by a man whom other people in the comedy business have always been delighted to point to as, by far, one of the funniest of them all.
I defer to very few in this world in the area of Brooksian scholarship and I can tell you that there are precious few brand new things in what you’ll hear. If you’ve read and watched almost all the Brooks available in this universe, you’ll know about most of it.
He’s still a wee bit afraid to go too “inside” no matter how much the Queen of England and Prince Philip proved he shouldn’t ever be.
I certainly regret the loss of some of the best of it. (My all-time favorite Brooks line: his description of the less-than-succulent cuisine encountered in Yugoslavia when he took his cast there to make “The Twelve Chairs:” “One day they served us fried chains.”)
But it’s still American comedy history you’re watching – Mel Brooks! ALONE! At last. Making he biggest noise he can at his age. Which is, as we speak, 88.
Eight-y EIGHT! for pity’s sake.
Consider that. Betty White is older. So is his Brooks’ dear, lifelong – but now apparently sedentary – friend Reiner.
Don Rickles is 6 weeks older than Brooks and still performing. But disease has confined him to a wheelchair for some time now.
Watch Mel Brooks on Saturday and marvel at an energetic, feisty little man in a tuxedo no longer at the top of his game (or, crucially, of his nerve) but so much at one with the game he’s still playing that he’s lovable and often hilarious anyway.
And then consider all those in Brooks’ life and work who are gone – his wife Anne Bancroft, his friend Reiner’s wife Estelle, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras, Kenneth Mars and his famous patron, Sid Caesar himself.
His old friend and co-star Gene Wilder is still around but seldom, if ever, in public.
And there’s Mel, at 88, in tuxedo taking us through an evening of cautious “and then I wrote” and ending it all with a rousing rendition of “hope for the best, expect the worst.”
Such as it is, it’s still a bit of a landmark moment in the history of American big noises.