It’s only been a little more than a year since the last time HBO set aside an hour for Mel Brooks to spritz and take questions in front of a live audience. Strikes Back, featuring Alan Yentob as interviewer, is a more relaxed and casual affair than last year’s Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett Together Again, which was packaged as a reunion of giants. (Carl Reiner dropped in, just in case Dick Cavett wasn’t giant enough for everybody.) Adding to the peculiarity of this broadcast—the “Is this trip necessary?” factor—is the recent release of The Incredible Mel Brooks, the DVD set from Shout! Factory, which includes both the Cavett program and two earlier BBC specials, An Audience With… Mel Brooks and the 1981 documentary I Thought I Was Taller, that Yentob had a hand in. Someone who’d never heard of Mel Brooks, or who knows him mainly as the man behind a Broadway musical (or two) based on a movie (or two) he’d made 30 years earlier, before going on to make several much worse movies, might wonder how many times this character can expect people to want to follow him down Memory Lane.
The short answer to that question is that nothing Brooks has done in his long career outshines his standing as one of the great, unleashed talkers of his generation. As Erik Adams noted here, the Shout! Factory set is a real treasure box, cherry-picking half a century’s worth of TV series, guest appearances, and other esoterica to create a rich, varied picture of one man’s place in the show business history of his time, but for all the pleasures of Brooks’ best work behind the scenes at Your Show Of Shows or Get Smart or the busted pilot Inside Danny Baker, the most priceless finds—from the Oscar-winning animated short The Critic to the trailer for an Italian sword-and-sandal flick to radio commercials to his appearance on the panel of the “Jewish Sons” episode of The David Susskind Show—are tributes to the mythic power of one man’s motor mouth.
This hour could be a supplement to the new box set; in its way, it’s a career summary, even if there isn’t time for Brooks to do much besides hit a few of the high points before Yentob moves him along. The talk is fleshed out with clips: Sid Caesar hauling Howard Morris around like a sack of potatoes in the classic-beyond-classic This Is Your Life parody from Your Show Of Shows; one of those live 2000-Year-Old Man routines from Brooks and Carl Reiner that are so weird to watch, because there’s no way Brooks can physically suggest the image of an ancient, gossipy Jewish wise guy that his voice summons up on the records; the only three good minutes from High Anxiety; the only three good minutes from the 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be, with Brooks and Anne Bancroft performing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish; a clip from The Producers that feels about twice as long as the whole movie. (“I’m hysterical and wet!” is a great line, but Zero Mostel and the extreme close-up were not the greatest things that ever happened to each other.)
Brooks is up and happy for the full hour, though a trace of melancholy comes through when he mentions that he first tried to break into movies with an unproduced script titled Marriage Is A Dirty Rotten Fraud. Almost under his breath, he mutters that he later found out that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t; “Mine wasn’t.” (Bancroft, his wife of 40 years, died in 2005.) He sounds almost as wistful on the subject of Gene Wilder, whom he talks about as if Wilder had died; Wilder, who last worked with Brooks on Young Frankenstein in 1974, and who hasn’t acted since an episode of Will & Grace in 2003, announced that he considered himself retired during a 2008 interview on Turner Classic Movies, and it’s easy to imagine that Brooks doesn’t see much difference between retirement and death. Young Frankenstein remains Brooks’ best and only fully sustained movie, and he acknowledges how important Wilder was to that accomplishment when an audience member asks him why he didn’t act in it himself. He says that, as an on-screen presence, he’s always found it hard to keep from “winking at” the audience, and Wilder agreed to do the picture, which he co-wrote, only if his beloved director agreed to stay the hell behind the camera.
Brooks also discusses how old Jews at the Borscht Belt resort where he worked as a teenager died from singing a Bing Crosby song off-key, reveals the horrible truth that it was possible to get sick of Cary Grant’s company, and explains why it was not the greatest idea to hire the alcoholic Gig Young to play the alcoholic Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. As for the British Yentob, he makes both a fine master of ceremonies and an excellent foil. When Yentob turns to the audience and concedes that something they’ve just heard might seem “far-fetched,” Brooks breaks in: “That’s a Yiddish word: ‘Fafecth!” There’s a lot here that’s more quotable than that, and I’m restraining the urge to quote any of it, because this is on HBO, and if you missed it tonight you’ll have many more opportunities to catch it, and you ought to take one of them, so you can savor Brooks’ delivery at the same time the lines are taking you by surprise. If anything, Strike Back is fresher and zestier than the Cavett reunion show, and I wonder if the knowledge that the Shout! Factory box was coming out might have had something to do with that—if it made Brooks feel the need to prove that he isn’t done yet, and that box set isn’t a tombstone for his career. The comprehensive box set could be the new Lifetime Achievement Award.