PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.  

Mel Brooks 101

Mel Brooks’ reputation rests on a fragile precipice. He built a career pioneering, popularizing, and perfecting two forms of comedy—lowbrow vulgarity and genre parodies—that have since taken up residence at the bottom of the esteem barrel. Extreme humor today is basically filmmakers finding ways for their characters to ingest or get splattered with bodily fluids, and the more prominent parodies of the past decade merely reminded audiences of the most inescapable parts of pop culture and called it a day. The filmmaker’s legacy would be one to pity if a look at Brooks’ descendants led to the conclusion that the level of quality extended to his own work. But to quote The Producers, Brooks’ cinematic debut, “You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect.”

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The premier director of low comedy, Brooks is a master of physical gags and terrible puns. Anytime he performs now, he opens with schmaltzy one-liners from his Borscht Belt days, like “You can’t keep Jews in jail: They eat lox.” Where other directors have visual trademarks, Brooks recycles his favorite bits across movies: “Good to be the king,” or “Walk this way.”

When he found funny people, he used them over and over again: Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Harvey Korman. If you’re watching a Mel Brooks movie with Gene Wilder, you are watching one of the funniest movies ever made. Brooks loved old showbiz conventions and formats, celebrating them as much as he teased them. Nearly every one of his films stops for a musical number, even if he has to crash through the fourth wall to get there.

At their best, Brooks’ parodies weren’t easy retreads of familiar source material but illuminating explorations that in some cases improved on what they were skewering. His shattering of taboos—making objects of fun out of Nazis and white supremacists—wasn’t offensiveness for its own sake. Roger Ebert was fond of telling a story where Brooks, opening being told his debut was vulgar, responded, “It rose below vulgarity.”

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Brooks’ classic The Producers (1967) opens with has-been “King Of Broadway” Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) putting the moves on one of the enthusiastic little old ladies he counts among his backers. A scene like this could play a lot of ways, most of them unsuccessfully. Here’s how Brooks does it: He embraces the grotesque elements—Bialystock is a tornado of flop sweat and combover—and where other directors would find it inconceivably funny that these octogenarians were sexual creatures, the joke here is entirely on Bialystock’s greed and desperation. It’s broad in tone but nuanced in writing and performance, and it functions as a character-driven set piece as opposed to just button-pushing.

Or take “Springtime For Hitler,” the defining sequence of Brooks’ career. Bialystock and Leo Bloom (Wilder, in a masterpiece of twitchiness) have overfunded and staged “a love letter to Hitler,” looking to walk away with millions at its presumed failure.

The only way this sequence makes narrative sense is if Brooks goes all out. Only a truly offensive show could be guaranteed to close, just as only a truly offensive one could be mistaken as satire, as happens here. So while the goose-stepping dance sequence and sexy Nazi costumes are, objectively speaking, in terrible taste, they follow a logic that makes them almost inconceivably funny in this context.

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Brooks would push this kind of taboo-breaking even further in Blazing Saddles (1974), a comedy that still feels daring for its bomb-throwing at some of America’s touchiest subjects.

Saddles is Brooks’ first movie spoof, but rather than sending up a specific film, as he would do later, he takes aim at the underlying themes of the Western genre. Watch a classic oater and you’ll likely encounter a lot of cringe-worthy racism and scenes of white men mowing down non-white characters on their path to manifest destiny. In a fairly radical move for a Western, let alone a comic one, Saddles makes the cowboys and government the enemy because of their racism. And Brooks makes it clear that his critique doesn’t just apply to the Old West, but to modern society as well. (Richard Pryor was a co-writer.)

For perhaps its first two-thirds, Blazing Saddles tells a story that could reasonably serve as the premise for a dramatic film. There are familiar elements like the saloon seductress (Kahn, never funnier) and the washed-up gunslinger (Wilder again), but the main thread involves land speculators trying to drive the residents of Rock Ridge out of town. Corrupt Attorney General Hedy—beg pardon, Hedley—Lamarr (Korman) sends in a black man (Cleavon Little) to serve as sheriff, counting on the townspeople’s inherent racism to cause a mass exodus.

The film remains shockingly blunt, not least for its necessary use of racially charged language. But as with The Producers, the reason Saddles is a classic instead of deeply offensive is that the most daring jokes rise out of the story’s internal logic. Here, Brooks also constructs a coherent social commentary; this is one of Hollywood’s most piercing depictions of race-baiting tactics and male entitlement (the bad guys are very casual about the rape they’ll do).

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Blazing Saddles belongs high on any list of the funniest movies ever made (it placed sixth on the AFI comedies list; Brooks argued it should be 1-4). Set aside the commentary and you’d still have the notorious campfire scene—the most famous fart scene in movie history—and Mongo cold-cocking a horse. Brooks’ comic anarchy was never on greater display than in the film’s final third, which bursts out of its story for a pie fight and send up of Busby Berkeley musical numbers. Anything for a laugh.

The same year as Blazing Saddles, Brooks also released Young Frankenstein, another high-water mark in comedy history.

Young Frankenstein is so funny, Brooks once told The A.V. Club, that the production purchased handkerchiefs for everyone on the crew to use to muffle their laughter during takes. But Brooks shows real discipline and restraint in his take on the classic horror tale, opting to build atmosphere and establish themes instead of going for easy laughs. He famously reused the original Frankenstein’s laboratory props, and aped the black-and-white style of classic monster movies so well that Young Frankenstein is practically indistinguishable from them. Not many broad comedies can boast this level of visual elegance.

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From Young Frankenstein

Brooks purposefully keeps things at a slow boil for minutes at a time, ditching the manic qualities of The Producers and Blazing Saddles so that his bigger set pieces land harder. Here, Frankenstein (Wilder) unveils newly civilized monster (Peter Boyle) to the world.

The film’s premise—which involves Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson rebooting the family corpse-revival business—is essentially Son Of Frankenstein. But Brooks develops the complicated relationship the reanimator has toward his ancestry, and gives nuance to bit parts like the lonely hermit (played, in an inspired cameo, by Gene Hackman) who attempts to care for the monster. Improbably, the story winds up as somewhat touching, even with puns of the “Werewolf?”/ “There wolf” variety. Young Frankenstein is arguably the best Frankenstein to ever hit the screen. Feldman’s Igor is not only the best performance in a Brooks film, but one of cinema’s funniest supporting role ever.

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What’s readily apparent in the film is Brooks’ love of entertainment, especially classic forms. That joy of performance would be just as clear as in 1976’s Silent Movie, a film that’s undeniably Brooks despite featuring nearly none of his famous vulgarity. Set in Hollywood, “the film capital of greater Los Angeles,” Silent Movie follows a washed-up film director (played by Brooks himself) as he attempts to corral the industry’s biggest stars into appearing in his next movie, which, yes, will be a silent one.

While the film features (almost) no spoken dialogue, Brooks otherwise doesn’t mimic the silent era with the same panache he did with Young Frankenstein’s Universal monster heritage. A sequence where an alcoholic falls off the wagon hints at the outsized stylization of German expressionism, but doesn’t embrace it. The movie is basically a sequence of comic set pieces in which Brooks and friends visit a celebrity and something wacky happens. (Burt Reynolds is a particular highlight.) He trots out some of the hoariest gags ever written—multiple people hiding inside a trenchcoat, “There’s a fly in my soup!”—but it works because of how gleeful he is about them.

Intermediate

Before making his mark on film, Brooks worked as a writer for Your Show Of Shows, an early variety program that was massively influential at a time when television was still in its infancy. (The legendary writing team also included Neil Simon.)

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“I hate Carl Reiner!” ~ Mel Brooks on The Simpsons

Among the most lasting artifacts from this era was “The 2000-Year-Old Man,” a bit Brooks co-created with colleague Carl Reiner. The routine began as a party game but became a perennial favorite, one the pair continues to perform. “Man” was modestly scripted but mostly improvised, taking the form of an interviewer (Reiner) quizzing a man (Brooks) who claims to have been alive in ancient times. Brooks and Reiner would eventually perform the routine—along with other original characters—on a number of albums, including the Grammy-winning The 2000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000. The routine was also animated into a short film and even popped up when Brooks cameoed on The Simpsons.

Brooks and Reiner are one of the key comic duos of the 20th century, and “The 2000-Year-Old Man” is a master class in straight-guy/comic-guy dynamics (Brooks opted for the comic role: “I wasn’t going to waste a minute setting things up”). It was also an ideal format for Brooks’ improvisational skills: The man who can joke about anything could here riff on history, religion, technology, or whatever Reiner asked him about. Over the long life of the bit, Brooks would essentially put his spin on the entirety of human civilization, a conceit he would tweak for his film History Of The World: Part I.

In 1965, Brooks worked on another landmark TV comedy, co-creating with Buck Henry Get Smart, a smashing parody of spy stories and Cold War politics, as seen through the unending battle between KAOS and CONTROL’s bumbling Maxwell Smart (played with perfect pitch by Don Adams).

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Get Smart’s “cone of silence”

Brooks’ best parodies have strong foundations to work against, and the troupes of the spy genre—gadgets, colorful villains, feats of derring-do—gave him no end of material to mine for humor. Similarly, though more subtly, Blazing Saddle’s social commentary has an ascendant here, as Smart continually gets the praise his far-more capable sidekick (Barbara Feldon as Agent 99) deserves, a feminist nod that has become only more pronounced with time.

Brooks wouldn’t be directly involved with the show’s entire five-season run (and he only wrote three of the show’s 138 episodes), but Get Smart is an under-appreciated line on his resume. Not only was it his first extended work in parody, but it pushed television into more ambitious areas of comedy. (You can skip the Steve Carell movie version.)

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After Blazing Saddles, Brooks almost exclusively directed parodies for the rest of his career. Some were great, but a kind of complacency set in, and later films were more perfunctory than inspired. Often they feel like cinematic versions of the game where there are two photos side-by-side but details are changed in the second one.

Spaceballs (1987), for example, swaps out the Darth Vader, Yoda, Jabba The Hut, and Princess Leia of Star Wars for Dark Helmet, Yogurt, Pizza The Hut, and Princess Vespa. Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993), a spoof of Kevin Costner’s unclassic Prince Of Thieves, trades Friar Tuck, the Sheriff Of Nottingham, and Morgan Freeman’s Azeem character for Rabbi Tuckman, the Sheriff Of Rottingham, and Ahchoo (played by a pre-Show Dave Chappelle). These are surface-level jokes.

Still, while not brilliant, it’s hard to say that Spaceballs and Men In Tights are bad films. Mostly they suffer in comparison to his earlier parodies, which offered both surface and depth. In particular, Spaceballs, which many cite as a favorite and a classic, has terrific gags like the bad guys consulting Spaceballs on VHS at one point.

At least science fiction gives Brooks plenty to make fun of. His take on Robin Hood feels much thinner, though Chappelle and Roger Rees give very funny performances. A problem with spoofing Prince Of Thieves is that the movie is terrible, and spoofing a movie with so many unintended laughs is kind of pointless. Perhaps Brooks would have been better off targeting the Errol Flynn classic, as mimicking Technicolor action movies would have had the additional benefit of forcing the same stylistic discipline he achieved in Young Frankenstein.

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Like Silent Movie, History Of The World: Part I (1981) is less a story than a thinly collected series of vignettes, starting at the dawn of man and going through the French Revolution. Brooks plays several roles in the film, including a “stand-up philosopher” who flees from Dom DeLuise’s Emperor Nero in a section that spoofs Biblical epics. Skipping across eras allows Brooks to get in, make a joke, and get out, but this is inevitably hit or miss, and Brooks refrains from commenting on or thematically connecting his chapters. History has a musical number about the Spanish Inquisition, but unlike “Springtime For Hitler,” which worked as a song and served a narrative purpose, “The Inquisition” is just an uptempo song about a horrible subject.

Advanced and Miscellaneous

As the founder of Brooksfilms, Mel Brooks has had an impact on film even away from the director’s chair. While most of the studio’s works are comedies, it also produced some classics of challenging and dark cinema like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

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Brooks has only been involved in one proper remake, a fairly faithful redo of Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II farce To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Even if the original didn’t exist, it’s easy to imagine Brooks landing on this premise on his own, given how completely its meeting of buffoonish Nazis and outsized showbiz personalities is in his wheelhouse. (Many of To Be’s jokes would be recycled in The Producers musical.)

To Be is set in Warsaw at the moment of the Nazi invasion. Brooks and real-life wife Anne Bancroft star as a theatrical couple (“world-famous in Poland”) whose troupe gets entangled with the SS in order to protect underground resistance forces. In Lubitsch’s version—made in 1942, when the Nazis still occupied Poland—the story felt genuinely dangerous, the references to concentration camps and Jewish persecution startlingly frank. Forty years later, joking about Nazis—or confronting them with Shakespeare’s “hath not a Jew eyes” soliloquy—just doesn’t have the same charge. Correspondingly, even though it borrows many of the twists and best lines of the original (one of the greatest comedies ever made, incidentally) the remake is looser, the performances broader. The thing that most distinguishes it is a subplot where a gay character is nearly rounded up for a camp—one of Hollywood’s first acknowledgements that homosexuals were included in Nazi persecution. A lot of Brooks’ projects would feature offensive gay jokes or stereotypes; this is a notable corrective.

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To Be marked the only time Brooks would play lead in someone else’s film (it was directed by Alan Johnson, his long-time choreographer), but he popped up as an actor and vocal artist in a number of projects. Notably, he had an Emmy-winning supporting role on Mad About You and was one of the many celebrity cameos in The Muppet Movie. Among his vocal work, he performed in the 1974 children’s special Free To Be You And Me and reprised his Spaceball roles in an animated series based on the film. He also appears in current box-office hit Hotel Transylvania 2 as Vlad, the grandfather vampire. The Critic, an animated short he made in 1963, won an Oscar.

Of the 11 films Brooks directed, only three don’t fall into the parody genre. The Twelve Chairs, his 1970 follow-up to The Producers, is an under-appreciated comedy that suggests the path his career could have taken had Blazing Saddles not exploded the way it did.

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Chairs is set in the Soviet Union and concerns a fortune hidden in one of a dozen identical pieces of antique furniture. The story that connects the search for each chair is simple, giving Brooks ample time for comic set pieces and looks at greed and loyalty. Some of the moments are too broad—such as Brooks’ own performance—but the casting of serious actors like Ron Moody and a dashing Frank Langella give it some heft. It’s an interesting attempt to look at adult themes in a more adult way, without sacrificing the immature humor Brooks loves so much.

The most underrated Brooks title is Life Stinks, made near the end of his film career in 1991. After decades of retelling other people’s stories and filtering their themes through his own naughty viewpoint, he told a sweet story of his own, with the gentle theme that people should be good to one another.

Brooks stars as a powerful businessman who bets a rival that he’s wily enough to live as a homeless man in an L.A. slum for a month. The experience, unsurprisingly, is eye-opening one, as he realizes America’s poor are not lazy welfare abusers but good people desperately trying their best to survive.

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The film is not challenging, but it is charming. And by leaving the spoof genre, Brooks doesn’t have the pressure to pack the film with jokes, which means that a higher percentage land. There are no surprises in the lessons learned, or in the relationship Brooks develops with a homeless woman played by Lesley Ann Warren. But it does have the Brooks touch, as in a lovely sequence when a dance between he and Warren becomes a full-fledged production number.

Demerits

There’s little substantive difference between a good Brooks spoof and a bad one; most have similar visual styles and tones. The thing that separates them are how funny they are, and Brooks produced a few that feature more misses than hits.

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The first disappointment was 1977’s High Anxiety, a muddled take on Hitchcock thrillers. Hitchcock isn’t a great target for parody, as even his darkest films feature a macabre wit, and its difficult to tweak something that doesn’t take itself seriously. In a bigger problem, few of the jokes land, and unfunny ones are stretched out to pad the still-slender running time. One running gag involves a man who can’t lift heavy objects, and the film’s riff on The Birds just has pigeons pooping on the hero.

Unlike Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, which created convincing facsimiles of their sources, High Anxiety never feels Hitchcockian—the innocent-man-wrongfully-accused story is a brief subplot, and there aren’t even many nods to Hitchcock’s visual style (though a tracking shot does shatter a window). It’s a disappointment.

Weaker still was Brooks’ last film direction to date, 1995’s Dracula: Dead And Loving It. On paper, it must have seemed like a can’t-miss idea: the director of Young Frankenstein tackling another classic horror character, and with Leslie Nielsen—the actor for film parody—in the lead role. Unfortunately, the film offers few-to-no laughs, and the jokes it attempts are all pretty predictable. Perhaps the Tod Browning version with Bela Lugosi would have been a better source to riff off than Coppola’s melodramatic version.

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After Dracula failed, Brooks retooled and headed for Broadway for his first proper musical (surprising, given how often he paid tribute to the genre), based on his first film. The Producers was a smashing success—a historic hit that set a record for Tony wins at the time, completing Brooks’ EGOT. (He would chase this with a musical version of Young Frankenstein that underperformed both commercially and artistically.) On stage, The Producers is magnificent—hilarious and sweet, tweaking established Broadway melodies to include Brooks’ trademark vulgarity. If you can see a production, do it. But avoid the 2005 film adaptation, which doubles as Brooks’ most recent screenplay.

Like a lot of Broadway adaptations, The Producers has basic issues modulating its tone and balancing its narrative with its numbers. You’d be far better off checking out the original cast recording than seeing much of that original cast reprise their roles. On stage, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick had wonderful chemistry as Bialystock and Bloom, but on screen they continued to play to the balcony, losing the nuance of the relationship in the process.

The film kept Susan Stroman—who collected a wheelbarrow full of Tonys as the show’s director and choreographer—at the helm, a choice that backfired when she opted to not recalibrate anything in translating the show to the screen. Frankly, she just doesn’t have the knack for movie rhythm (this is her sole film-direction credit), and “Keep It Gay,” a very funny song, is ruined by basic issues of framing and use of space.

In 2004, Brooks guest-starred in a funny Curb Your Enthusiasm arc where he tries to “Producer” The Producers, intentionally tanking a production with Larry David as Max. At times, that version feels like what the musical’s filmmakers were going for. Rarely have two versions of the same source material had such a gap in quality.

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The Essentials

1. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Blücher! While rarely mentioned among its decade’s greatest films, Young Frankenstein absolutely should be. This is an essentially perfect comedy, one that features remarkable visual beauty and even some pathos among the huge belly laughs.

2. Blazing Saddles (1974)
A safe choice for the funniest movie ever made, this is Brooks at his most deliciously vulgar and anarchic. It’s forever the standard for comic Westerns, but behind the jokes is an unflinching look at race.

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3. Get Smart (1965-70)
Brooks would become less involved with this classic spy comedy after its first season, but the whole series is tremendous fun. Even if he hadn’t graduated to film, this effort would be enough to position Brooks as a force of major influence.

4. The Producers (1967 and 2001)
Brooks’ cinematic debut remains a masterpiece of low comedy, one that doubles as a thesis statement for his own success-despite-tastelessness. The onstage version is sweeter, but no less enjoyable.

5. Spaceballs (1987)
While not his most assured or out-and-out funniest film, Spaceballs perfectly demonstrates how enjoyable Brooks’ goofiness can be, even when he’s operating on auto-pilot (at ludicrous speed).

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