If laughter is the best medicine, Mel Brooks is overdue for a medical degree. He’s been making us laugh for the better part of 60 years now, and when he’s at the top of his game there’s no one funnier.
It’s safe to say Brooks is mad as a hatter which I mean in a good way ... and the world is a better place for it.
A couple weeks ago on Halloween night my wife and I went to see what is arguably Brooks’ best film, “Young Frankenstein.” We had seen it umpteen times before, but this was the first time in nearly 40 years that we were able to watch it in a movie theater. And although the audience was small, maybe 25 people in a 300-seat auditorium, the place rocked with laughter for nearly two hours.
I remember seeing “Young Frankenstein” when it was originally released in 1974, and the audience howled then, too. But this time it was different, more like revisiting an old friend. Everyone had obviously seen it before and we were all anticipating our favorite moments. You could hear under-the-breath chuckling just BEFORE many of the witticisms or physical gags.
“It’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen.’ ”
“Pardon me, boy — is this the Transylvania station?”
“Put ze candle back!”
“Yes, yes! Say it! He vas my BOYFRIEND!!”
And, of course the frightened whinnying of the horses every time someone says the name of “Frau Blucher” was hilarious. Even the well-worn “walk this way” gag got a huge laugh.
“Young Frankenstein” is Brooks and his stock players at the peak of their powers, but there’s also a lot of other terrific Mel Brooks material out there, and much of it hit the airwaves long before he ever made a movie: on records as the 2000-Year-Old Man being interviewed by Carl Reiner, with Johnny Carson whenever he was a guest on “The Tonight Show,” in commercials, on interview programs and game shows, as a writer for Sid Caesar’s live comedy hours — even in cartoons.
And now the best of those have been collected in “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy” (Shout! 1951-2012, six discs, $89.93; 60-page book packaging).
This zany potpourri of Brooks’ appearances all over the place is thrown together in no particular order, beginning with the zany 1983 “Hitler Rap,” a music video with Brooks as der Fuhrer singing a rap song, designed to publicize the soundtrack album for “To Be Or Not To Be.” In the film Brooks stars as a low-rent Polish actor who at one point impersonates Adolf Hitler. (Only fitting for the man who wrote the song “Springtime for Hitler” for his first movie, “The Producers.”)
From there, the collection sprints in a scattershot manner through a 2010 onstage reunion of Brooks and Dick Cavett (in which Brooks is very funny and Cavett is surprisingly profane), eight appearances on “The Tonight Show” from the 1970s through the 1990s, a 1996 reunion of Sid Caesar’s writers, a 2001 appearance on “60 Minutes,” a 1963 Oscar-winning cartoon titled “The Critic,” TV commercials dating back to 1951, various appearances as the 2000-Year-Old Man and other TV guest shots, scenes from his movies — and several newly recorded on-camera introductions by Brooks, which are also funny.
That’s the first five discs. A sixth is a CD with audio tracks containing interviews, songs, movie scenes, radio commercials, and excerpts from TV and radio shows.
My introduction to Brooks came in 1961 with the first 2000-Year-Old Man record album and his guest appearances with Carl Reiner on TV shows hosted by Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, etc. I was an instant fan. His name to me virtually defined “funny,” so I was always on the lookout.
When his first movie, “The Producers,” was about to be released in 1968, I was very excited and talked it up to all my friends, who responded with a puzzled look and a two-word question: “Mel Who?”
Later, after the double-whammy movie success in 1974 of “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” everyone knew Mel Brooks.
For fans, “The Incredible Mel Brooks” DVD collection is more than merely a nostalgic sampler. It’s an overview of a brilliant comedian’s career in a box.
But most of all, it’s funny.