Mel's night of blazing glory

For an 88-year-old stand-up comic, Mel Brooks did a lot of standing


For an 88-year-old stand-up comic, Mel Brooks did a lot of standing. So did the audience. Even before the legend had said a word in his one-night gig last Sunday - his first in London - many of his fans were already on their feet applauding their comedy hero as he walked purposefully onto the stage, wearing black tie and dinner jacket.

A little earlier, the lady in the seat next to me had surveyed the packed auditorium and wondered whether there were enough Jews present to appreciate Brooks's comedy. He'll be fine, I reassured.

Because I knew that, from The 2000 Year Old Man records to the record-breaking - in number of awards and number of laughs - stage version of The Producers, the comedy of Mel Brooks transcends borders and speaks to people of all backgrounds, nations and creeds.

"Good evening Ladies and Jews," boomed Brooks into his microphone.

Much of the following two hours was filled with so many stories you wondered what on earth there would be left for the £500 ticket holders to talk about when they met Brooks after the show. The answer, of course, is plenty.

Brooks is more than a comedian; he's a raconteur and consummate conversationalist. You can add to that director, screenwriter, actor and world-class cat impersonator - a talent he demonstrated on Sunday and first used professionally for a sketch in the Sid Caesar show, for which Brooks wrote as part of a roll-call of stellar Jewish writing talent that included Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolken and Neil Simon.

The wit, you take for granted. This is the man whose Oscar-winning screenplay for The Producers gave one of the funniest lines ever written to the foreman of a jury who had to pronounce the guilt or innocence of Zero Mostel's Max and Gene Wilder's Leo. "We find the defendants incredibly guilty."

So there's a whiff of injustice that in this country he's still best known for the observation that, if Hollywood westerns were right and cowboys did eat beans all the time then it must follow that they break wind equally often. Which of course, in Brooks's Blazing Saddles, they did. It was, he confessed, a gag that he seemed destined to make ever since he had been drafted into a US Army unit called Field Artillery Replacement Training.

And yet listen to Brooks's stories carefully and you get a sense that beneath the celebrated vulgarity, there exists a highly cultured man. You don't make films called the History of the World, Part I without knowing something about history. The same is true of his "Ode to cowardice". Called Retreat, it is written for a soldier and begins:

I'm sick of war for many reasons,

Three of them will do,

It's 1815,

I am French,

And this is the Battle of Waterloo.

In gravelly, roughly-perfect pitch, and accompanied on a grand piano by Gerald Sternbach, Brooks delivered the song in the musical second half of his show with, as he delivers everything, perfect comic timing. It was his late wife Anne Bancroft who had egged him on to write that number. She knew better than he did that he was a brilliant writer of lyrics and not just of one-liners.

It was, said Brooks, thanks to a film Bancroft was about to make that he lost his first choice to play the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, a role that went to Gene Wilder after some urgent begging by Brooks on the phone. Bancroft's film role was Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, and the actor that Brooks lost to it was Dustin Hoffman.

Brooks remembered how a nervous Hoffman broke the news to him late one night by throwing pebbles up on to Brooks's bedroom window. Brooks opened the window, saw Hoffman standing in the street below and said, "Who do you think I am, Roxanne?" You need to know Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac to crack that one.

"No one had heard of him," said Brooks of Hoffman "But we knew he was talented."

The stories about the stars in his professional life are told with the same ease with which he relates memories of his Brooklyn childhood.

Brooks - born Kaminsky - was the youngest of four sons. His Uncle Joe took the nine-year-old Mel to his first Broadway show. They drove there in Joe's cab.

"Uncle Joe was so short, if you ever saw a cab in New York going down the road without a cab driver, that was Joe."

In truth, most of those present would have heard many of the stories before. Little about the evening felt as spontaneous as the brilliant visual gag for which Brooks took a moment to blow his nose, looked in the handkerchief, cried "Oh my GOD!", and with his other hand proceeded to pulverize the handkerchief's contents. It was pure comedy for comedy's sake. Which for all the modest cleverness of the man, is what Mel Brooks is all about.

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