Movies Made Me: Mel Brooks

I was way too young to actually get it. But I have always loved Spaceballs. 

When you grow up in the 80s without such silly concepts as streaming movies or on-demand, it is probable that your library of cinematic knowledge consisted of a cabinet of sharpie-labeled black VHS cassettes with three or four movies on them. My favorite had Spaceballs on it, recorded off of HBO or something like that, with the first few seconds missing altogether.

But it didn’t matter. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi hit the big screen when I was three. It would be a couple of years before Star Trek returned to my world thanks to The Next Generation. I needed an amazing spacefaring adventure, and my adolescent mind needed a constant stream of one-liners and hilarity to keep my attention.

Spaceballs filled that void nicely. At first I was too young to get some of the more adult themes (“I knew it! I’m surrounded by Assholes!”), too naive to make some rather obvious connections (“What’s the matter Colonel Sandurz? CHICKEN?”) and I really had no idea who any of the people in the movie were beyond Rick Moranis (thanks to Ghostbusters).

In Spaceballs I discovered John Candy. A man who helped me realize that being tubby doesn’t preclude you from being adorable. Barf was loyal, funny, and broke the fourth wall to tell me that Princess Vespa didn’t look Druish (yet another joke I didn’t get at the time.)

Over the following decades, each visit to Spaceballs was like seeing the movie for the first time. I’d get one more joke. I’d see one more character in a new light. Of course my cinematic vernacular was growing, movies were very much a part of my family, and they shaped me into who I am today (hence this blog’s title).

However, like my inability to grasp certain jokes as a child, I had not yet developed my ability to appreciate all the work that goes into putting one of these masterpieces together. Sure, I knew President Skroob was hilarious, and oddly enough also Yoghurt, but I didn’t really make the connection between the actor on screen and the director behind the camera.

The whole concept dawned on me thanks to Robin Hood: Men in Tights. What do you mean the same guy who did Spaceballs did that movie, too? Once I mastered that rather basic concept, then the research began. Luckily for me, that coincided with my ability to rent movies from Blockbuster. (What can I say, I usually spent my Blockbuster money on game rentals.)

Young Frankenstein was a revelation. Nothing should be that funny, it shouldn’t be possible. Combining Gene Wilder with Mel Brooks is stroke of genius! There must be more! Blazing Saddles! How could it be that Brooks struck so much gold! Even his lesser movies like History of the World, Part One deserve their place in the highest pantheon of comedy.

Then I discovered that I had been a bigger Brooks fan than I had realized. You see, kids my age grew up relatively addicted to Nickelodeon. Even after the cartoons transitioned into Nick at Night, I kept watching. It never even occurred to me to see who wrote and directed Get Smart. I just knew it was my favorite show.

It changed everything, but a teenage Damien would have to wait a few years before the internet would bring me some real insight into my favorite comedic writer and director. Special Features just weren’t a thing on taped-from-TV VHS tapes, you see. Wikipedia was in its infancy.

Even when I landed my Spaceballs DVD once I made it to college, it didn’t do much to shed more light on Brooks. The director’s commentary was Brooks’ s first time watching the movie since it had premiered some thirteen years earlier.

Rather than offering insight into what inspired him to dream up Barf and Spaceball One, I spent 90 minutes watching my favorite movie with my favorite director. It was like sitting in the theater with him, listening to him laugh at all the same jokes I loved.

What nuggets I was able to glean helped me understand why Gene Wilder went on his own journey… and that’s about it. I’ve heard some people say it’s just the worst commentary they’ve ever heard, since there are massive runs of dead air as he just sits back and watches the movie. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Eventually like-minded individuals put together a biopic that covered his life and career, and only cemented my admiration for this brilliant man.

His philosophy that “Wit is shit, but funny is money,” meant that his writers threw away thousands of pages of scripts that didn’t meet his standards. It had to be funny. It had to earn the laugh. Take a look at Blazing Saddles, or Young Frankenstein, and you’ll see this philosophy taken to its most extreme conclusion. It just cements another Brooks saying I live by, “Immortality is a by-product of good work.”

Mel Brooks reached his 90th birthday last month, and while he may be retired now, I know his works will live on forever.

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