All About Me! By Mel Brooks. By Gerald Alper
If he had needed any convincing, the glorious singing of Ethel Merman, the music of Cole Porter, a hit play called Anything Goes courtesy of a free ticket by Joe (his favorite Uncle) did the trick. When he grew up he would not work in the garment district, as his mother and certain members of his family before him had. He was going to go into show business and nothing was going to stop him.
Being nine years old at the time meant, of course, that he would have to go to high school, wait a few years, and then find a part-time job in the summers.
Through the help of a friend, he was guided to the mountains, to the Catskills, where he worked first as a waiter, then as a pool boy. At fourteen, in a big step up, he was promoted to tummler.
A tummler is someone whose job it is to keep the elderly Jews from falling asleep and blocking access to the pool. It meant entertaining them, engaging their interests, keeping them awake by whatever means necessary.
14-year old Mel Brooks was good at that- he was a natural energizer bunny when it came to jokes, quips, amusing chatter, pranks, songs. He liked to make people laugh. Since he was very young he could make people laugh: his three older adoring brothers, his mother, his uncles and aunts, his classmates and his friends. At five foot four, he was small and runty, an easy target for bullies. Laughter was his equalizer, his “weapon.” As he put it ”you don’t hit people who make you laugh.” Another equalizer were his older friends, and especially his brothers who protected him.
So he had his own original take on the psychological roots of his overwhelming comedic talent.
Words were my equalizer. In our gang, I was the undisputed champ at corner schtick. We drank egg creams, watched girls, and riffed on one another. My wit is often characterized as being Jewish comedy. Occasionally that’s true, but for the most part to characterize my humor as purely Jewish humor is not accurate. It’s really New York humor. New York humor is not just Jewish humor. It has a certain intensity and a certain pulse. It’s Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Jackie Mason and stand up comedians like me were not simply Jewish, they were New York. Big Difference.
“When I am asked Why did you become a comedian, there is no way to psychologically explain it’s this, or it’s that. A lot of people think that comedy and getting laughter and applause is making up for an unhappy childhood. Au contraire! I think it is just the opposite. All I can say is that in my case comedy was keeping the joy of a happy childhood going strong. I definitely wanted a continuum of the love that I got from my mother, brothers and aunts and uncles. Laughter is a concrete response to your actions, a way to let you know that people are responding to your efforts. You get the spotlight when you’re the baby of the family. Somewhere along sixteen or seventeen you don’t get that anymore. I wasn’t getting kissed for being just Melvin anymore. Now I had to go out and earn it. I needed to be kissed for being somebody. So I sought the spotlight.”
He wanted to perform but first he needed an act. He began touring the mountains (as a busboy) listening to comedians like Henny Youngman, Jan Murray, Mickey Katz.
“One of my favorites was Myron Cohen. Later in life I stole one of his best jokes but of course gave him credit. It goes like this: “A guy walks into a grocery store and says to the grocer “I’d like a half pound of lox, a pint of cream cheese, and…” Then he stops, because he’s puzzled by the store shelves filled with just boxes of salt. He says to the grocer, “You’ve got so many boxes of salt on your shelves. I’ve never seen so much salt! Excuse me for asking, but do you sell a lot of salt?” The grocer replies, “Mel.. to tell you the truth if I sell a box of salt a week I’m lucky. I don’t sell a lot of salt.” But. The guy who sells me salt. BOY CAN HE SELL SALT!” It always gets a big laugh.”
Disclosure: When I was a small boy, I remember listening to Myron Cohen on one of his regular appearances on Ed Sullivan’s popular TV program. I thought he was funny, but not as funny as my father did, who considered him nonpareil. I loved watching my father laugh. It seemed magical to me that a well-delivered punchline, a mere sequence of words could elicit, seemingly instantaneously, such visceral joy in the listener. It was like a great magician making a hitherto invisible card materialize out of thin air.
“Instinctively I realized it was an art.” He had always known he could make his friends and family laugh. Now he wanted to know why.
Throughout the book, Mel Brooks will pause to reflect and, occasionally, on the course his life took:
“The Borscht Belt was so important for my training in comedy. I think it was there that I first learned my craft. The audiences were very rough. They didn’t give it away. When you got a laugh you really earned it. Those audiences sharpened your ability to survive and sometimes triumph over disastrous performances.”
“I have a message for those readers who are setting out to make a career for themselves as writers or comedians. I call it “An ode to failure”
“Before achieving success in my career, I failed on large scales and small ones. During my time in the catskills some jokes worked and some didn’t. As a result, you didn’t just not do those jokes again. You learned what the audience expected, what they wanted. And then you have to learn a bigger lesson. Don’t give them what they expect, give them what they don’t know and don’t expect, and maybe you’ll get an even bigger explosion of laughter.”
“Failure is vital. It is incredibly important! After you wipe away your tears, it’s not a bad experience and under the right circumstances, it will make you better, both as a person and as an artist.”
“I think it is important to fail, especially between the ages of twenty and thirty. Success is like sugar. It is too good. It’s too sweet. It’s too wonderful, and it burns up very quickly- Failure is like corned beef hash. It takes a while to digest. But it stays with you. Failure may not feel good when it happens, but it will always sharpen your mind. You’ll always ask yourself ‘Where did I go wrong? Why didn’t this joke or this sketch work?’ And there will always be reasons. You can’t just say, “well, it’s not funny. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why is it not funny?’”
“My son Max, who wrote The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z gave the graduation speech at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, where he went for his undergraduate degree. To the graduating class, he said ‘Go Forth and Fail’” “He was absolutely on target, because nothing helps you to succeed like failure. But before he could go forth and fail in show business or anything else, he had set his heart on, life intervened.”
WORLD WAR II
“It was 1943 and my mother had three blue stars hanging on the window, meaning she had three boys in the service- all of my older brothers. Thank God none of them were gold stars, which meant you lost a child in combat.”
His brother Bernie was fighting in the South Pacific and eventually became a Japanese code breaker. Lenny was fighting in the Fifteenth Air Force as an engineer gunner on a B-12 Fighting Fortress stationed in Foggia, Italy, and Irving was a second lieutenant in the Signal Corp and (in the words of Mel Brooks (“fighting his way every day over across the George Washington Bridge in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey”)
While Lenny, last but not least of the Kaminskys, was special. He was “a true hero.”
To make his point, Mel Brooks interrupts his true life narrative to include the following article published in the December 28th 1943 edition of the New York Herald Tribune
NY FLYER FREEZES HANDS, REPAIRS GUN AT 32 BELOW: FLESH STUCK TO METAL, BUT HE CARRIES OUT HIS MISSION. WASHINGTON, DECEMBER 19TH
With full knowledge of the consequences, Staff Sergeant Kaminsky of 111 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn, peeled off his heavy gloves to repair his jammed machine gun at a height of five miles and in a temperature of 12 degrees below zero during a recent mission against an Austrian target, the War Department said today. Kaminsky’s hands froze almost immediately, as he knew they would. His fingers swelled to twice normal size and the skin of his hands stuck to the steel as he worked, but he repaired the gun and went back into action to help fight off the German fighter planes as his Flying Fortress was returning from an attack on the Messerschmidt aircraft factory at Wiener-Neustadt. Now in a hospital, he is recuperating…”
Ironically, as Mel Brooks writes, “ Fortunately but unfortunately his hands healed quickly and he was right back into action.” On the day Lenny was supposed to come home, they changed the requirement from twenty five to fifty missions. On his thirty sixth mission he was shot down and captured as a prisoner of war. When he bailed out of the plane, he ripped his dog tags off because they read a blood type, “H,” and it meant Hebrew. He had heard that Jewish flyers were being sent to concentration camps which was likely certain death.
When he was arrested on the ground by the Germans, they threw him into a prisoner of war camp and asked “Popolsky? Meaning, are you Polish?”
He said, “Yeah, Yeah, Popolsky.”
For nineteen months, he was in a Stalag camp. He got through it but he never would have made it if the Germans found out that he was Jewish.
In early 1944 he was seventeen and a senior in high school and about to be drafted. In anticipation of that, he joined the ASTRP (the Army Specialized Training Program). He was sent to college at VMI (the Virginia Military Institute, known as the “West Point of the South”)
Being from Brooklyn, VMI took a lot of getting used to (“I had never even seen a cheeseburger before.” By the time he is discharged, “Honorably, I might add”- in June of 1946 he has grown an inch and put on 20 pounds. Looking back, he concludes “The army didn’t rob me of my youth, but actually, come to think of it, they really gave me quite an education. If you didn’t get killed in the army, you can learn a lot. You learn how to sand on your own two feet.”
It is characteristic of Mel Brooks that every story he tells, no matter how horrific, ends with a happy face. When his beloved wife and faithful companion of forty five years, Anne Bankroft, dies after bravely battling uterine cancer for several years, the manifestly heartbroken Brooks would steadfastly refuse to accept overtures of consolation “no tears here” was his mantra, and he would go about the room telling jokes and quips, and only stop when the whole room was laughing. Not only was this not a bravado performance of stiff upper lip, but it was such a feature of his fiercely upbeat, manic personality that he would often be invited to the funerals of friends for the purpose of cheering everyone up.
The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott has written about individuals who can not bear a depression. These are people who can not, for various reasons, tolerate the stress of depression, panic attacks, anxiety that one may be dying, compared to which, hysterical fits may be preferable. When asked about his mother Kitty, an intense, complicated woman, mother of four sons, who lost her husband during the depression — the most he would say, the most he was able to say, is “she was swell.”
Vulnerability, weakness, fear, were not in her vocabulary. Neither was it in Mel Brooks’ vocabulary. He not only defied calamity, he courted it. He kept upping the ante, the more success he had. The more he pushed the envelope. His ace in the hole was the King of Comedy in the fifties and early sixties — Sid Caesar. No less an authority than Woody Allen, who once worked alongside Mel Brooks as a fledgling comedy writer on the legendary Show of Shows said, “in those days in New York, Sid Caesar was the center.” Comedy began and ended with Sid Caesar, and as far as Sid Caesar, who had bonded instantly with Mel Brooks, was concerned, Mel Brooks was his writer. No one was allowed to touch him.
It didn’t matter he was disruptive, that he was more than just a little bit crazy, that he had the habit (after being about an hour late for the weekly meeting) of bursting into the executive suite, leaping upon the long oaken table dominating the room and sliding from one end to the other, upon which he would scream “SAFE!” It didn’t matter that such behavior irritated the hell out of the president of RCA who might be attending the meeting.
–The only thing that mattered, was the King, Sid Caesar, the hottest comedian on the planet, whom America had fallen wildly, instantly in love with — was He laughing? And yes, Sid Caesar, almost invariably, was laughing. He may have had to pay Brooks $40 out of his own pocket (not an inconsiderable sum in those days) but he knew what he had- a raw uncut diamond with a fountain of ideas that never ceased to flow.
As long as The Show of Shows lasted, as long as several spinoffs from the Show of Shows lasted, Mel Brooks was golden. Outside of the industry he was barely known — it would be years before his name would even be listed as one of the regular Show of Shows writers, but inside the industry his reputation was growing as kind of an ad libbing wunderkind whose mind could go places that no one else could, and no one else would want to. He was acknowledged to be an original but it was not appreciated how much method there was to his madness. A pattern emerged: he would enter a rapidly emerging field- TV comedy writer- and almost immediately begin reinventing it.
-Because he had little to lose (he was making peanuts for years) and was a natural, fearless performer- -because the lion of the field, Sid Caesar, had his back, he would take enormous risks. It didn’t matter that so many ideas failed, because when he scored he scored BIG.
His first success came when he was invited to write the pilot for a new show to be called Get Smart starring Don Adams as agent Maxwell Smart. For his writing partner, whom he was allowed to personally choose, he picked the brilliant, eccentric Buck Henry. The pilot they wrote received excellent reviews, but the studio heads, for reasons unknown, decided to pass on picking it up for a second year. Then, as Mel Brooks puts it, “we got lucky- a studio executive executive, who had not yet seen the pilot, saw it and fell in love with it! That did the trick. The studio reversed itself, picked up the pilot Get Smart for a second season and the rest is history. Get Smart caught on and became a sensation. Don Adams became a huge star, Mel Brooks, for the first time, received a substantial weekly salary.
He could now afford to marry Anne Bancroft, a huge star. As mentioned, the marriage lasted forty five years and by all accounts was deeply and mutually satisfying on many fundamental levels. Their son Max, unsurprisingly, is a successful, talented writer, humorist and talk show guest. He is often by the side of his legendary 95-year old father. One of Max’s many functions is to accompany his father on his (now restricted) get-togethers with cherished old friendships. Many of course are gone, such as Sid Caesar; and Carl Reiner, who go back over sixty years, to the glory days of Your Show of Shows. There are few things more poignantly nostalgic in this magnificent book than Mel Brooks’ tributes to his departed friends.
It is as if he is at a loss to find the right words to express the magnitude of his gratitude, the depth of his love, to articulate what it is about the relationship that was so endearingly meaningful to him.
Of Sid Caesar, he says simply “Without Sid Caesar there would have been no Mel Brooks.”
Of Carl Reiner he says “There never was anyone like Carl Reiner. There never will be anyone like Carl Reiner.”
Weeks after the death of his wife, he confessed, sadly, to a friend: so powerful is the presence and memory of the love of his life, that “I’m still trying to please Anne.”
Up until the very end, Max, with an occasional friend, would collect Sid Caesar on Passover (a favorite Jewish Holiday), they would go through the traditional Seder readings together. “I think Sid understood, but I don’t know.” There is great sadness in Mel Brooks’ voice.
Of the people he loved most in his life, only Max remains. Fortunately, his son is loyal, steadfast, attentive and loving.
In a sense, the book is a love letter, a valentine to everything and everyone he loved in his life. Hence it is a fat book, as Max says, one that could almost write itself.
Although he never saw action, Mel Brooks was as much of a “fighting Kaminsky,” a hero, in his own right, as any of his brothers. What he has accomplished in his life is almost beyond belief. With almost no experience he writes and directs The Producers, one of the most acclaimed comedies of all time. His first musical, The Producers sets the all time record, winning twelve Tonys- a record which still stands. In 1975, the very first TV show, he is invited to create and write (with Buck Henry) -GET SMART- becomes a sensation. He won the Oscar for best original screenplay for the Producers. He won the AFI Life Achievement Award.
In 2016 Mel Brooks was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. He is an EGOT winner- one of the very few to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Mel Brooks, a widely loved figure, was allegedly also a hated figure. Disclosure: As a Brooks watcher, someone who has seen most of his films and almost all of his TV appearances over the past fifty years I can say au contraire, I have never seen Brooks behave in a mean-spirited way. He was always never less than a mensch: (a Yiddish word meaning heart, feeling, empathy in the sense of “have a heart.”)
Note: You don’t have to Jewish to be a mensch. No mean achievement in today’s dog eat dog, hate-filled, politicized world.
In the past fifty years, I’ve read about a thousand books, more than a few of which were great. None of them were funnier or had more heart and soul than “All About Me!”
So yes, I can say it- He’s an authentic, National Treasure.
Enjoy him while you can.
Gerald Alper is the author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient: Psychodynamic Studies of the Creative Personality. His new book is God and Therapy: What We Believe When No One is Watching