The giant of American comedy is a loveable storyteller, but the more successful he becomes, the less interesting his autobiography becomes
“Every time I got a bad review, I was sure they had that cave scene in mind,” notes the American comedy giant in his autobiography. All about me, which he began writing during the pandemic because “I was stuck at home like everyone else.”
Mel Brooks expressed his feelings towards critics very vividly in the Stone Age section of his 1981 film. World history part 1. A caveman, the first artist in history, creates the very first cave painting. Another caveman, the world’s first critic, stops by. He scratches his beard briefly and then urinates all over the painting.
The book doesn’t deserve the caveman critic treatment, but it’s still a frustrating affair. At least it starts with promises. Brooks may be in his 90s now, but he’s very vividly reminiscent of his Brooklyn childhood. He was only two years old when his father died. His heroic mother held the family together during the Depression years, skimping, doing the laundry, borrowing money from her sister, but making sure her children were well taken care of. His childhood was still full of scratches. He got his brother in trouble by peeing out an open window on passers-by below, then letting him do the knocking.
The future actor and filmmaker began his stage life as a drummer in high school. It helped that one of his classmates, Mickey Rich, was the younger brother of Buddy Rich, the legendary jazz drummer, who gave him lessons and taught him the importance of rhythm.
Brooks – or Melvin Kaminsky, as he was then known – honed his comedy skills on the road. “Words were my compensation. In our gang, I was the undisputed champion of corner shots,” he writes. One of his first jobs was at a Jewish resort in the Catskills in the so-called “borscht belt” where he was employed as a “busboy” (waiter’s hand) but briefly ended up on stage when an actor sprained his ankle.
Just as Brooks was preparing to get into serious show business, “Hitler had started a war.” At 17, he ended up in the army instead. His account of his GI days in France is vivid and entertaining. He didn’t see much combat, but he learned all about charcuterie and cream cheese and also became part of the Army’s entertainment crew. He was funny, irreverent and a consummate joker. After returning to civilian life, it was no wonder that his star rose so quickly.
Brooks writes powerfully and with great affection about his show business break-through as a writer for fellow comic book actor Sid Caesar, for whom he spent nearly a decade inventing jokes during the golden age of US live television. This was exciting but deeply stressful work for the star and his writing team. Caesar responded to the demands of the job by drinking himself into oblivion. By the end of a 10-year television series, he had turned into a wreck and Brooks was a burned-out case too.
Curiously, the more success Brooks achieves, the less compelling the autobiography becomes. Once Brooks’ career as a filmmaker begins in earnest with The producers, the book morphs into a series of smug case studies. He walks us through each new film, explaining how it was conceived, funded, and cast. He devotes many paragraphs to his friendship and collaboration with Carl Reiner. He pays tribute to his children, grandchildren and all his illustrious employees.
Brooks is a gracious storyteller. Many of his jokes still hit the mark (one of his parodies during army service was mimicking Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine” and singing “When we begin to clean the latrine”). However, he refuses to delve too deeply into his private life. For example, he covers the end of his first marriage in less than a paragraph. And while he was clearly devastated by the death of his second wife, Anne Bancroft, in 2005, he only wrote a terse line or two about it (he was “heartbroken” after she lost her battle with cancer) before he returned to him his major, that’s his career.
We’re left with page after page of increasingly unnerving and selfish showbiz anecdotes – not at all the material to please critics – caveman or otherwise.
All about me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business is published by Century for £16.99