Quantcast

Comic legend Mel Brooks discusses American Masters profile on PBS

Kam Williams | 5/23/2013, noon

Mel Brooks — director, producer, writer and actor — is in an elite group as one of the few entertainers to earn all four major entertainment prizes — the Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar. His career began in television writing for “Your Show of Shows” and together with Buck Henry creating the long-running TV series “Get Smart.”

He then teamed up with Carl Reiner to write and perform the Grammy-winning “2000 Year Old Man” comedy albums and books. Mel won his first Oscar in 1964 for writing and narrating the animated short “The Critic,” and his second for the screenplay of his first feature film, “The Producers,” in 1968.

Many hit comedies followed, including “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Silent Movie,” “High Anxiety,” “Spaceballs,” “Life Stinks” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”

From 1997-1999, Brooks won Emmy Awards for his role as “Uncle Phil” on the hit sitcom “Mad About You.” Brooks received three 2001 Tony Awards and two Grammy Awards for “The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical,” which ran on Broadway from 2001 to 2006.

“The Producers” still holds the record for the most Tony Awards ever won by a Broadway musical.

In 2009, Brooks received The Kennedy Center Honors, recognizing a lifetime of extraordinary contributions to American culture. His most recent projects include the Emmy-nominated HBO comedy special “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again” and a career retrospective DVD box set titled “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy.”

Here, he talks about “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” an American Masters profile chronicling his illustrious career. The PBS show premiered nationwide on Monday. And in June, Brooks will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute (AFI) at a gala tribute airing on TNT.

Hello, Mr. Brooks. I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.

Thank you, Kam. Hey, what the hell is Kam short for?

It’s short for Kamau, an African name.

I’m so sorry to hear that. I thought it might be short for my last name, Kaminsky. I was hoping you just took my last name and shortened it to become part of the family.

[Chuckles] No, I took the name back in the ‘70s during my brief career as a jazz musician. You started out as a jazz musician, too, right?

I did, I did. We were both jazz musicians, so it’s like we already know each other. In the early ‘40s, before I went off to World War II, I was in a little five-piece group that played at those Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskill Mountains. One night, the comic at the Butler Lodge got sick, and his boss, Pincus Cohen, begged me to perform in his place. I told him, “That name is redundant. Pincus and Cohen, you don’t need ‘em both. We know you’re a Jew.” [Laughs] He said, “I’ve watched you doing rehearsals. I can tell you’re a funny guy.” I knew all those dopey jokes, so I went up on stage, and that’s how I got into comedy. I was only about 15 at the time.