Friday, March 22, 2019

Books: A Look At "Funny Man" Mel Brooks

Funny Man: Mel Brooks
By Patrick McGilligan
Harper; an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, 656 pages; $40.00; available today, Tuesday, March 19

Mel Brooks is one of the greatest comedic minds of our times, creator of some of the most influential comedy hits of our time, including The 2,000 Year Old Man, Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
Patrick McGilligan, the acclaimed author of Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, has written a deeply textured and compelling biography of this Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy award–winner, covering his rags-to-riches life and triumphant career in television, films, and theater, Funny Man: Mel Brooks.

In this exhaustively researched and wonderfully novelistic look at Brooks' personal and professional life, McGilligan lays bare the strengths and drawbacks that shaped Brooks' psychology, his willpower, his persona, and his comedy.

Before Brooks entertained the world from behind, and sometimes in front of, the camera, as an actor, writer, director, comedian, his first audience was his family in their Williamsburg tenement.

The fourth and last child of Max and Kitty Kaminsky, Brooks was born on his family's kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, and was not quite three-years-old when his father died of tuberculosis. Growing up in a household too poor to own a radio, Mel was short and homely, a mischievous child whose birth role was to make the family laugh.

After he transformed himself into Mel Brooks, the laughs that came easily inside the Kaminsky family proved more elusive. His lifelong crusade to transform himself into a brand name of popular humor is at the center of Funny Man.

McGilligan navigates the epic ride that has been the famous funnyman's life story, from Brooks' childhood in Williamsburg tenements, the profound impact of his father's early death and how it affected his own family responsibilities later in life; a look at his mentor-protege relationship with Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, where he was part of a trailblazing writers' room; his often-volatile collaborations with a who's who of fellow comedy legends such as Jerry Lewis, Richard Prior, Gene Wilder, and Carl Reiner; the evolution of The Producers, an overnight global phenomenon decades in the making; and an examination of his Hollywood and Broadway peaks and valleys.

There is also a thoughtful meditation on the Jewish immigrant culture that influenced Brooks, snapshots of the golden age of comedy, behind-the-scenes revelations about the celebrated shows and films, and a telling look at the four-decade romantic partnership with actress Anne Bancroft that superseded Brooks' troubled first marriage.

Here, McGilligan writes about where Brooks is in the mid-1960s, right about the time he conceives of the idea of The Producers, "The interviews he gave attest that Brooks still nursed lofty literary ambitions. 'I like what I do - getting ideas and writing about them,' he told one journalist in the 1960s, 'and one day I'd like to be better at it. I'd like to write more screenplays, or a Broadway play, or a book, which - hopefully - would note people's tears and joys, and say something about the human condition. I'd like to grow up and be Sean O'Brooks.'
"But he still badly needed collaborators, and the collaborator who helped him achieve his breakthrough, his most important collaborator, was not Terry Southern, his show business friend Martin Charnin, or witty Buck Henry.
"It was Alfa-Betty Olsen.
"Turning dejectedly away from 'Triplets,' 'Marriage Is a Dirty Rotten Fraud,' and 'The Last Man,'  Brooks finally set his sights on a project that had been on his back burner for almost eight years. As always, he needed the pretense of a typist's assistance. When, in mid-1966, he finally got serious about writing 'Springtime for Hitler,' he returned to the amanuensis who had helped with 'All American' and Get Smart,  a woman as clever and funny as she was Miss Norway-pretty. Olsen had moved on and was working as an assistant to Lore Noto, another Brooklynite, the producer of The Fantasticks, which was in the midst of becoming the longest-running off-Broadway musical in history. Noto was busy developing a musical based on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's novel The Yearling.
"Olsen was so pretty that some people thought Brooks was having some kind of romance with her, despite the fact Olsen had a steady boyfriend whom she married in 1967. What she and Brooks did have was a mutual admiration society, a kinship in which he always laughed at her kooky humor and she always laughed at his antics and jokes. When they brainstormed scenes, with Olsen typing, Olsen had an editor's instinct for what should stay and what should go. Adding her two cents' worth to lines and scenes as they evolved (Kenneth Tynan described her as 'an inventive secretary'), Olsen also had the great virtue, certainly in Brooks's eyes, of modesty and lack of concern about rewards.
"Brooks had originally conceived of his story as a novel; then it had grown into a possible stage musical; now, as the stage musical became a film, the script became a musical within a film about two producers planning to mount 'Springtime for Hitler,' a surefire flop that they pitch as 'A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden.' Brooks and Olsen worked at Noto's theater district's office, trading space for answering his phone and taking messages; other times they convened at the midtown apartment of producer Stanley Chase, who got his return favor by driving Brooks's '59 Jaguar around on the West Coast.
"Over time Brooks had given names to the two producers: Max Bialystock was a middle-aged fop of a hustler whose surname derived from a large city in Poland and, in the words of Merriam-Webster, 'a flat breakfast roll that has a depressed center and is usually covered with onion flakes,' beloved by Jews. Leopold Bloom was his newly engaged, febrile young accountant, whose name came from the protagonist of James Joyce's Ulysses. ('I don't know what it meant to be James Joyce,' Brooks later informed The New Yorker, 'but to me Leo Bloom always meant a vulnerable Jew with curly hair.')
"Brooks consciously crafted the two main characters as representatives of his divided self: the Nice Mel (Bloom) and the Rude Crude Mel (Bialystock). 'Max and Leo are me, the ego and id of my personality,' he explained later. 'Bialystock - tough, scheming, full of ideas, bluster, ambition, wounded pride. And Leo, this magical child.'
"Bialystock was the more obvious Mel: all 'flash and noise,' as the treatment described him, 'not an ordinary man - he is a FORCE...extravagantly alive.' The impresario of forgettable Broadway shows, Bialystock finagles seed money from the sex-starved old ladies he seduces in his Times Square office. His new accountant, Bloom, is a shy number cruncher who figures out that a huge flop, which has been overly invested in by, say, 25,000 percent, could escape an Internal Revenue Service audit and make more in profits than a long-running hit. The odd bedfellows to stage the biggest turnoff ever, 'Springtime for Hitler,' an ode to you-know-who, whose script has been submitted by a Nazi enthusiast. When critics and audiences greet the musical as a 'genius spoof,' 'Springtime' becomes a runaway success, and the crooked duo go to jail.
"The dumb blood goddess that is their secretary was a patent burlesque of Olsen. Brooks mused about playing the Nazi-admiring playwright, another wacky supporting character, though he never wavered in his determination to direct the film himself."

With Funny Man, Patrick McGilligan has created an engrossing, nuanced, and ultimately poignant tale of Mel Brooks' rich life, one all fans of this comic genius should read. 

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