So, Mel Brooks is coming to London – March 22nd, Prince of Wales Theatre – for his first ever one-man show in the UK, at the age of nearly 89. Brooks is one of the last of the great American comedians, and yet his true brilliance is often overlooked, mostly due to his own unwillingness to affect any kind of pretentiousness – what’s important to him is the laugh, and there have always been plenty of those.
A useful comparison here would be Woody Allen, who approaches his own 80th birthday similarly determined to keep working prolifically. Apart from the obvious ethnic comparison, with both emerging from a tradition of Jewish comedy, both have built their comedy through a sophisticated reverence for classical literature, theatre and philosophy. It is impossible to truly love these two filmmakers without a certain amount of education, in order to unpack their references and ideas. But where Allen has always seen himself as an artist, and openly resented the implication that he is a comedian, Mel Brooks has never wanted to be anything else – there’s nothing he loves more than getting a good laugh, and he will do anything, no matter how crude, to get it. It is never surprising to have a joke about Kafka followed by a fart joke, and never less than hysterically funny.
Both of course act in their own films, but Allen has constantly taken the lead in his, reflecting his idea of himself as a tortured romantic. Only once, in Silent Movie, has Brooks played the lead, despite his obvious talent as a performer. He prefers to steal the show with outlandish cameos that often crystallize his films’ core attitudes and ideas beautifully – from merchandise-obsessed Yoghurt in Star Wars-parody Spaceballs to incompetent, prejudiced bureaucrat LePetomaine in Blazing Saddles (a second cameo as a Yiddish Native American is also a treat). This is quiet evidence not only of his comic timing but also his ability as a writer, razor-sharp and well-honed.
Brooks’ films break the fourth wall extensively, pointing out their own flaws and bizarre natures as often as they tear into their respective subjects. This meta-textual fascination, coupled with his own preoccupations with the entertainment industry, male neurosis and an almost tragi-comically absurd view of power and the ‘way the world works’ so to speak, have been examined repeatedly over the course of a near-50 year career behind the camera and have formed a filmography deceptively rich in ideas about many things, particularly films and how we watch them.
He also had, to my mind, one of the great years for any director in memory. In 1974 he directed two films, both potentially his masterwork: Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Comedy dates, it’s true. Things are rarely as funny 40 years on, times and attitudes having changed. But Saddles is a film that seems to get funnier by the day. And not just funnier, but edgier. It is impossible to imagine this film being made today, its satire is far too biting, too painful, too irreverent and too unconcerned with political correctness. In a way Tarantino surely dreams of, Brooks manages to entirely escape his whiteness and create a truly radical film (having Richard Pryor as a co-writer surely helped) that challenges us more and more.
And back-to-back with this he wrote and directed Young Frankenstein, one of the most visually and technically sophisticated comedies ever. A pitch-perfect spoof of Universal monster movies, this also features Gene Wilder’s finest performance, as nebbish scientist Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, Fronk-en-steen). Possibly the only time Brooks allows himself to hint at his hidden artistry, Young Frankenstein is as beautiful and measured as it is gut-bustingly funny.
For someone who won an Academy Award for his debut film (1968’s The Producers), Brooks has been underappreciated as an artist. Rather he has been loved for his shtick, which is all very well. But now, in his old age, his presence as someone with a wealth of experience, of stories, and of a refreshingly un-selfconscious attitude toward his work and himself, is something to be treasured. And with this shift comes a renewed appreciation of his singular talent as, truly, one of the funniest men to ever have made his mark on entertainment. To listen to Brooks talk nowadays is to hear true love for film and for comedy.
This may well be the only time Brooks plays his show in the UK, but we’re lucky to have him at all. From showbiz takedown The Producers, to the Hitchcockian comedy/thriller High Anxiety, to his two masterpieces of ’74, all the way to his more recent successes on Broadway, Mel Brooks has always been a comedic risk-taker, a confident directorial voice and, the closer one looks, quite possibly a comedic genius, who conceals a stunning aesthetic and referential sophistication beneath an aura of slapstick, vaudevillian gags.
posted by Dave.