Not since the dramatists of the Elizabethan Age had so many talented writers converged in one moment as when they contributed to Sid Caesar’s fifties-brand of television comedy. He enlisted Neil Simon, who would go on to become the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history. Alongside him were the likes of Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart, the as-yet auteur of the beloved series M*A*S*H, and female writers like Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen. The zaniest of this Jewish group was Mel Brooks, who, now ninety-five, wants the world to know all about him.
The early chapters of Brooks’s autobiography see him through an impoverished boyhood in Brooklyn to army service in the Second World War and show business. He quickly rose from an anything-for-a-laugh tummeler in the Borscht Belt to a thrilling innovator of early television. The best chapter in the book discloses the tremulous excitement of writing for a show that went live every Saturday night for thirty-nine weeks. On one occasion, Caesar’s dresser mixed up the order of the sketches and had the comedy star walk into a modern board meeting wearing an ancient Roman costume and brandishing a sword. For anyone else, it might have been a calamity. But Caesar barely missed a beat. “Sorry I’m late, but I just came from an all-night costume party,” he ad-libbed. “Let’s get on with the business.”
While Brooks is not a boastful narrator, there is much for him to brag about. Blazing Saddles (1974), his parody of how the West was won, has ranked among the highest-grossing Westerns in the history of Hollywood. Meanwhile, the stage version of The Producers (2001) won more Tony Awards than any musical in Broadway history. Brooks is one of seventeen virtuosos to rank as an EGOT, having earned an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
Though notorious for comedic transgressions like the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers, Brooks has written a tame autobiography that is unfailingly generous to collaborators and competitors. It may appear, then, that the creator made no enemies or ever yielded to resentment or anger. But he does reveal that he spurned George W. Bush’s offer of a Kennedy Center Honor, opposed as he was to the invasion of Iraq. In 2009, he would accept the award from Barack Obama, who then bestowed on him a National Medal of Arts seven years later.
While shooting a film in England, Brooks was invited to London’s posh Brooks’s Club, originally founded in 1762. After noting the coincidence, he admitted that his real name was Melvin Kaminsky. He asked the august members: “What was the club’s name before it was changed to Brooks?”