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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy DVD Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Mel Brooks.  The name conjures up some of the most enduring comedic images in the history of American popular culture: The inimitable 2000 Year Old Man.  Max Bialystock. Springtime for Hitler.  Flatulent cowboys in Blazing Saddles. The bumbling Maxwell Smart.  Young Frankenstein and his well-endowed monster.  From stand-up to films to TV to Broadway, for 65 years, in every medium through which entertainment can possibly pass, Mel Brooks has conquered the world with laughter.  A celebrated director, actor, producer, composer and writer, Brooks is one of only 11 people in history to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.  And now, in a first-of-its-kind collection, this 5-DVD/1-CD set offers a veritable treasure trove of all things Brooksian, a laugh-filled celebration of his illustrious career.  This box set takes viewers on a journey through time with performances, extensive interviews, film clips and rare archival television footage, as well as some never-before-seen photos, and special tributes. of Brooks’ television appearances, short films, documentaries, tributes, songs and genuine rarities.



Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Mel Brooks is without a doubt a comedy icon and an American treasure.  He’s also inspired countless comedians and changed the direction of comedy which we are seeing the results of today.  Whether you know him from his early appearances on television or from the movies that he wrote and directed, Brooks has been a huge presence on the comedy scene for decades.  I’ve been a fan of his movies (and also bought the awesome Mel Brooks Collection of his movies), but I wasn’t that aware of his earlier work as a young man.  This set brilliantly gives the viewers a new appreciation of Brooks’ early career from his time writing for Sid Caesar, to making commercials and television pilots and so much more. We also get a bunch of specials that are a lot of fun and lot of other television appearances.  This five disc set is housed in a hardcover book that includes essays from Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, writer Bruce Jay Friedman, critic Robert Brustein as well as the program listings for each disc.  With total running time of 660 minutes, there’a s lot of content spread out across these discs so let’s start running down what you can expect to find on this massive set:
DISC 1:
  • The Hitler Rap (1983) – This is how you start off a Mel Brooks collection.  Here Mel Brooks takes aim at his favorite target – Adolph Hitler – with this catchy fun rap song that’s complete with him appearing as Hitler along with dancing girls and some hunky dudes in bondage outfits.  The song is actually good and very funny and this music video was one of the best parts of this set.
  • Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett Together Again (2010) – I wasn’t aware that Brooks and Cavett had some history together doing commercials together and of course Brooks appeared on Cavett’s talk show.  This is almost an hour discussion about their shared history, anecdotes about Alfred Hitchcock and other famous people, the 2000 Year Man skits (including an appearance by Carl Reiner himself), and a bunch of other funny anecdotes and a Q&A session.
  • The Tracey Ullman Show: “Due Diligence” (1990) – This is a short skit where Brooks appeared with Tracey Ullman as a director whose popularity is on shaky ground within the industry.  He needs a hit bad and the only way he’s going to get one is by convincing a big star (played by Tracey Ullman) to appear in his movie.  There’s a lot of slapstick involving an office chair and a lot of humor gained by just how desperate he is to please just so he can get her to sign on to the film. Sam McMurray and Dan Castellaneta (also known as the voice of Homer Simpson) appear as well.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson - A handful of appearances by Brooks on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” where he does his Frank Sinatra impression, talks about how Cary Grant loved the 2000 Year Old Man record, and later appears as a homeless man to promote his film Life Stinks.  I’m always happy to see Johnny Carson and the two men obviously appreciated each other’s humor.  These are short but fun excerpts.
  • Mel and His Movies (Part 1) – The first part of some of my favorite aspects of this set is a look back by Brooks on his canon of movies with this first part devoted to anecdotes about The Producers and The Twelve Chairs.  Brooks talks about transitioning from working as a writer for Sid Caesar to writing his own screenplay that became The Producers.
DISC 2:
  • Peeping Times (1978) – Here’s another funny bit by Brooks, Bary Levinson and Rudy de Luca where he has more humor at Hitler’s expense.  In this we get to see home movies of Hitler being silly with Eva Braun while being filmed by others.  It’s like an early reality show with Hitler as the star and it’s pretty funny.
  • Inside Danny Baker (1963) – This is a television pilot of a show that Brooks wrote and produced about a young boy with a big imagination and chutzpah to spare.  In this episode, he decides to buy a boat by creating impressionistic paintings by flinging paint on a ping pong table to sell, figuring that there’s plenty of suckers who will buy anything that reeks of being different and arty.  I liked the show and totally agreed with the kid.
  • In the Beginning: The Caesar Years – Although his history with Caesar is touched on many times during this set, this extra offers the most details of his time spent writing for Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and laterCeasar’s Hour. We not only get to see how Brooks transformed from a writer to a comedic superstar, but we also get a look at Sid Caesar whose influence and talent had a serious effect on Brooks and all of his other writers.  And what a writers room it was!  There was  Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner, and later Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen.  Included within this featurette, there’s some clips from the 1996 reunion of the writers, that included Caesar, Brooks, Reiner, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, and a lot more talk about writing for the show and how Brooks was constantly late.
  • 60 Minutes (April 15, 2001) – A segment from the classic “60 Minutes” show with Mike Wallace interviewing Brooks the best he can.  They talk about Brooks bringing The Producers to Broadway ans we get to see some behind the scenes glimpses into Brooks’ writing process, rehearsals, and his approach with the play’s director Susan Stroman.
  • American Comedy Awards (1991) – This is a very short clip of Brooks presenting an award to Carl Reiner but roasts him instead, much to the amusement of Reiner, his son Rob Reiner, and Steve Martin.  It’s funny but very short.
  • Mel And His Movies (Part 2) – This second installment focuses on my two favorite films from Brooks –Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  The bad news is that compared to the amount of time spent on The Twelve Chairs, this installment is positively shorted on time which is crazy because those are the movies Brooks is the most loved for.  In any case, it’s good to hear about my favorites including stories like how much Richard Pryor loved writing for Mongo and how the studio wouldn’t let him play the sheriff.  We also learn that Blazing Saddles set up Brooks financially for life.  Brooks also talks about how influential Gene Wilder was in the genesis of Young Frankenstein and how he was responsible for the “Putting on the Ritz” scene that Brooks didn’t want to do.
DISC 3:
  • The Critic (1963) - An Oscar winning short film where Brooks voices a cranky old man complaining about the modern art that’s being displayed on screen.  This is probably my least favorite extra in this set as I didn’t think it was that funny and I don’t know why it won an Oscar.  Brooks complains that he never even got his Oscar for this!
  • I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks (1981) – This is a mockumentary done by the BBC and Brooks that seemingly catches Brooks’s career go down the drain just as The History of the World, Part I is being released.  With Brooks in on the joke and actively participating in creating it, this is very funny and he is at his obnoxious best.
  • The Dick Cavett Show (April 6, 1970 and January 21, 1972) – There’s two segments with Brooks from Cavett’s show and both are entertaining.  The two men share a easy camaraderie together and Cavett even gets some laughs in.
  • Commercials- At one point Brooks was making commercials for Bic’s banana pens and Frito-Lay products, they feature Brooks’ voice and they’re ok but nothing to shout about.  It is nice to see a good assortment of all of his work though.
  • Excavating The 2000 Year Old Man (2012) – This is a detailed look into the history and genesis of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man skits.  We get to see some of the sketches from shows like “The New Steve Allen Show”, “The Andy Williams Show”, “The Ed Sullivan Show”, and the “The Timex All-Star Comedy Hour.”   We also hear from a bunch of comedians who have been heavily influenced by the sketches including, Bob Newhart, Paul Reiser, Garry Shandling and Richard Lewis, and non-comedians such as producer Leonard Stern, and Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.  They talk about how the pair introduced Jewish humor to America and how it changed comedy forever.  Of course we also get to hear from Reiner and Brooks too as they talk about their feelings on it and what impact they think it had.
  • Bonus 2000 Year Old Man Routines – We get to see basically the same routine done on three different shows but with each one, Brooks improvises just enough to keep things different and fresh.
  • Mel And His Movies (Part 3) – Brooks talks about two of his lesser known films – Silent Movie and High Anxiety and we also get to see clips from both of them.  His old mentor Sid Caesar makes an appearance inSilent Movie too.  We also hear how difficult it was for Brooks to get financing to make Silent Movie because everyone thought he was crazy to make a modern movie with no verbal dialogue.
DISC 4:
  • Mel’s Television Debut – This is a ckip of Brooks’ inauspicious television debut where he is basically unrecognizable in the sketch.  It’s pretty short and he doesn’t have a lot to do in it but it’s good to have his debut included.
  • An Audience With … Mel Brooks – This is a British special that is is entirely a a scripted Q&A session between Brooks and his audience that includes Jonathan Pryce, Helen Mirren, and others who gamely question Brooks.  We even see Brooks go up against Pryce in a Hamlet competition.
  • Wogan – Although most Americans aren’t aware of Terry Wogan’s talkshow in Britain, but this episode is a good example of just how much more wittier and less vacuous talk shows can be.  Wogan not only keeps Brooks on his toes, but he also plays along too.
  • Mad About You: “The Penis” – Mel Brooks stars as Uncle Phil and he’s easily the best part of the episode.  Brooks won three Emmys for each appearance he made on the show.
  • The Electric Company – Brooks appears as a cartoon man who helps with sentence construction.
  • Mel And His Movies (Part 4) – In this fourth roundup of his movies, we are back to another round of excellent Brooks movies (History of the World, Part I, To Be Or Not To Be, and Spaceballs) that did well, especially Spaceballs which was a big hit.
DISC 5:
  • My Son, The Hero Trailer (1963) – A trailer for an Italian sword and sandals picture that’s probably funnier than the movie itself.
  • The David Susskind Show: How to Be a Jewish Son – Brooks joins a panel of Jewish sons including George Segal and David Steinberg to talk about their mothers and growing up Jewish.  Brooks also humorously talks about how his mother reacted to his bringing his future catholic wife Anne Bancroft to meet her.
  • Get Smart Pilot “Mr. Big” – This show has been a long time favorite of my family and I was really happy to see it included in this set.  This show that was created by Brooks and Buck Henry, stars Don Adams as Maxwell Smart who is a secret agent who is generally successful despite himself.  The show is great and a lot of fun and this pilot episode is a good example of it.
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame Induction – We see Brooks get his well deserved star on the Walk of Fame and get introduced by his son Max and his loyal friend Carl Reiner joins in the fun too.
  • When Things Were Rotten: Episode “The French Dis-connection” – I had never heard about this show before seeing it on this set, but it’s a an obvious precursor to Robin Hood: Men in Tights as the action takes place in Sherwood Forest and the show is filled with silliness and slapstick.  The cast also included some Brooks regulars including Sid Caesar, Dick Van Patten, Dick Gautier, and Bernie Koeppell.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these episodes if they become available.
  • New Faces Sketch: “Of Fathers & Sons” – This sketch stars Paul Lynde and Brooks as a father and son who are at odds but a shared sense of weaselness brings them together.  It’s as odd as it sounds, but at least it’s kind of original.
  • Free to Be … You and Me Sketch “Boy Meets Girl” –  A fairly lame sketch that involves puppets and a syrupy look at what makes boys and girls different.  I’d recommend skipping it.
  • Mel And His Movies (Part 5) – At last, we sadly come to the end of the movie anecdotes  with Robin Hood: Men in Tights,  Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It and this batch has some winners and and losers.  While I liked Men in Tights, I was not as impressed with Life Stinks and Dracula although both had their moments.  Brooks on the other hand, seems to love all of them and he gushes about them amid all of the clips from the movies.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

As this set covers seven decades of Brooks’ career, the video quality is all over the place with some parts looking very rough and others very good, but all of them have been presented in their original aspect ratio which for almost all of them is 1.33:1 full screen.  The newer the program, the better it looks but even at its worst, it looks decent and I’m just glad that Shout Factory has collected all of this great material into one set.  The newer interview footage looks really good and has a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  For the older footage, expect the usual defects from old footage like trails, grain, noise, bad lighting, and colors that bleed together and they’re here but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This collection’s  Dolby Digital mixes offer surprisingly good audio tracks considering how old much of the material is.  The dialogue sounds clean and clear sounding dialogue throughout the set.  Even the really old clips sound good which I didn’t expect.  This set doesn’t offer any closed captioning or subtitles so be aware of that if you are in need of those.  Much like the video, the quality of the audio improves as the material gets more recent.   Once you get to watching Mel reminisce about his movies in the five part series, the audio improves quite a bit.

Extras (3 out of 5 stars) 

As if all of that good material wasn’t enough, we also get a bonus CD that contains all of the best songs from his movies as well as some comedy bits too!
Bonus CD
  • Melvin Kaminsky at The New School - February 24, 1947
  • The Inquisition - From The Film The History Of The World: Part I, Performed by Mel Brooks & Cast
  • The New Les Crane Show - August, 3, 5 & 6, 1964
  • Springtime for Hitler  - From the film The Producers
  • Open End Starring David Susskind - March 22, 1964
  • Theme From Blazing Saddles - From the film Blazing Saddles, Performed by Frankie Laine
  • I’m Tired - From the film Blazing Saddles, Performed by Madeline Kahn
  • Circus Nuts  - Mel and Dick Cavett in a series of radio commercials for Circus brand peanuts
  • Le Grand Frisson (aka High Anxiety) - From the French version of his film High Anxiety, Performed by Mel Brooks
  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson - April 21, 1964
  • Men in Tights - From the film Robin Hood: Men In Tights
  • It’s Good to Be the King - From the film The History Of The World: Part I, Performed by Mel Brooks
  • The Celebrity Game - Airdates: July 15 and August 12, 1965
  • Hope For The Best, Expect The Worst - From the film The Twelve Chairs

Summary (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This is a great collection of Mel Brooks’ early work that no fan of his should go without.  In fact, you should buy this and his movie collection to have all of your bases covered.  The video and audio for this set are surprisingly good considering the age of this collected footage and the extra disc of songs and comedy material is also a great bonus.  Usually, in one of these kind of sets, there’s a lot of fluff included to make it seem like you were getting more than you really are, but not this time, as just about every thing in this set is worthy and a lot of fun.  If you are fun of Brooks’ subversive, anti-establishment, and broad humor, then you will love this set like I did.
Order your copy today!

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