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Mel Brooks: All About Me

Ballentine Books

I’m in Bookhampton in East Hampton checking out Mel Brooks’ memoir, All About Me! A woman in line nods to the book — “Is it any good?“ “I don’t think so,” I say and before I can finish, she said almost in tandem with me, “but it’s Mel Brooks, right?” We laugh. I tell her I've heard it’s what its subtitle promises: “My remarkable life in Show Business,” but it isn’t “good” in the sense of new or revelatory. Most Brooks fans, FANatics many of them know — almost verbatim — many of the routines and shtick repeated here. The memoir IS “good” in the ritual sense of honoring a master of comedy who is beloved.

Still, All About Me! with its never cruel audacious egotism shows why the 96-year-old man, is adored. Except when he’s not by some colleagues, past and present, as critical biographies reveal.

In the memoir he does exaggerate and play down collaborations, but basically he’s true to his comic persona. This is a memoir, not an autobiography — its theme is Brooks’ life in show biz — his “remarkable” evolving career as writer, actor, director, producer and comedic personality. As he has said in numerous interviews and articles, “Laughter is a protest scream against death, against the long goodbye.” It’s also a defensive weapon and young Mel was short and slight. So here he is, four years shy of his centennial birthday, shadowed still by “the long goodbye” that claimed his cherished wife Anne Bancroft and his best friend, Carl Reiner, about to come out with a new film, “History of the World Part II.” Part I came out in 1981, making famous the line sung by Louis XVI — played by Brooks, “It’s good to be the king.”

Mel Brooks continues to delight especially older folks who recall the outrageous, daring hilarity of his 1974 film “Blazing Saddles” and manic, over-the-top musical “The Producers” in 2001 — which garnered a record 12 Tony's. Speaking of older audiences — All About Me! has a large-print edition! There are all those routines of his golden years — albums, films, theatre, TV, guest appearances — satires, spoofs, musical compositions, parodies, serious dramatic productions — a wealth of reasons Brooks is considered special. He can do scripted and serious along with standup and improv. And always be ready for the ad lib. He also depicts dark truths of the human condition in a way that avoids cynicism and despair.

The memoir, a hefty valentine to himself and others, recounts with irrepressible asides Brooks’ rise from poor Jewish Melvin Kaminsky from Brooklyn to one of the few 4-time winners in show business — capturing the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. If readers tire of the incessant praise he bestows upon just about everyone he worked with, along with himself, so what.

What sets him apart from other comics and comedians is how he cares about his audience, wanting to make us laugh, inventing, borrowing (maybe sometimes stealing) as he embraces the spirit of the old Russian proverb: “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” And sets it to music, yet in the 12 chairs.

Yes, it’s all about him, but also about his appreciation that success is not a solo achievement. He was among the first comedians to take on racism and among the very few to demonstrate that comedy is often more complex than tragedy, especially when it acknowledges man’s inhumanity to man and tries to tame horror with laughter.

Watch Joan Baum talk about All About Me at the East Hampton Library:

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.