In 1975, National Lampoon writer Gerald Sussman proposed The Mel Brooks Religion. It would meet in chapels called Houses of Brooks, which were “perfect replicas of the old neighborhood movie theaters Brooks used to attend as a child.” The faithful would chant prayers, blessings, and hymns all derived from the Brooks oeuvre — “his jokes, shticks, skits, and pieces of business from his movies, records, and TV shows.” After the showing of one of his films, Brooks himself would appear to deliver a sermon, an “indescribable, unpredictable piece of comic material that goes beyond comedy, into something truly ecstatic.”
Last week, I think I attended a House of Brooks. In Newark.
On Thursday, Oct. 15, I joined some 3,000 people at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for a wide-screen showing of his 1974 Western parody Blazing Saddles, followed by an onstage interview with the director, writer, actor, and all-around tummler himself. At one point in the day, I had considered staying home to watch Game 5 of the Mets-Dodgers series. I don’t know what I was thinking; had I gone with the game I would have missed an astonishing and delightful night.
Mel Brooks is not just a comedian — he is comedy, in the way that Sondheim is Broadway and Ray Charles is popular music. Perhaps any one of them can be topped on a good night, but for a consistent body of iconic work, spanning multiple eras and styles, none is their equal. Remember that Brooks has conquered Hollywood, Broadway, and television, and, with The 2000 Year Old Man, recorded what may be the funniest comedy album of all time. Even one of his minor projects — the 1963 short animation film The Critic — would walk away with an Academy Award.
Pushing 90, Brooks abandoned the plush chairs set out for him and a moderator and paced the stage, sharing memories of Brooklyn, Army life, the Borscht Belt, Your Show of Shows, and, of course, how he got Saddles past nervous studio heads. “You’re hearing stuff I should never have told you!” he said more than once, talking to a crowd as if he were confiding to an old friend.
Of course, I had heard some of the stories over the years: How the role of the Waco Kid in Saddles went to Gene Wilder after the original pick, the bibulous actor Gig Young, started spewing green vomit during filming; how Brooks distributed handkerchiefs to the crew, which they were to stuff into their mouths if they were tempted to laugh during takes; and how Richard Pryor, one of the film’s writers, was passed over for the starring role as the black sheriff, Bart, because of his reputation as a drug user.
And yet it was great to hear these old stories and ones I hadn’t heard before about the legendary writers’ room at Your Show of Shows and Brooks’s disastrous debut as a 14-year-old actor at a Catskills hotel.
What will stay with me, however, is the obvious pleasure Brooks took in hearing a live audience’s reception to his 41-year-old film. “You’re a big, beautiful, crazy audience,” he said. “I loved how you applauded some of the lines, and you laughed at all the right spots — and sometimes in the wrong spots.” It reminded him, he said, of the movie’s premiere, when actual cattle were tied up in the lobby and costumed cowboys sat in the front row.
The night was a celebration, and Brooks was generous in every sense of the word — especially with his time, and in praising his collaborators.
The only awkward moment of the night came when Brooks asked if anyone in the audience actually lived in Newark. One person, in the balcony, said yes. Brooks couldn’t know it, but it was a reminder of the sad history of Newark, and the noble attempt of NJPAC to bring white audiences back to the city they had fled in the 1960s. It prompted me to think about one of the eras that Brooks embodies, when wise-cracking Jewish kids grew up poor in the cities and channeled raw ambition into success in the arts, finance, academia, you name it.
On the way out I ran into a rabbi friend, who said, “I felt I was part of something historic.” I knew just what he meant.
In Lampoon, Sussman described how services at the Houses of Brooks would end: “Several prayers to Brooks are offered, to his everlasting health, so he can bring humor and laughter to our troubled world.”