Reading Mel Brooks’s new autobiography, All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business, I found myself thinking, “There will be no more stories like this.” By “this,” I mean personal accounts of growing up poor in an immigrant Jewish neighborhood (usually in Brooklyn) and achieving spectacular success (usually in showbiz). The first such book I read was probably Act One (1959), Moss Hart’s captivating tale about his first professional venture in the theater — his collaboration, in his mid-20s, with the already well-established George S. Kaufman on what turned out to be a hit Broadway comedy, Once in a Lifetime (1930). Act One may well be the apex of this subgenre — tender, beautifully observed, richly evocative, guaranteed to stir the imagination of any creative young person with big dreams.
Woody Allen’s recent memoir, Apropos of Nothing, while well worth reading, didn’t exactly hit a home run in that regard. Neither does All About Me. Both books are, in fact, remarkably similar. Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg in 1935) and Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky in 1926) are by far at their strongest when recounting their childhoods, about which both are sentimental and charming, remembering in affectionate detail their families, homes, and neighborhoods. (Allen grew up in Flatbush; Brooks, in Williamsburg and Coney Island). Both grew up in modest circumstances but were surrounded by loving, even doting, extended families. Both loved baseball and pop songs — and movies.
Brooks doesn’t mention that some of the same showbiz big shots who’ve presented him with these honors are complicit in the cancel culture that’s strangling the Mel Brookses of tomorrow in their cribs.
What set Brooks on his life path was seeing Ethel Merman on Broadway in Anything Goes when he was 9 years old. “Way up there at the top of the second balcony,” he writes, “I figured that I was as close to heaven as I would ever get.” On the way home, he announced, “I am not going to go to work in the Garment Center like everyone else in our neighborhood…. I am going into show business and nothing will stop me!” One is reminded of the nostalgic and touching Radio City Music Hall sequence in Allen’s sweet, semi-autobiographical 1987 movie Radio Days. One major difference between Allen and Brooks, of course, is that the former has put a good deal of his personal life into his films, whereas Brooks seems never to have come close to doing so.
One similarity, however, is that once they move past their childhoods, both men’s memoirs become almost strictly professional. This is even more true of Brooks than of Allen. His first marriage, which lasted nine years, goes unmentioned. After that, he was married to Anne Bancroft for four decades, but during most of this book she hovers dimly in the background; one gets no sense of Brooks’s domestic life with her. Indeed, after offering vivid, loving portraits of his three brothers, Brooks barely mentions his own four children. Not that he seems hostile to them; on the contrary, like Allen, he barely has a bad word to say about anybody, and he certainly serves up nothing remotely resembling kiss-and-tell. (Not that one wants to read about Mel Brooks’s sex life.)
Like Allen, Brooks got into show business very young, and their paths crossed in the mid-1950s when they were staff writers for the TV star Sid Caesar. Thereafter, their courses diverged. Allen turned his early success as a stand-up into a career as writer–director–star of film farces, but he very soon morphed into a serious and highly prolific New York-based filmmaker, with 16 nominations, at last count, for Academy Awards in scriptwriting. Brooks has made fewer films — and won far fewer awards — but has filled far more seats in movie theaters. While Allen has made it clear that he considers making people laugh at best a second-level achievement, Brooks revels in being the funnyman and views himself as performing a vital social function.
Moreover, whereas Allen, thanks largely to his somber cinematic homages to Ingmar Bergman (Interiors) and Federico Fellini (Stardust Memories), is widely viewed as an intellectual — a label he vigorously rejects in his memoir — Brooks, thanks in large part to the famous bean-eating scene in Blazing Saddles, is widely identified with flatulence. But Brooks’s memoir reveals a man who may well be the more well-read of the two directors (as Allen’s Love and Death and Brooks’s The Twelve Chairs demonstrate, they share a fascination with Russian literature) and who’s definitely more fluent in French (Allen’s, as one can observe in the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues, is execrable). (READ MORE: Canceling Woody Allen)
Still, Brooks is, first and last, about humor. And his masterpiece is The Producers — first the 1967 film, then the 2001 Broadway musical — both of which are works of genius. The second is also a wonderful surprise: coming at a time when Broadway music had scraped rock bottom, its score, composed entirely by Brooks, is a cornucopia of hummable tunes with memorable lyrics. It’s interesting to learn from Brooks’s memoir that the idea for the musical adaptation came from David Geffen — who, once he’d talked a reluctant Brooks into doing it, insisted that he bring in somebody else to write the songs, and only changed his mind after his No. 1 pick for the job, Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame), told him that Brooks was “a wonderful lyricist and composer” and should definitely write the score himself. Two thumbs up for Jerry Herman.
There are a bunch of fun stories like that in All About Me. Where the book really disappoints, alas, is at the end. Brooks devotes much of his final chapter to all the lifetime-achievement awards that have come his way during the last couple of decades. He has a right to gloat. But he doesn’t mention that some of the same showbiz big shots and political leaders who’ve presented him with these honors are complicit in the cancel culture that’s been strangling the Mel Brookses of tomorrow in their cribs. Last year, when HBO Max aired Blazing Saddles, it prefaced the movie with a three-minute intro by a media-studies professor who, apparently for the benefit of woke imbeciles, explained that the racist attitudes pervading the film “are espoused by characters who are portrayed here as explicitly small-minded, ignorant bigots. The real, and much more enlightened perspective, is provided by the main characters played by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder.” God help us.
All this mischief, needless to say, is the work of Democrats. So it was especially confounding last year to see Brooks giving his first presidential endorsement ever to Joe Biden. Donald Trump, complained Brooks in a very brief video, wasn’t “doing a damn thing” about the COVID pandemic — this at a moment when Operation Warp Speed was about to yield the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. “I’m voting for Joe,” said Brooks, “because Joe likes facts. Joe likes science.”
He was serious. It would have been one of his (unintentionally) funniest moments, if it hadn’t been so disheartening. Which brings us to one last similarity between Mel Brooks and Woody Allen: both of them think, presumably because of the subculture in which they’ve spent their lives, that they’re left-wingers. To judge by the values and convictions that animate their oeuvres, however, I venture to suggest that they’re both utterly mistaken.
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