Reviews

He's a Funny Old Man: 'The Incredible Mel Brooks'

A career overview, including rare and unusual clips, of a great American comic genius in action.


To Be or Not To Be

Distributor: Shout! Factory
Cast: Mel Brooks, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Carl Reiner
Release date: 2012-11-13

This may be one of the strangest entries in the Mel Brooks canon––a collection of interviews, TV clips, and conversations about his films, The Incredible Mel Brooks might feel like a cheap, cobbled together Time Life compilation, were it not for the fact that it covers the career of, well, Mel Brooks, undeniably one of the funniest men on this planet, or any other. This is a five DVD, one CD set designed for those who have either gorged themselves silly on films such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein or who have dipped their toes in the World of Brooks and think he’s a funny guy. (In short: Yes, it’s kind of a mess. In short: Yes, your dad will love it.)

There’s no stern organization to the discs, save for the fact that each DVD contains a segment, “Mel and His Movies”, that follows Brooks as he discusses the films he’s directed. This feels especially displaced, as though flown in from the extras segments of the very films he discusses. Of course, it’s possible that even stalwart fans have missed out on one or two Brooks titles––namely The Twelve Chairs and, maybe, To Be Or Not To Be––and so hearing him wax on about the inspiration, writing, and production of classics such as High Anxiety and Blazing Saddles doesn’t really hurt anything––or anyone.

There’s a compilation segment of eight Brooks appearances on The Tonight Show, a place where comedians such as himself seemed to feel was a kind of second home during Johnny Carson’s tenure. The bits are funny and, of course, Carson being the consummate host, plays along with Brooks’ gags, some of the bits even coming off as hilarious. There’s also a 2010 interview between he and Dick Cavett––the (un)imaginatively titled Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again, which aired on HBO in 2011 and here is expanded by a 30-minute Q&A.

Elsewhere we find a retrospective reel on the man’s time writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, a 2001 60 Minutes profile and a very funny sketch from Peeping Times, written, produced, and directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner, The Natural). These pair well––despite being separated by one disc––with a 1981 BBC piece called I Thought I Was Tall: A Short History of Mel Brooks, as good a mockumentary as any of the time.

There’s a seemingly inexhaustible reel of commercials, and some routines and talk that cover the genesis and evolution of Brooks’ beloved 2000 Year Old Man. We’re also witness to the pilot of the classic––and hilarious––TV series Get Smart, a short film starring Brooks’ voice (“The Critic”), appearances from The Electric Company, and material from the short-lived series When Things Were Rotten that predicts Robin Hood: Men In Tights by more than a decade.

The “bonus” CD features music from History of the World Par I, Blazing Saddles, and High Anxiety in addition to an audio clip from The Tonight Show and audio from The New Les Crane Show.

What’s true of the CD is true of the DVDs, as well. The material isn’t bad but its presentation is pure slipshod––it’s as though this were put together by a gang of video bootleggers who wanted to provide us with a video revue for Brooks the way we might have wanted to see (in the pre-YouTube world)––clips of The Replacements on MTV, Saturday Night Live and on some random talk show in Cleveland all in one place.

If you’re not offended by this and remain interested in seeing rare and unusual clips of this comic genius in action––or, perhaps closer to the target audience, if your dad does––then, by all means, this is the collection for you. And one that can be recommended for no other reason than we can see the evolution of Brooks’ comedy and catch him with old friends such as Cavett and Carson.

The slightly handsome––and perhaps cheap looking, as though it wouldn’t go unnoticed in the Cracker Barrel gift shop––booklet that houses these discs comes with essays from the ever-affable Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, and Bruce Jay Friedman, in addition to (in some cases rare) photo stills and extensive descriptions of the material found on all six discs here.

While the packaging and sequencing are somewhat suspect––a shame, really, given Shout Factory’s otherwise impeccable track record––it’s still better to have this collection than not to have it. You––and your dad––should really enjoy this.

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