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Mel Brooks: The TV Worth Watching Interview, Take 3
July 15, 2014  | By David Bianculli
 

Mel Brooks recently turned 88, but still juggles as many ongoing projects as Ken Burns. This month alone, he’s popping up on TCM, appearing at a Hollywood salute to Sid Caesar, and hatching plans for… well, you have to read it to believe it…

Brooks has been so unfailingly nice, and so graciously accessible, to me the past few years, I popped in to see him and say hi when I was in Los Angeles recently. Then I called him for a one-hour interview keyed to the next book I’m hoping to write – and only now, while reading over the transcription of that interview and recalling the gist of our earlier talk, did it dawn on me that there was enough topical – and newsworthy – stuff that I should share it, while holding the book topics for later.

First thing first:

On Wednesday, July 16, the Paley Center for Media – the Los Angeles one, not the one in New York – hosts a 7 p.m. PT presentation called Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner & Friends Salute Sid Caesar. It’s a salute to the comic genius who gave Brooks his first TV job (in 1949, as an uncredited writer on The Admiral Broadway Revue) and first paired him with future 2000 Year Old Man partner Reiner (on Caesar’s classic Your Show of Shows). Caesar’s live TV triumphs on both Your Show of Shows and its successor, Caesar’s Hour, will be discussed and presented, with best buddies Brooks and Reiner making room for other voices as well.

“We’re gonna do a little memorial salute to Sid Caesar,” Brooks explained, speaking casually yet tenderly. “We’re gonna say goodbye, we’re gonna show some clips, we’ve got a few friends of his talking.”

Eddy Friedfeld, who co-wrote the comedian’s memoir, Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, will moderate the session, with other participants showing up as surprise guests.

 [UPDATE: Billy Crystal has just been added to the guest list of participants saluting Sid Caesar - DB]

Tickets can be obtained at the Paley Center website, where you can also get details about the site’s live streaming of the event.

If you can’t get to Los Angeles, you can see Mel Brooks on TCM, which on July 31 is devoting the night to him. The evening begins at 8 p.m. ET with 1970’s Twelve Chairs, Brooks’ take on the Russian classic about a man whose mother reveals on his deathbed that she sewed a fortune in jewels in one of a dozen family chairs. Frank Langella and Rod Moody star.

Roger Ebert, then a young film critic already showing his chops, singled out Twelve Chairs for special praise in his Dec. 22, 1970 review: “While The Producers was hilarious, yes, The Twelve Chairs is a more fully realized work because it uses comedy not just for laughs but as a tool for examining the human condition.”

Other, better-known treats in TCM’s Mel Brooks movie night are 1976’s Silent Movie (9:45 p.m. ET), 1977’s High Anxiety (11:30 p.m. ET), and 1983’s To Be Or Not to Be (2:15 a.m. ET), his fond and funny remake of the 1942 Jack Benny comedy of the same name – which TCM presents at 4:15 a.m. ET, immediately after Brooks’ version has concluded. And sandwiched in between all that, at 1:15 a.m. ET, is a showing of the 2006 Dick Cavett interview with Brooks. What an evening.

And what of The Producers, his 1967 movie classic that led to his 2001 Broadway triumph?  Roger Ebert, in that same review from 1970, anointed The Producers “one of the funniest films ever made.” But Brooks, ever the creative and competitive firecracker, would take issue with the qualifier. “One of”?

One reason Brooks showed up to open the recent American Film Institute Life Achievement Award show for Jane Fonda – an award he had been given the year before – was to schedule a throwdown with AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale.

Brooks wants to stage a battle for posterity bragging rights regarding the AFI’s ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Comedies, a list released back in 2000. Brooks had three films on the list, and was the most represented director in the Top 15: Blazing Saddles was ranked No. 6, The Producers No. 11, and Young Frankenstein No. 13. But for Brooks, that’s not good enough, and he feels The Producers, even now, could do better – especially against the AFI’s top-ranked comedy, Some Like It Hot.

Brooks told me the deal he made with Gazzale to open the Fonda tribute.

“I said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you have a laugh-off between Blazing Saddles and Some Like it Hot’ – Some Like it Hot is number one of the 100 Funniest Films in America on the AFI list – I said, ‘If you create a laugh-off, same audience, you know, one run at seven, one run at nine, then I’ll do it. I’ll come back to the AFI for the Jane Fonda thing.’  He said, ‘Ok. You made a deal.’”

Brooks laughed. “So sometime in the next couple of months, we’re going to have this Blazing Saddles vs. Some Like it Hot Laugh-Off!... Probably get the Chinese Theatre [on Hollywood Boulevard].”

And other past Brooks projects may resurface in the future as well – in other forms, or as sequels. At the same time Brooks is editing his latest TV special in which he tells stories and answers questions before a packed house, he’s contemplating other ideas. One is a Broadway musical version of Blazing Saddles, which he’s discussed here before.

And the other, which is especially intriguing for his newer generations of fans, is that he’s thinking about raising the money to produce a movie sequel to Spaceballs, his Star Wars parody that, though not making the AFI’s all-time best American comedy list, has become, over the years, Brooks’ best-selling title on DVD.

With a new round of Star Wars movies in production, Brooks reasoned, and with Spaceballs having developed its own cult following, the time might be right to write a new chapter of his 1987 sci-fi parody.

“And,” he says with an impish smile, “I could still play Yogurt.”

 
 
 
 
 
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