TCM Film Fest: Comedy Legend Mel Brooks Looks Back and Laughs (Video)

On Friday afternoon, I had the honor of spending about 20 minutes with the legendary actor-writer-director-producer Mel Brooks at the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, which began on Thursday and runs through Sunday in Hollywood. The 86-year-old, who is best known for his towering achievements in the field of comedy, was at the fest to introduce a screening of one of his lesser-known comedic films, The Twelve Chairs (1970). Beforehand, he was gracious enough to take some time to sit down with me and reflect on his life and work, which has been so well received across the various media that he is one of only 11 people in history who have won a competitive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

As you can see by checking out the video of our conversation's highlights (above), he remains every bit as smart and funny today as ever.

It seems as if I am only the latest in a long line of people, of late, asking Brooks to dissect himself: The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy, a DVD box-set of some of his greatest work and his thoughts about it, was released on Nov. 13; Mel Brooks Strikes Back!, an hour-long special featuring Brooks in conversation with an interviewer, began airing on HBO on Dec. 10; he is the subject of the next installment in the American Masters series, which will premiere on PBS on May 20; and he is set to receive the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award on June 6. I tried, in the limited time that I had with Brooks, to understand his worldview, and came away with the distinct impression that the man who is closely associated with off-color humor is also someone who is deeply intelligent and not interested in cheap and easy laughs, but rather laughs in the serve of the human condition.

Brooks was born in Brooklyn in 1926. The youngest of four boys, his father died when he was just two, and he spent much of his youth trying to keep his mother and the rest of the family amused and happy. He honed his comedic sensibility on local street corners and ultimately in the Catskills' famed Borscht Belt before heading off to serve in World War II. (He fought at the Battle of the Bulge.) After his return from Europe, he reconnected with a fellow comic whom he had met before it, Sid Caesar, who was about to begin appearing on television. Brooks landed a job as one of his comedy writers, first The Admiral Broadway Revue and then, more famously, for Your Show of Shows, which had a writers' room so packed with talent that it has been likened to the 1927 New York Yankees. It was and is widely regarded as the greatest of the era's many TV variety shows.

After Your Show of Shows ended its run in 1954, Brooks struggled for a time, even as he churned out landmarks in comedy history like his first 2,000 Year Old Man recording (1961) with pal Carl Reiner. It wasn't until the premiere of Get Smart (1965-1970), a TV series spoofing spies that he co-created with Buck Henry, that he regained his footing. From there, he wrote his first screenplay, The Producers (1968), and also had the chance to direct it; the film, which was originally titled Springtime for Hitler and mocks the Nazi leader via a Busby Berekely-esque Broadway musical, was controversial but ultimately acclaimed, winning Brooks the best original screenplay Oscar.

In 1974, Brooks co-wrote and directed two genre-spoofing films that remain among his most popular works: Blazing Saddles, a pseudo-Western, and Young Frankenstein, a horror parody, both of which were big hits. The former, as much as any of Brooks' always-edgy work, was by some of being in bad taste, but Brooks has always insisted that its controversial content -- including now-infamous scenes of farting around a campfire, prolific use of the n-word and the punching of a horse and an elderly woman -- were necessary to ridicule the provincial and bigoted white characters in the film, who will stop at nothing to prevent a black man from becoming their sheriff. (Interestingly, one self-avowed fan of the film is President Barack Obama, who told Brooks, before presenting him with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2009, that he had snuck in to see the film as a kid and loved it.)

Brooks is responsible for writing and/or directing and/or starring in so many other memorable comedies -- among them Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World: Part I (1981), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) -- but, fewer people realize, he also made possible a great many high-quality dramas through his production company BrooksFilms, including The Elephant Man (1980), Fatso (1980) and Frances (1982).

He was married to the Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft from 1964 until her death in 2005.