It’s good to be the king. Even at 88.
Mel Brooks, the king of farce, treated UCSB Arts & Lectures’ big donors to an evening of funny stories Tuesday night at the Montecito Country Club during a fundraiser for the organization’s Arts Education program.
A longtime lampooner of sacred cows from Jesus and the Nazis to Robin Hood and the Old West, Brooks is best known for writing and directing Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers (both the 1968 movie and the recent Broadway version). He’s one of 12 people in the universe to have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.
All manic timing, sparkling eyes and understated delivery, Brooks chuckled at his own bits, spit water as a gag, and cracked wise on everything from the mahi mahi on the menu to his cab-driving Uncle Joe.
Here were the top 10 things we learned:
1) He grew up in a Brooklyn tenement with four brothers and a widowed mother.
2) His career began Borscht Belt venues in the Catskills as a teen. A zany pool tummler, it was his job to “rouse the Jews asleep around the pool.”
3) He was once walking down a New York street with Neil Simon when three nuns approached. “I yelled, ‘Get out of those costumes, the sketch is over!’ They were on the floor laughing.”
4) Carl Reiner was and still is his best friend in the world.
5) Dustin Hoffman was cast to play Nazi sympathizer Franz Liebkind in The Producers movie but got called away to audition for The Graduate opposite Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft (of course that became Hoffman’s breakout role and Bancroft would be remembered forever after as Mrs. Robinson). “I said, Go!” Brooks joked. “You’re a mutt. They’ll take one look at you and …”
6) For the L.A. premiere of Blazing Saddles, Brooks had horses outside and cattle in the lobby (“they shit all over”). He handed out Raisinets.
7) When he met with Alfred Hitchcock about parodying his films in High Anxiety, Hitch said, “I have a joke. Maybe you could use it.” It’s a scene in which a man is running like mad to get away from bad guys and he heads toward the docks. He sees a boat that’s just a few feet off the docks. He leaps … and makes it! Only it turns out the boat is actually coming into port.
8) In the Q&A section of the evening, Brooks beseeched an audience member to ask him if he’d ever been arrested. “Go ahead, don’t be shy. Ask me,” he implored. When she did, he shot back, “That’s really none of your business.”
9) The only unfunny, but strangely touching, moment came when someone asked, “Tell us about Anne!” Brooks refused to talk about his wife, who died in 2005. “That’s too personal, you know what I mean? Too emotional. I’m sorry.”
10) He confessed to a great love of “bad comics” like Henny Youngman. “He told such terrible jokes,” Brooks said. “He’d say, ‘My wife said, Take me to a place I’ve never been before — so I took her to the kitchen.’ Terrible! But I’d be on the floor.”