Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett Together Again debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Dick Cavett is a born conversation-starter, and Mel Brooks is a born conversation-heightener. Not that Brooks ever sat back and let other people do the heavy lifting. His career—his genius—is based on looking at the world and finding the most funny possible. His most successful films are spoofs, a format that requires a depth of knowledge about film and the uncanny ability to react; and he did spoof films better than anyone ever has, or will. On a smaller scale, he’s the epitome of the “funny man” in the timeless, straight man-funny man comedy dynamic. You give this guy anything, and he’ll make it hysterical. He works magic with Carl Reiner on The 2000 Year Old Man, and his evening with Dick Cavett, captured by HBO, plays right to Brooks’ many strengths as a storyteller and beloved guru.
But of course, the special has two names in the title, and this is as much Cavett’s show as it is Brooks’. During a segment about the origin of The 2000 Year Old Man, Brooks credits Carl Reiner for its creation, and even calls Reiner, seated in the audience, up to a microphone to explain how it came about. Brooks knows he can’t create anything from nothing; he needs energy and playfulness to feed. Cavett gives it to him in spades, sharing memories of Bob Hope and Jack Benny that are less-than-flattering, slowly shifting the spotlight over to Brooks and letting him simply say whatever comes to mind. The former talk show host is just that good: He puts his interview subjects completely at ease by demonstrating that he’s simply a peer and a friend of theirs.
Brooks starts slow—passing the buck to Reiner; letting Cavett take charge—but once the evening starts going, so does Brooks. Cavett recalls Brooks’ relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, and Brooks quickly launches into a series of tales about the man that are both unbelievable and yet totally believable, given how odd that guy was. At first Brooks is seated; later, he rises, acting out the gestures his stories require, even recreating the Jerry Lewis-esque walk that played a part in the most embarrassing story in Brooks’ entire history. At one point an audience member asks for Brooks’ age, but watching the man shift right into performance mode, he hardly shows that age at all.
Cavett is unbelievably tickled by Brooks’ tales. Brooks is unbelievably tickled by Cavett’s questions, observations, and witticisms. The guys simply love being around each other, and that rapport is palpable. There’s no desperate desire to impress anyone; both figures have already impressed as many people as they can, and are more in-the-moment than a hundred Marc Marons. In fact, they’re so eager to share whatever it is that comes to mind, that both parties say, at numerous times, “This is a true story,” because the next thing they say is quite unbelievable. And the ease at which they tickle each other is unbelievable. At one point, Brooks mentions one of his films, and about one-third of the audience applauds. Brooks holds up a hand in modesty, also noting the mediocre response: “Please: Either a lot, or nothing.” The audiences goes wild, and Cavett almost falls out of his chair.
HBO is one of the only networks that understands a core concept of comedy: Everything is important. Showtime’s Green Room With Paul Provenza is so sloppily edited, there’s little room for exposition or pause. Comedy Central specials are regularly packaged beyond recognition, leaving little room for the character of the stand-up to shine through. There are a couple little snips here-and-there to ensure Together Again is as packed as possible with amazing material, but it doesn’t feel like anything is lost. There are lulls to make the electric moments that much more potent. There are stories that lead nowhere, just so they can be referenced again later on. Much like this year’s Talking Funny, few things get in the way of watching the talent simply be. And both Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett are just as they’d like to be: fiercely intelligent and unbelievably clever. They’re national treasures.