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12 Surprising Facts About Mel Brooks

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI

Born in Brooklyn on this date in 1926, Mel Brooks has been cracking people up since he was a teenager. A 10,000-trick pony, he has made us laugh as a performer, writer, musician, and, of course, a director. Through it all, Brooks has found humor in places where most people wouldn’t dare to look for it. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we’ve dug up a few things that you might not have known about one of the greatest comedic minds of our time.        

1. HE CHANGED HIS LAST NAME BECAUSE OF A FAMOUS TRUMPETER.

Mel Brooks’ given name is actually Melvin James Kaminsky. The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, along with three older brothers. At age nine, Brooks’ uncle took him to see his very first Broadway musical: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He was mesmerized. “I fell in love forever with Broadway,” Brooks said. Determined to make it in show business, the youngster started taking drum lessons from a neighbor. From there, Brooks’ career really took off.

By his the time he turned 14 years old, Brooks was already earning money as a percussionist. Soon, his talents took him to the Catskills, where the teenager played for various clubs in the Borscht Belt. Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, this area was also the home turf of Max Kaminsky—an acclaimed trumpet player. To avoid confusion, the drummer started calling himself Mel Brooks, a nod to his mother’s maiden name, Brookman

2. BROOKS’ KNACK FOR BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL IS DEEPLY ROOTED.

Igor literally winks at the audience in Young Frankenstein; Darth Helmet fast-forwards through his own movie in Spaceballs; the camera shatters a windowpane in High Anxiety. Just about every Mel Brooks picture is chock full of gags like these. The man’s undying love for fourth wall jokes began in the Catskills. One of his first jobs there was doing maintenance work at the Butler Lodge, an Ellenville resort that put on the occasional play. Brooks got a big break (of sorts) when their production of the melodrama Uncle Harry ran into trouble.

Midway through the run, a supporting actor fell ill. Brooks agreed to take his place, but ended up flubbing his first scene. On stage, he was supposed to offer Harry a glass of water. But as Brooks poured, the cup slipped through his fingers and shattered into pieces. There was an awkward silence. Not knowing what to do, Brooks wandered down to the end of the stage, took off his character’s wig, and shouted “I’m 14. I’ve never done this before!” The crowd howled with laughter. From that moment on, Brooks said, he knew he’d be a comic for the rest of his life—even though the director threatened to kill him.

3. HE SERVED IN WORLD WAR II.

The year 1944 was a pivotal one for Brooks. Upon graduating from high school, Brooks (who still went by Melvin Kaminsky) joined the U.S. Army. After getting some training in Virginia and Oklahoma, he was sent off to Europe. As a member of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, the Brooklynite saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. However, Brooks’ unit spent most of its time away from the battlefield. Instead, a normal day’s work for Brooks and his unit involved building bridges or poking around for buried landmines with their bayonets.

4. HIS 2000 YEAR OLD MAN CHARACTER WAS INSPIRED BY A RECURRING NEWS PROGRAM.

After the war, Brooks was hired as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows (1950-1954). He immediately hit it off with a co-worker named Carl Reiner, who would become a longtime friend and partner. One night, Reiner happened to catch a news show entitled We The People Speak. Hosted by Dan Seymour, the weekly program dramatized recent events with a team of actors. Reiner thought that this premise would make for a great skit on Your Show of Shows, but Caesar vetoed the idea. Nevertheless, some good still came of it.

During a lull in the writer’s room, Reiner put on his best Seymour impression, turned to Brooks and said “Here’s a man who was actually seen at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.” With a thick Yiddish accent, Brooks replied “Oooh, boy.” Staying in character, Brooks went on to add, “Thin lad, wore sandals, long hair, walked around with 11 other guys.” Thus, the 2000 Year Old Man was born.

Reiner and Brooks put together several popular albums’ worth of interviews with this character, who supposedly danced with Marie Antoinette and fathered over 42,000 children (“Not one comes to visit me,” he lamented). In 1998, the duo’s fifth album, The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000, earned a Grammy.

5. ABC REJECTED HIS GET SMART TV SERIES BECAUSE IT SEEMED “UN-AMERICAN.”

Co-created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the hit series ran from 1965 to 1970. A spoof of the James Bond franchise, it starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, a U.S. secret agent whose enthusiasm didn't always match his competence. Before NBC picked it up, the show was pitched to ABC—whose executives wrote it off as “distasteful and un-American.” Note, however, that it has since developed quite a following around the CIA.  

6. THE PRODUCERS WASN’T HIS FIRST BROADWAY MUSICAL.

In 1957, Brooks teamed up with celebrated lyricist Joe Darion to write the book for Shinbone Alley. A twisted tale about a dead poet who has been reanimated as a cockroach, the musical flopped and only ran for 59 performances—although an animated movie version came out 14 years later. Brooks took another stab at the Great White Way in 1962, when he scripted All American. Modestly more successful, it garnered mixed reviews and two Tony nominations. By comparison, The Producers won 12 Tonys, setting a record that has yet to be broken.

7. ALFRED HITCHCOCK HELPED HIM WITH HIGH ANXIETY.

By the late 1970s, Brooks had established himself as one of the top comedy directors in Hollywood, with genre parodies as his bread and butter. After lampooning westerns in Blazing Saddles, horror movies in Young Frankenstein, and Keaton-esque cinema in Silent Movie, he chose the great Alfred Hitchcock as his next target.

Out of respect for the Master of Suspense, Brooks mailed him a rough story outline in advance with a note that read, “If any of this offends you, I won’t do [the movie].” In response, Hitchcock invited Brooks to his office, where the two would meet on a regular basis to develop what became 1977’s High Anxiety. “Every Friday, I’d come over,” Brooks said. “He was the most lovely, charming guy that ever lived.” The day after Hitchcock saw the final cut, he congratulated Brooks with a case of choice wine. “I’ve still got three [bottles] left,” said the funnyman in 2013.

8. BROOKS HAS PRODUCED SOME WELL-REGARDED NON-COMEDIES.

In 1980, Anne Bancroft—Brooks’ late wife—directed a dramedy called Fatso. Her husband wanted to produce the picture, but knew that if his name showed up on the promotional materials, people would assume it was some kind of zany farce. So he created Brooksfilms, a company that would later produce such movies as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

9. BROOKS WRITES A LOT OF THE ORIGINAL SONGS THAT APPEAR IN HIS MOVIES.

In the original, 1968 version of The Producers, we get two musical numbers: “Prisoners of Love” and “Springtime for Hitler.” Brooks came up with the melody and lyrics for both, though he had to ask a musicologist friend to convert these into actual sheet music. The director’s other songwriting credits include the titular track of Blazing Saddles and “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” from his second movie, The Twelve Chairs.

10. FOR TO BE OR NOT TO BE, BROOKS AND BANCROFT WORKED WITH A POLISH LANGUAGE TUTOR.

Although he didn’t direct it, Brooks regards To Be or Not To Be (1983) as his favorite of all the pictures he’s ever done. A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 masterpiece of the same name, it stars Brooks and Bancroft as the Bronskis—a married couple who head a theater company in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Early on, they take the stage for a Polish-language cover of the hit jazz song “Sweet Georgia Brown.” To pull this off, the pair recruited a language tutor. “There’s no greater joy than singing … with my wife in Polish,” Brooks once declared. In a 2013 interview with SirusXM, Brooks reminisced about the film—and Bancroft. “She was fun,” he says. “I liked her so much, I couldn’t get enough of her.”

11. HIS LEFT HANDPRINT ON THE HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME HAS AN EXTRA DIGIT.

On September 8, 2014, Brooks cemented his place in movie history—literally. As Hollywood looked on, the director left his foot and handprints on a new block of the Walk of Fame. In typical Mel Brooks fashion, he did so with a prosthetic eleventh finger.

12. HE’S AN “EGOT."

In showbiz, those that can pull off winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony are known as “EGOTs.” So far, only 12 individuals have earned the title. Brooks’ journey toward becoming the eighth EGOT in world history started in 1967, when his work with Sid Caesar netted him an Outstanding Writing Emmy. Two years later, Brooks accepted a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Producers. He then won three more Emmys en route to landing a Grammy with Carl Reiner for their aforementioned 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 album in 1999. Finally, Brooks personally took home a trio of Tonys after The Producers musical was released.

As if all this weren’t enough, he’s also been a Kennedy Center honoree and, in 2010, Brooks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he was given the latter, President Barack Obama delivered a memorable speech, noting: “By illuminating uncomfortable truths about racism and sexism and anti-Semitism, he’s been called our jester, asking us to see ourselves as we really are, determined that we laugh ourselves sane.”

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
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Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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11 Bite-Sized Facts About Cannibal! The Musical
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Troma Entertainment

Back in their film school days, the creators of South Park made a twisted tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein. Cannibal! The Musical is (very) loosely based on the life of Alfred "Alferd" Packer, an American prospector who resorted to eating his travel companions in the harsh winter of 1874. Below, you’ll find a buffet of bite-sized facts about this weirdly upbeat black comedy. Bon appétit!

1. IT ALL STARTED WITH A GAG TRAILER.

In 1992, Trey Parker was studying film at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where pretty much everyone knows all about the legend of Alfred "Alferd" Packer. Indeed, when a new restaurant opened up on campus in 1968, the student body chose to name it after this famous man-eater. The restaurant’s slogan? “Have a friend for lunch.” As a joke, Parker rounded up some of his fellow film majors and spent three days shooting a phony trailer for a nonexistent movie called Alferd Packer: The Musical. Included in the ensemble was Matt Stone, with whom Parker would go on to create South Park.

Once the Alferd Packer promo was finished, those who worked on it weren’t sure if they could turn this concept into a feature-length picture. Fortunately, the trailer was a huge hit. “People thought it was really funny,” Parker told The Denver Post, “so we went around … and said, ‘So do you want to invest?’” Thanks (for the most part) to donations from a few CU grads with wealthy parents, Parker and his co-stars amassed a $100,000 budget.

2. LIANE THE HORSE WAS NAMED AFTER TREY PARKER’S EX-FIANCÉE.

At age 21, Parker was all set to marry his high school sweetheart. “We had plane tickets, the dress was bought, the church was paid for,” Parker shared on the DVD commentary. Then, about a month before the wedding, he caught his bride-to-be with another man. Devastated, Parker broke off the engagement and came up with an unusual way to get even. “I really wrote this movie for her,” he said.

A major character in Cannibal is Liane, Packer’s beloved horse, who leaves him for another rider. The two-timing equine was named after Parker’s former fiancée. Some artistic license was taken here, as there’s no proof that the real Packer ever owned a horse named Liane—or that he ever wistfully sang about being on top of her.

3. AN AVANT-GARDE LEGEND WAS CAST IN A MINOR ROLE.

World-renowned for his experimental filmmaking, the late Stan Brakhage taught off and on at the University of Colorado, where he met Parker and Stone. The two convinced him to appear in Cannibal! as George Noon’s father, who gets about two minutes’ worth of screen time.

4. PARKER’S DAD WAS IN IT, TOO.

Just like Stan Marsh’s dad in South Park, Trey Parker’s father, Randy, is a geologist. In Cannibal! The Musical, he portrays the Breckenridge judge who sentences Packer (played by Trey) to death.

5. “SHPADOINKLE” WAS MEANT AS A FILLER WORD.

In addition to penning the Cannibal! script, Parker also wrote the film’s musical numbers. The first of these is “Shpadoinkle Day,” an offbeat tribute to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Parker knew that the first verse had to include a positive, three-syllable word, but couldn’t think of any that fit. So he used the made-up term “Shpadoinkle” to plug the gap until he could come up with an alternative. However, the creative team liked “shpadoinkle” so much that it stayed put and became one of Cannibal’s running jokes.

6. THEY SHOT IN THE COURTROOM IN WHICH PACKER WAS ACTUALLY TRIED.

On April 6, 1883, Packer was put on trial at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. Over the next few days, he admitted to dining on two of his dead travel companions—one of whom he supposedly killed in self-defense (the other died of natural causes). Packer was found guilty of murder, but avoided the hangman’s noose by fighting for a second trial, which took place 30 miles away in Gunnison. This time, he was charged with five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, while Packer languished behind bars, public opinion slowly turned in the cannibal’s favor. Under near-constant pressure from The Denver Post, Governor Charles S. Thomas pardoned Packer in 1901.

More than 90 years later, Parker filmed the trial scenes of Cannibal! The Musical at the still-standing Hinsdale County Courthouse. About halfway through the movie, the judge delivers a big speech in which he sentences Packer to death. His on-screen monologue was copied word-for-word from the court transcript of that 1883 Lake City trial.

7. AS THE MINERS SING “THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING FOR,” YOU CAN SEE PARKER MOUTH THE WORD “CUT.”

It goes by fast, but you can see Parker call "cut" to end the shot at the 3:06 mark in the clip above.

8. PARKER USED A PSEUDONYM FOR THE OPENING CREDITS.

Parker billed himself as "Juan Schwartz" in the cast of Cannibal because, according to the movie's website, "Trey doesn't like seeing one person's name plastered all over a movie's credits." Since he is properly credited as writer and director, he likely felt the additional acting credit was a bit too much. Incidentally, Packer called himself “John Shwartze” while evading the law before his arrest.

9. A FEW SONGS WERE DELETED.

The original cut of Cannibal! The Musical ran for two and a half hours, but thanks to some major-league editing, the runtime was reduced to a breezy 93 minutes. “There were fights about that from the get-go, but I give credit to Trey for being the toughest critic,” producer Jason McHugh told MovieMaker Magazine. “He had the maturity to know that a musical comedy about cannibals can’t be two and a half hours long.”

In the streamlining process, two musical numbers got the axe. The first was a quick little dirge called “Don’t Be Stupid,” wherein some nameless miners tell Packer’s group to postpone their journey until springtime. The other was “I’m Shatterproof,” a rap/funk song that Packer, hardened by his recent ordeals, delivers during a bar fight. Also deleted was a reprise of “When I Was On Top of You.”

10. COMEDY CENTRAL WOULDN’T BROADCAST IT.

Cannibal! was distributed by Troma Entertainment, an independent production company best known for creating The Toxic Avenger series. When South Park began to emerge as a major player on cable TV, Troma’s co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, assumed that Comedy Central would jump at the chance to air some of Parker and Stone’s earlier work. Instead, the channel flatly refused to air Cannibal.

Kaufman was sent a rejection letter from Comedy Central, which read: “Thank you for submitting and re-submitting Cannibal! The Musical, but it is simply not up to our standards for broadcasting.” Troma forwarded a copy of this dispatch to Parker. Today, it’s prominently displayed in his office—at Comedy Central!

11. IT HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL ON MANY OCCASIONS.

Can’t get tickets to The Book of Mormon? Perhaps you can catch a live reenactment of Cannibal! The Musical instead. Since 1998, the movie has been seen more than 60 stage adaptations. There’s no “official” version of the theatrical show. As such, acting troupes that might be interested in performing Cannibal! have to write their own scripts based on the original movie. 

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