- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

Oscar winner. Grammy winner. Tony winner. Emmy winner. World War II veteran. Star of stage, screen and airwaves. Master of the parody film.

Fart joke pioneer.

Mel Brooks has been rewarded with a Kennedy Center Honor for mastering every facet of the entertainment industry and bringing laughter to countless millions with his iconic brand of distinctly Jewish comedy.

“If a hurricane had a sense of humor, it would only have one name … Mel Brooks,” says comedian and actor Richard Lewis via e-mail.

After serving in World War II — enlisting as a 17-year-old and entering combat just in time for the brutal Battle of the Bulge — Melvin Kaminsky returned to the United States and performed at resorts in the Catskills. He changed his last name to Brooks so people wouldn’t confuse him with the trumpeter Max Kaminsky.

By 1950, he was working as a writer on early television giant Sid Caesar’s programs, including the legendary “Your Show of Shows”; it was there that he met Carl Reiner, which was the start of a longtime friendship and fruitful partnership.

“It was more fun than it was work,” Mr. Reiner said of their time writing for “Show of Shows.” “The writers’ room was a competitive place, where people tried to get their ideas and jokes in, and Mel Brooks was a contributor who always came up with something.”

Mr. Brooks first came to national prominence with the success of his and Mr. Reiner’s “2,000 Year Old Man” album. In the bit, Mr. Reiner would pose a question to Mr. Brooks, who would answer as the eponymous character; the answers — which began life as a time-waster at dinner parties — were all improvised.

“The first album, he didn’t want to do,” Mr. Reiner confided during a recent phone interview. But the pair performed the routine in front of some Hollywood luminaries, one of whom gave the duo a piece of sage advice.

“George Burns came up to me, and he said, ‘Is there an album I can buy?’ and we said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘You better put it on an album, or I’m going to steal it,’” Mr. Reiner reminisced.

Legendary “Tonight Show” host Steve Allen finally persuaded the pair to record the skit on an album, and its release in 1960 was an instant success, spawning four follow-up albums. In 1965, Mr. Brooks created the spy-spoof television series “Get Smart,” another smash success, and three years later, he won an Oscar for best screenplay for “The Producers.”

That film was the beginning of an epic run on the big screen: In the decade that followed, Mr. Brooks completely reinvented the notion of what a parody film could be. Between “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Silent Movie” and “High Anxiety,” Mr. Brooks created some of the most uproariously funny movies of the 1970s. The reason they resonated so magnificently with audiences might be simpler than you think.

“He was outrageous, right from the beginning” Mr. Reiner said. “I think he broke it open for everybody with one particular scene, one particular movie: ‘Blazing Saddles,’ in which he dared to suggest that men who sit around a campfire eating beans out of tin plates are going to fart. … And people were roaring with laughter!”

As the years went on, Mr. Brooks continued cranking out hits at the box office: His “Star Wars” parody “Spaceballs,” Robin Hood parody “Men in Tights” and vampire parody “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.”

“Every one of his movies had something in it that would make you roar out loud,” Mr. Reiner said. “That’s rare. You can laugh; a lot of movies today make me chuckle. But laughing out loud is not a thing you do.”

Having conquered the big screen, Mr. Brooks soon set his sights on a new target: Broadway.

In 2001, he opened a musical version of his first film, “The Producers,” to rave reviews and sellout crowds. The transition made a certain amount of sense; it is, after all, the story of a Broadway producer who aims to produce a musical so terrible that he will make money when it closes early.

“The Producers” starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and was a smash hit, playing more than 2,500 shows and winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards (including three — best musical, best book of a musical and best original score — for Mr. Brooks).

Emboldened by the success of “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks would pull the same trick with “Young Frankenstein” in 2007. Another hit, “Young Frankenstein” took home three Tonys and started a nationwide tour in 2009. Starting Dec. 15, it can be seen at the Kennedy Center, the venue where Mr. Brooks will be saluted Sunday for his latest award: the Kennedy Center Honor.

“I’m in awe of his brain,” Mr. Reiner marveled about his old pal. “I want to know what’s in there.”

It’s safe to say he’s not the only one.

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