From the moment Mel Brooks entered show business in the late ’40s, he became the comedy equivalent of a utility player, working as a writer, director, producer, performer, and all-around personality. Though Brooks will likely be best remembered for his string of hit movie parodies in the ’70s—along with the popular Broadway musical of his movie The Producers—his legacy also includes television sketches, comedy albums, sitcoms, and countless talk-show appearances. The six-disc box set The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy tries to encompass Brooks’ sprawling career, and does so fairly haphazardly. Eschewing chronology, The Incredible Mel Brooks jumps around, from Brooks doing guest shots on TV series in the ’90s, to him cracking up Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in the ’70s, to sketches from Your Show Of Shows in the ’50s, to a 60 Minutes profile in the ’00s, to the Oscar-winning 1963 short film “The Critic,” and so on, back and forth. Across its five DVDs (and single CD), the set collects all manner of odds and ends, anchored by extensive new interviews with Brooks, in which he reflects on the wide variety of work he’s done over the past 60-plus years.
Brooks is unpretentious, gracious, and insightful in the new material, looking back on his career with a combination of genuine gratitude for his good fortune and confidence that he had the goods all along. Even better are the older televised interviews, for which Brooks knew he’d be expected to be “on.” Talking with Dick Cavett or David Susskind, Brooks mixes anecdotes about New York showbiz in the early ’50s with the kind of off-the-cuff jokes and self-deprecating comments that allowed him to hold his own with the likes of Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart in Sid Caesar’s writers’ rooms. Of particular interest are the snippets of Brooks’ Tonight Show appearances: He does a spot-on spoof of Frank Sinatra singing “America The Beautiful” in one, and then in another answers Carson’s question about the hardest part of making movies by saying, “Putting all the little holes on the side of the celluloid. There’s like a million of ’em!”
As for the scripted Brooks work included in the set, it’s a decidedly mixed bag, leaning heavily on his three main themes: making fun of popular culture, lampooning Adolf Hitler, and taking on the persona of a cranky older Jewish fellow (sometimes way older, as in “The 2000 Year Old Man” routines that Brooks has performed with Carl Reiner since the ’50s). For the most part, the hodgepodge of Mad About You and Tracey Ullman Show guest shots—and the samples of Brooks’ voiceover work on commercials and Electric Company segments—just shows how his distinctive comic style has remained viable and comfortably familiar for so many decades. But the hidden gem of The Incredible Mel Brooks is the 1963 pilot for the sitcom Inside Danny Baker, which didn’t get picked up, even though its William Steig-inspired premise of a city kid with an active imagination comes off as funny, sweet, and original in its one and only episode. Inside Danny Baker is evidence that Brooks could’ve followed his pal Reiner into Dick Van Dyke Show-style family comedy, if the networks had let him. Instead, he helped writer Buck Henry create Get Smart, and his path to Hollywood success became more nutty.
Key features: The entire set is one big special feature, really, but the CD in particular is something special, containing a few of the best-known songs from Brooks’ movies (such as “Springtime For Hitler,” “I’m Tired,” and “The Inquisition”), along with the audio from some talk-show and game-show appearances for which the video has been lost.