There has, perhaps, never been another comic writer/director in cinema quite like Mel Brooks. Certainly, his influence can be felt – parodies such as the Scary Movie series and its varied children owe a deep debt to Brooks, and other comic directors such as Judd Atapow, whose series of interviews with Brooks will run on SiriusXM radio, share in the Brooks legacy of a consistent and recognizable style – but Brooks’s combination of stellar writing, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and track record of excellence sets him apart.
Although he was involved with a couple of films beforehand, Brooks’s career really began with his directoral debut, 1968’s The Producers, which he also wrote. It was also his only Oscar-winner (Brooks took home the 1969 award for best screenplay). He went on to write and direct such comic classics as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, History of the World: Part 1, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The best comedy, said Brooks in an interview, “strays an inch from reality, to the left or right. It feels so real that you don’t expect it to explode.”
Brooks also spoke about a conversation he once had with Warner Bros. exec John Calley while working on Blazing Saddles. Brooks said Calley’s advice was, ” ‘If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it.’ He told me that early in my career, and I never forgot it. I had cavemen masturbating [in History of the World, Part 1]. I rang it.”
Brooks is the 41st person to receive the American Film Institute’s lifetime award, in a ceremony that was full of comedians both ribbing Brooks and testifying to his genius. The tribute ceremony will air on TNT on June 15 and on TCM on July 24.