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Book Review

Book Cover

Mel Brooks FAQ

Author: Dale Sherman
Publisher: Applause
RRP: £TBC, US $19.99
ISBN: 978 1 4950 2513 6
Publication Date: 15 May 2018

Applause Theatre & Cinema Books brings us a strong and insightful addition to its FAQ series with Dale Sherman's Mel Brooks FAQ. Brooks has worked as an entertainer, curb side jester, producer, actor, director and - the Olympian base of it all - writer - for seventy-five years. Approaching his mid-nineties as this is being written, he is, as we speak, probably working, filling that blank page with something to laugh at.

Sherman has assiduously researched his subject giving us fulsome impressions of artists in Brooks's life: Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel, Woody Allen, Howard Morris, Roger Bart, Susan Stroman and his wife, Anne Bancroft - not to forget their son Max, pre-eminent zombie author.

What is significant in Sherman's book is the survey of great canyons of failure between the peaks of success. Brooks's life lesson is that he kept writing. The I Ching says, ‘Perseverance furthers'. Melvin James Kaminsky is not Confucian but he knows the principle and lives it. In that regard alone Sherman's work is inspirational for anyone who writes, reads or merely appreciates the laughs. For truth be told, laughter is the very serious weapon Mel Brooks has always used to fight the despair of life. What better way to confront the abyss of Nazidom than Springtime For Hitler – for years the bold working title for The Producers? Who else to ridicule racism in American hagiography with his cohort Richard Pryor in Blazing Saddles, and get laughs doing it? (When Pryor offers Brooks a line of coke in a writers session, Brooks says, "Not before lunch".) Pryor moved on from the project but left his authoritative mark. In 1974 it was hard for white audiences to laugh at themselves but they did.

Barriers came down. As Slim Pickens says when he blunders into the wrong sound stage (breaking not only the fourth wall but all three of the others) "To hell with you! I work for Mel Brooks"!

Sherman is quite accurate diagnosing the sea change in time and generations when observing that Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein could not be countenanced by studios or selective audience dialectics of today without overhauling. Is all comedy then based on pain and oppression? What we laugh at almost certainly climbs on the ladder of isms we fear: racism, classism, sexism, ageism, lookism, adultism, cannibalism (insert laughter emoji here, Dear Reader, or dont.) Comedy is serious business, as we've recently seen in the immolating careers of fallen stars who shall remain nameless because they're as gone as Fatty Arbuckle in the 1930s. Let them rest in pieces and hope they invested wisely. Arbuckle died. Basically of a broken heart.

Could Brooks function in todays laugh trade as a start-up? Probably not. Nonetheless, Sherman's judicious study is worth reading and owning because it is about an artist who always pushes us (historical present tense here) and the envelope – for laughs. A timeless peril, yes. But an essential risk in the highest of the arts: Comedy - and the reason Comedy is hard while Tragedy is easy. Besides, anybody who gives us 'Pizza the Hut' (in Space Balls) can't be insignificant. Think about it.


John Huff

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