Mel Brooks from the HBO special "Mel Brooks Strikes Back." (HBO )
Mel Brooks has just welcomed a visitor into his office when the comedian gets noticeably excited. "Have you seen the Hitler rap?" he asks, referring to the satiric music video from 1983 that has him busting rhymes dressed as the Fuhrer. "Oh, we have to watch it."
Brooks jumps from his chair and calls for an assistant to fire up a DVD.
"I'm a rap pioneer," he says with a gleam in his eye as he watches himself on-screen. He adds, "This would be big on YouTube," possibly unaware that the video has in the last few years in fact become a viral-video sensation. (Sample lyric: "Heil, Siegety Heil / We gonna whip it on the people Teutonic style.")
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At 86 and with almost every conceivable accomplishment under his belt (Brooks is one of 11 people in history to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards), the comedian continues to show an unusual vigor.
Brooks spends most days each week at his Culver City office — decked out with film posters such as "The Producers" and "Spaceballs" along with a well-worn piano — and continues to jot down notes for what he hopes might turn into a "Blazing Saddles" Broadway musical.
"I just called Nathan Lane the other day and I said, 'What about playing Hedley Lamarr?'" referring to the duplicitous attorney general played by Harvey Korman in the western spoof. "I mean, he's not exactly the black sheriff or the Waco Kid. But he's an important character! I think he was skeptical."
Now audiences are about to see more of Brooks. A new five-disc boxed set of early material, "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy," has been released for the holidays. The hyphenate has been making the rounds to late-night shows hosted by the likes of Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel (the latter of whom is at the moment evidenced by a zipper-sweatshirt Brooks is wearing that bears the ABC host's name in large embroidered letters. "Love the swag," Brooks says.) He'll also receive a lifetime achievement award from AFI at a gala in June.
On Monday night, Brooks stars in an hourlong special on HBO, "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!," in which he recalls to the BBC veteran Alan Yentob some of his career highlights, a broadcast that's one part reminiscence and one part greatest hits. Brooks filmed it as a benefit for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and though it's not exactly bursting with new material, fans will be tickled by the classic stories, like the day he was with Sid Caesar when the "Your Show of Shows" star threatened to pull a cab driver through a small window, or how he and Carl Reiner would improvise their famous "2000 Year Old Man" skits.
"I think I'm unconsciously writing a visual biography," Brooks said. "Instead of sitting down and saying, 'I was born in Brooklyn,' and copying it in pencil, I'm doing it this way."
As a child of Eastern European immigrants coming of age during the Great Depression, Brooks had few show business ambitions. Any world outside a working-class one, he says, seemed foreign.
"I thought for sure I was born to push a rack from the garment center to the post office, and if I was lucky I'd get to be a salesman, maybe a lace salesman. And maybe one day, like all Jews, I dreamed I'd be a partner. Rosenthal and Slotnick? I'd be Slotnick."
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That changed when his uncle took him to "Anything Goes" — that is, the original 1934 Broadway production with Ethel Merman — and he realized that entertainment was a career option. "I knew right then. I'd heard about heaven, and this was it."
Comedy later rescued him from a state of being he describes as "near-suicidal" on an Army base in Oklahoma during World War II (he'd eventually ship out as a combat engineer), where he felt like a fish out of water. He and another New Yorker decided to put on a show riffing on the differences between the Northeast and the heartland. It instantly cheered him up.
Brooks eventually made his way to the Borscht Belt before coming to Hollywood to create TV shows such as "Get Smart!" and generation-defining films such as "History of the World Part I," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles." ("Obama once told me he snuck in to see ['Saddles'] as a 12-year-old," he says proudly.)
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Brooks, who's never met a joke he didn't like (asked if there are things he regrets having done, he said, "There's a girl in Cincinnati, Sheila, I think was her name"), is a reminder of an era when comedy was peddled at Grossinger's instead of Funny or Die. But he's managed to stay relevant this century with Broadway smashes such as "The Producers" and says he keeps current with the new stuff.