The book’s organizing principle is that Brooks is bifurcated, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type being, comprising “Good Mel” and “Bad Mel.” Good Mel, resembling Yogurt from “Spaceballs” — kindly and ever ready with a pun or an endearingly crude joke — is the public Mel. But Bad Mel — like the nasty, greedy and uncaring President Skroob — is most of Mel.
McGilligan distinguishes three phases in the comedian’s life: pre-famous Mel, famous Mel and little old man (Lilolman!) Mel. Young Melvin Kaminsky was the innocent Good Mel. Making his widowed mother and older brothers laugh as a boy, he grows to idolize the Borscht Belt saxophonist and rising comedy star Sid Caesar as a late teen, becoming Caesar’s personal jester, forever at his heel trying to make him laugh to gain validation. Adopting a truncated version of his mother’s maiden name, Brookman, he becomes a mixture of vulnerability and tenacity, yearning for Caesar’s approval so that he may glom onto his accelerating success.
At the end of the book, as a senior citizen, Good Mel again resurfaces. He ages into the 2,000-year-old man: a cute old Jew who reminisces and makes jokes that come across as innocuous, even in their occasional vulgarity.
But for the vast majority of McGilligan’s telling, the Mel of the Mel Brooks brand is Bad Mel. And not just bad, but a new Jewish supervillan, the Incredible Schmuck, who, whenever anyone else receives credit or compensation for creative work, turns green with envy and rages in a destructive, often litigious fury that wrecks anything and anyone who gets in his way, friend or foe. Good Mel becomes a mere mask that Bad Mel could wear when trying to sway judges or woo potential investors.
McGilligan’s cataloguing of the artistic, financial and personal atrocities of Bad Mel constitutes the main thrust of the telling of Brooks’s life story. You do not come away from the book feeling like you have spent time with Mel Brooks. Rather, you feel like you were on a long car ride with Brooks’s gossipy, catty accountant. In exploring a prolific figure in show business, we get lots of business and much less show.
Brooks has warts. From his serial womanizing during his first marriage and the shielding of his wealth during the divorce, to squabbles over on-screen credits and revenue from creative work, there are morally worrisome elements that should complicate our understanding of him. But McGilligan is so enthusiastic about the destructive aspects that the complexity becomes caricature. We are regaled with many instances of Brooks craving more money and credit than he deserves, obliterating those who labored beside him and were forced to survive his violent, cutting outbursts.
The minimal descriptions of his caring thereby seem peculiar. “Brooks could surprise people with behavior that seemed the opposite of his reputation: sudden sensitivity or gestures of extravagant generosity.” McGilligan describes one such act, when Brooks found a small role in “Spaceballs” for an actor who otherwise would not have met his annual minimum earnings for union-provided health insurance for his family. The actor, Ted Sorel, wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times saying, “When I mentioned this thoughtfulness to one of Brooks’ associates on the movie, he remarked that I was one of many remembered with similar favors.” Yet the few examples of thoughtfulness sit oddly among an overwhelming abundance of stories showing, as McGilligan puts it, “Rude Crude Mel with cruel quips or verbal assaults on people.”
And if there is not evidence of wrongdoing, innuendo will suffice. “Had Brooks ended the trifling and womanizing that helped poison his first marriage? . . . He had a reputation among Hollywood insiders for having a ‘zipper problem,’ in the words of one associate, who traveled with him. But was it a real ‘zipper problem’ or just the whispering of detractors?” We are told that “Brooks and [wife Anne] Bancroft enjoyed the image of a perfect couple, the parents of a happy family, spouses who might bicker, might quarrel, but always ended up in each other’s arms. In an industry that manufactured pleasant fakery, they seemed the romantic ideal.” But were they really? Either way, McGilligan provides us with the whispers.
There is some of what Brooks’s fans would hope for in a biography, the sort of behind-the-scenes insights that provide us with background into the bits and characters that have become so beloved. We meet the real-life model for the character Max Bialystock. We see the connection between Brooks’s early love of the comedic song-and-dance team the Ritz Brothers and the performance of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in “Young Frankenstein.”
We are told of the squeezing out of co-writer Richard Pryor from the cast of “Blazing Saddles.” Brooks had fought to have him placed in the role of Sheriff Bart, but the studio’s concerns about his reliability eliminated him from consideration. While devoted Brooks fans may recognize some of these tidbits, there are enough new trivia nuggets that most readers will come away with something they did not know before.
For those who want an in-depth account of Mel Brooks, the ruthless businessman, “Funny Man” is for you. For those who want a genuine funny book about the man, you’ll feel more like you were ruthlessly given the business.
By Patrick McGilligan
624 pp. $40