Mel Brooks the subject of a DVD boxed set — and he isn't done yet

Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks

LOS ANGELES - Mel Brooks has just welcomed a visitor into his office when the comedian gets noticeably excited. "Have you seen the Hitler rap?" he asks, referring to the satiric music video from 1983 that has him busting rhymes dressed as the Fuhrer. "Oh, we have to watch it."

Brooks jumps from his chair and calls for an assistant to fire up a DVD.

"I'm a rap pioneer," he says with a gleam in his eye as he watches himself on-screen. He adds, "This would be big on YouTube," possibly unaware that the video has in the last few years in fact become a viral-video sensation. (Sample lyric: "Heil, Siegety Heil / We gonna whip it on the people Teutonic style.")

At 86 and with almost every conceivable accomplishment under his belt (Brooks is one of 11 people in history to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards), the comedian continues to show an unusual vigor.

Brooks spends most days each week at his Culver City office - decked out with film posters such as "The Producers" and "Spaceballs" along with a well-worn piano - and continues to jot down notes for what he hopes might turn into a "Blazing Saddles" Broadway musical.

"I just called Nathan Lane the other day and I said, 'What about playing Hedley Lamarr?'" referring to the duplicitous attorney general played by Harvey Korman in the Western spoof. "I mean, he's not exactly the black sheriff or the Waco Kid. But he's an important character! I think he was skeptical."

Now audiences are about to see more of Brooks. A new five-disc boxed set of early material, "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy," has been released for the holidays. The hyphenate has been making the rounds to late-night shows hosted by the likes of Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel (the latter of whom is at the moment evidenced by a zipper-sweatshirt Brooks is wearing that bears the ABC host's name in large embroidered letters. ("Love the swag," Brooks says.) He'll also receive a lifetime achievement award from AFI at a gala in June.

Brooks stars in an hourlong special that premiered Monday on HBO, "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!," in which he recalls to the BBC veteran Alan Yentob some of his career highlights, a broadcast that's one part reminiscence and one part greatest hits.

Brooks filmed it as a benefit for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and though it's not exactly bursting with new material, fans will be tickled by the classic stories, like the day he was with Sid Caesar when the "Your Show of Shows" star threatened to pull a cab driver through a small window, or how he and Carl Reiner would improvise their famous "2000 Year Old Man" skits.

"I think I'm unconsciously writing a visual biography," Brooks said. "Instead of sitting down and saying, 'I was born in Brooklyn,' and copying it in pencil, I'm doing it this way."

As a child of Eastern European immigrants coming of age during the Great Depression, Brooks had few show business ambitions. Any world outside a working-class one, he says, seemed foreign.

"I thought for sure I was born to push a rack from the garment center to the post office, and if I was lucky I'd get to be a salesman, maybe a lace salesman. And maybe one day, like all Jews, I dreamed I'd be a partner. Rosenthal and Slotnick? I'd be Slotnick."

That changed when his uncle took him to "Anything Goes" - that is, the original 1934 Broadway production with Ethel Merman - and he realized that entertainment was a career option. "I knew right then. I'd heard about heaven, and this was it."

It later rescued him from a state of being he describes as "near-suicidal" on an Army base in Oklahoma during World War II (he'd eventually ship out as a combat engineer), where he felt like a fish out of water. He and another New Yorker decided to put on a show riffing on the differences between the Northeast and the heartland. It instantly cheered him up.

Brooks eventually made his way to the Borscht Belt before coming to Hollywood to create TV shows such as "Get Smart!" and generation-defining films such as "History of the World Part I," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles." ("Obama once told me he snuck in to see ('Saddles') as a 12-year-old," he says proudly.)

Brooks, who's never met a joke he didn't like (asked if there are things he regrets having done, he said, "There's a girl in Cincinnati, Sheila, I think, was her name"), is a reminder of an era when comedy was peddled at Grossinger's, not on Funny or Die. But he's managed to stay relevant this century with Broadway smashes such as "The Producers" and says he actually keeps current with the new stuff.

He likes "The Book of Mormon" and "Modern Family," watches Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert "religiously" and even isn't averse to some of the gross-out fare the studios have taken to churning out. "I really enjoyed 'The Hangover' and even liked the second 'Hangover,' though not as much. A tiger in the toilet - that's funny!"

"Saturday Night Live," he said, is "hit and miss."

Brooks turns serious only at the subject of his late wife, Anne Bancroft, who died in 2005, particularly when recalling the opportunity to work with her one last time in the 2004 season finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

"I'll always be grateful to the show for that," he said. (His office, surprisingly, doesn't look that different from how it did on the series.)

Though responsible for an endless number of quotable scenes, Brooks seems genuinely upset he didn't get a chance to direct more dramas. "Hitchcock told me that. 'You're a much bigger director and you've cursed yourself with this golden stamp of comedy,' he said."

Brooks said his biggest career regret was handing off a drama, "The Doctor and the Devils," to the cinematographer Freddie Francis to direct instead of helming it himself. (Brooks was behind more serious fare such as "The Elephant Man" and "The Fly" as a producer.)

The comedian can also be sensitive to criticism. Though the Broadway musical "Young Frankenstein" was popular with audiences when it opened in 2007 (and though "The Producers" walked away with an armful of Tonys), Brooks is bothered by negative reviews. (The New York Times called many of the "Frankenstein" songs "throwaway.")

"It still smarts," he says. "I don't feel welcome on Broadway."

Brooks adds that he hasn't shown many people what he's written for the "Blazing Saddles" musical for that reason. "I'm torn between taking a new show like that to Broadway and being slaughtered, literally being slaughtered."

But any thin-skinned-ness is overshadowed by his endearingly childlike desire to just keep joking - whenever, wherever, no matter the joke. Referring to his birth name of Kaminsky, Brooks says, "It means 'con man,'" and then with a Borscht Belt, "I got a million more, baby, a million more" intonation, adds almost as quickly, "I just made that up."

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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