Even After All These Years, No One Tells a Hitler Joke Like Mel Brooks
At 96, Mel Brooks hasn’t lost an ounce of his creativity, his drive or his legendary wit when it comes to Nazis and their dancing, prancing forebearer. The Producers writer and director’s memoir, All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Showbusiness, is newly out in paperback, and Brooks answered some questions from the New York Times about his thoughts and tastes for literature.
Brooks revealed some surprising stories about his relationship with literature, including naming the book that he says has most influenced him as a comedy writer, but my favorite bit came when Brooks was asked the question, “Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?” The comedy legend’s response was simple: “If truth be told, for some reason I never did get around to finishing Mein Kampf.”
In the words of the book’s publisher, Random House, All About Me! “charts Mel Brooks’ meteoric rise from a Depression-era kid in Brooklyn to the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.” As for the books that have influenced Brooks during his “Remarkable Life in Showbusiness,” he had a lot to say about the comedy chops of the Russians: “One of the funniest books I ever read is called The Twelve Chairs. I liked it so much I made a movie of it! The book was written by two young Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, and it’s a crazy picaresque adventure set during the turbulent times immediately following the Russian Revolution.”
His take on Twelve Chairs was one of 18 different film adaptations of the Soviet classic, but Brooks’ movie was the only one to feature a disturbingly dreamy Frank Langella.
When Brooks was asked, “What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?” he again deferred to our friends from the Motherland, saying, “The book was Dead Souls, by the magnificent genius Nikolai Gogol. It was a revelation. I’d never read anything like it. It was hysterically funny and incredibly moving at the same time. It’s like Gogol stuck a pen in his heart, and it didn’t even go through his mind on its way to the page. It truly raised the bar of what I considered to be important writing. It was a life-changing gift, and I still read it once a year to remind myself of what great comic writing can be.”
That’s effusive praise from the producer behind some of the most important works of American comedy. The fact that someone as accomplished as Brooks still regularly reminds himself of the high bar set by those who came before him is a testament to the immense work ethic and dedication of a man who, at 96 years old, still has so much to say about the hilarity of human experience.
That said, it wasn’t all Ruskies for whom Brooks had praise — when asked who his favorite comic writers are and which comedian wrote the best memoir, he explained, “By far my favorite comic writer and memoirist of all time is the irreplaceable Carl Reiner. … He wrote several memoirs, and I even helped him with the title for one of them, Too Busy to Die. They’re all chock-full of great show business memories and replete with wit and wisdom.” Reiner, Brooks’ best friend for more than 60 years, sadly passed away in 2020.
That wit and wisdom lives on in Brooks, who still finds enough wonder and whimsy in the world to crack wise about his longtime nemesis, Adolf Hitler. We couldn’t get through Mein Kampf either, Mel — it needs more jokes.