Funny Facts About Mel Brooks, The Great Improviser

August 16, 2023 | Brendan Da Costa

Funny Facts About Mel Brooks, The Great Improviser

Cinephiles and comedy fans would know Mel Brooks as the legendary writer, comedian, director, and producer behind cult comedy classics like Young Frankenstein and The Producers. But they likely don’t know the wild man behind the camera. 

1. He Was Born On A Plate

Mel Brooks would go on to become one of the biggest names in show business. But he wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Although, he very easily could have been. Brooks was born on a kitchen table in a dilapidated Brooklyn, New York tenement. Sadly, that was just about the funniest thing about his childhood.

mel brooks

2. He Was Angry At God

It didn’t take long for tragedy to enter Brooks’ life. When he was just two years old, his father succumbed to kidney tuberculosis, leaving his family to struggle in poverty. From the sounds of it, Brooks never forgave the universe for taking his father away. 

“There's an outrage there,” he said, “I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that".

B&W photo of Mel Brooks looking with surprised face and talking - 1984Towpilot, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

3. He Was Angry And Hostile

Being flat broke and fatherless, there wasn’t much for Brooks to laugh at in his life. Yet, somehow, he found the humor in it all. Even if his humor was a little bitter. Decades later, Brooks confessed that he based much of his humor “on anger and hostility”. But, on the mean streets of Brooklyn, it was also a matter of survival.

Mel Brooks wearing black shirt and yellow tie on black suit yelling and pointing on side - 2010Angela George, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

4. His Humor Was His Shield

Brooks was always a sickly child. He later described himself as being “short” and “scrawny”. In other words, he was an easy target for his meaner classmates who made fun of him for his small size and Jewish heritage. But if he hadn’t been funny, it could have been worse. 

Brooks claimed that his comedy later spared him from the occasional “punch in the face”.

Mel Brooks is smiling and looking at camera - 2011s_bukley, Shutterstock

5. He Was A Thief

Brooks was always a practical joker. Even if a joke wasn’t always his intention. Once, before he got into show business, he swiped some gum and a water shooter from a drugstore. The store clerk tried to stop him but Brooks waved the water shooter around as if it was the real thing. 

The terrified clerk backed off and Brooks walked away, popping gum. Not sure that would fly today...

Screenshot: Mel Brooks with messy hair is looking at side with sad face  - from Life Stinks (1991)Brooksfilms Productions, Life Stinks (1991)

6. He Believed Anything Goes

Brooks grew up around garment workers and he seemed destined to cut and sew for the rest of his life. But, on an episode of the Late Show with James Corden, he revealed the moment he discovered his real destiny. After watching a Broadway production of Anything Goes in the very last row of the theater, he knew that he was going into show business.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is seating and talking with James Corden  - from The Late Late Show With James Corden (2015-2023)CBS Television Studios,The Late Late Show with James Corden (2015-23)

7. His Business Was Terrible

Brooks got his start in the entertainment business at barely 14 years old as a party entertainer. You might say that business was rough at first. One of his most famous gags saw him dress him up in business attire, complete with a derby hat and alpaca coat, fill a briefcase with rocks and exclaim, “Business is terrible! I can't go on!" before jumping into a pool.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is talking and looking at camera - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

8. He Nearly Drowned

Partygoers loved Brooks’ little pool routine but there was just one problem with it. It almost cost him his life. His suitcase—laden with rocks—and his alpaca coat made it impossible for him to swim back up to the top. A lifeguard had to jump in and rescue him (and his props) each time so that he could perform the stunt again the next day.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is talking on the phone and looking at side - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

9. He Was 14 Going On 75

Clearly, Brooks’ pool bit was worth the near-drowning experience. His popularity landed him a role on stage as a 75-year old man. Somehow, he managed to almost drown in that role as well. When his character was meant to pour a glass of water, Brooks dropped the carafe and it shattered, releasing a deluge all over the stage. But he recovered well.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks wearing black coat beard and hat - from Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)Gaumont, Robin Hood- Men In Tights (1993)

10. He Broke Through Walls

Brooks was nothing if not funny. To recover from his on-stage mishap with the carafe, he removed his toupee, walked right up to the edge of the stage, stepped into the footlights and said, “I’m 14, what do you want?” The audience burst out laughing for 51 minutes. Breaking the fourth-wall became one of his filmmaking signatures.

Mel Brooks wearing black suit and glasses is talking to the people - 2013RoidRanger, Shutterstock

11. He Was A Genius

There was no doubt that Brooks had a gift for comedy and show business. But he was also insanely smart. Like MENSA-level, genius smart. And the US Army noticed. After high school, Brooks enlisted and joined the Army Specialized Training Program where he learned “electrical engineering, horse riding, and saber fighting”.

Those were all skills that he would need in the heat of battle.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is waving with hand from the car - from The Late Late Show With James Corden (2015-2023)CBS Television Studios,The Late Late Show with James Corden (2015-23)

12. He Was On The Frontlines

If Brooks had any reservations about enlisting, he didn't have any time to back out. He recalled his experience decades later saying, “One day they put us all in trucks, drove us to the railroad station, put us in a locked train with the windows blacked out. We get off the train, we get on a boat. We get off the boat, we get into trucks. We get out of the trucks[...]Suddenly, all around us, Waauhwaauhwaauh! Sirens! Tiger tanks!”

He was on the frontlines of WWII, in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge!

Screenshot: Mel Brooks wearing black suit is seating on chair and looking at side - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

13. His WW2 Experience Was Traumatizing

Brooks’ time spent in Germany shaped the rest of his life. He recalled seeing “bodies wrapped in mattress covers'' all along the side of the road. Then the horrible truth dawned on him: Those bodies were the bodies of fallen Americans and that, at any moment, he could be one of them. To keep his sanity, he sang all the time. And he never lost his sense of humor.

Mel Brooks wearing filthy grey suit looking sad - from Life Stinks (1991)Brooksfilms Productions, Life Stinks (1991)

14. He Faced Anti-Semitism

After WW2 ended, Brooks spent some time touring with the Army and entertaining his fellow troops. However he wasn’t always making them laugh. Anti-Semitic feelings were still high, even amongst some of the American troops. But when one heckler made an anti-Semitic comment, Brooks thought the time for jokes was over.

Mel Brooks is looking at camera and smiling - 2006User:Caulfieldh - it:User:Lucas, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

15. He Spent Some Time In The Stockade

Brooks decided to show the man how people from Brooklyn dealt with these attitudes. He walked up to the heckler and calmly removed his helmet. “I don't want to hurt your helmet,” he said, “'cause it's GI issue”. Then he took his mess kit and smashed it over the heckler’s head. For his troubles, he landed in the stockade.

Mel Brooks is looking at side with scared face - from The Steve Allen Show (1952)Cbs, The Steve Allen Show (1952)

16. He Got Into Show Biz

Despite his antics, Brooks managed to get an honorable discharge from the US Army. And when he returned home to New York, he was free to pursue his show business dreams. At first, Brooks played drums (which he had learned from legendary drummer Buddy Rich) and piano at nightclubs in the Catskills. 

But he longed to be in the spotlight, where he knew he belonged.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is playing on black piano - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018).Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

17. He Improvised His Whole Act

Brooks got his lucky break when one of the comedians he played for got sick and the nightclub manager asked Brooks to fill in. There was just one problem: He didn’t have an act. But that didn’t stop him. Brooks got up on stage and improvised a great bit that had the crowd rolling with laughter. Well, most of the crowd.

Mel Brooks looking at front and smiling - 2010Angela George, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

18. He Was Almost An Aviation Mechanic

After his impromptu performance at the nightclub, Brooks was a hit. He continued improvising his comedy bits—but his off-the-cuff humor and celebrity impersonations didn’t suit everyone. After a show, one blue-haired lady politely (or passive aggressively) informed him that aviation mechanics made good money. But then, so did successful comedians.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is looking up surprised  - from Silent Movie (1976)Crossbow Productions, Silent Movie (1976)

19. He Was A Nag

Back in his teens, Brooks had befriended the famous comedian Sid Caesar. Once he was back in New York, he kept nagging Caesar, constantly giving him ideas for jokes in between his meetings. Eventually, Caesar decided to give the 24-year old Brooks a chance, so he brought him on as a writer for a new show he was working on.

For Brooks, it was the best of times and the worst of times—minus the "best" part.

Sid Caesar is looking at side and smiling - 1961News service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

20. He Hated Everyone—And They Hated Him

Sid Caesar hired Brooks on as a writer for his television series, Your Show of Shows. The variety show was a resounding success but, according to Brooks, everyone working there hated each other's guts. Considering the star-studded writers room, it’s not surprising that there were fireworks when the cameras weren’t rolling.

Mel Brooks with beard is making a hand gestures - from Dead and Loving It (1995)Gaumont, Dracula- Dead And Loving It (1995)

21. He Had Stiff Competition

Brooks recalled that all of the writers used to fight to get their jokes on air. And the competition was stiff. Brooks wasn’t the only up-and-comer on Your Show of Shows. Massive talent like Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Joe Stein (author of Fiddler on the Roof), Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Mike Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly!) and Woody Allen all got their start on the variety show.

B&W photo of Woody Allen wearing glasses ,looking at side - early 1970Jerry Kupcinet - photographer, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

22. He Wasn’t Even Allowed In The Writing Room

The competition in the writing room wasn’t Brooks’ only concern. In fact, he wasn’t even in the writing room. Caesar had been paying Brooks $50/week under the table because the show’s producer, Max Liebman, hated Brooks. In fact, he hated him so much that he used to throw lighted stogies right at his face. 

In all fairness, though, Liebman had his reasons.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks wearing blue shirt and black sweater is looking at side with surprised face - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

23. He Was A Prankster

Throughout his career, Brooks had developed a reputation as something of a prankster, and it all started with poor Liebman. The reason that Liebman hated Brooks so much all started because of a seemingly harmless prank. Brooks, pretending to be the baseball player Pepper Martin, charged at Liebman, running full speed down the hall.

It went south from there.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is making hand gesture  - from The Late Late Show with James Corden (2015-23)CBS Television Studios,The Late Late Show with James Corden (2015-23)

24. He Went Bowling For Liebman

Brooks was gaining steam, charging directly towards a stunned Liebman. “Pepper Martin sliding into second!” he shouted. At the very last second, Brooks threw himself down into a slide, head first, slipping right between Liebman’s legs. Liebman, startled, went flying straight up in the air, and hit the roof. But all’s well that ends well.

Mel Brooks wearing grey suit ,looking at side upset - from Life Stinks(1991)Brooksfilms Productions, Life Stinks (1991)

25. He Went From Hero To Zero

Despite his many pranks, Liebman couldn’t deny that Brooks was funny. Eventually, Caesar got Brooks on the payroll of Your Show of Shows, making $5,000/week. His success continued when he followed Sid Caesar to do Caesar’s Hour—but his luck couldn't hold out forever. 

Soon, the money dried up. As quickly as it all came together, Brooks found himself back making just $85/week as a freelancer. And he had big obligations.

Mel Brooks is looking at side happy - from Silent Movie (1976)Crossbow Productions, Silent Movie (1976)

26. He Preferred Blondes

Back in the early 1950s, not long after returning home from WW2, Brooks had met  actress Florence Baum. At the time, Baum had been working as a dancer in a Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But clearly, Brooks preferred Baum and vice versa. And thus began their romance. Or, more accurately, their lack thereof.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is looking at side - from Life Stinks (1991)Brooksfilms, Life Stinks(1991)

27. His Wife Spent All Of His Money

While he was working with Caesar, Brooks was making more money than he could spend. But, apparently, not nearly enough for his new wife. Decades later an interviewer asked Brooks if he survived off of his savings during those lean years after Caesar’s Hour

Brooks responded, “Are you kidding? I was married! I was so much in debt I couldn’t believe it!”

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is looking at side with surprised face - from Life Stinks (1991)Brooksfilms, Life Stinks(1991)

28. He Was “The Great Improviser”

Even though he was flat broke and unhappily married, Brooks was still a riot at a party. He and fellow Your Show of Shows writer Carl Reiner developed an improv act in which Brooks would pretend to be a 2000-year old man. The crazy bit left audiences in stitches and Brooks quickly gained a reputation as the most exciting new comedian in New York.

But not everything was going so well...

B&W portrait of Carl Reiner wearing grey suit and tie - 1962Rogers & Cowan, public relations, Wikimedia Commons

29. He Abandoned His Wife

Brooks’ marriage to Baum was intensely secretive. Even now, decades later, no one really knows what happened behind their tightly closed doors. Except that they had no money. By 1960, however, it was clear that Brooks had given up on the marriage. He abandoned Baum in New York and went to Los Angeles in search of opportunity.

Mel Brooks wearing police uniform is seating in the car - from The Late Late Show With James Corden (2015-2023)CBS Studios , The Late Late Show With James Corden (2015-2023)

30. He Thought Marriage Was A Lie

Even though Baum had managed to blow through all of Brooks’ money, she still wanted more. When Brooks returned to New York, he was in for a rude awakening: It turns out, his wife was suing him for separation. The whole sordid affair ended with Brooks divorcing Baum then writing Marriage Is A Dirty Rotten Fraud, which just about summed up their relationship in six words.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is looking at side and talking - from To Be or Not to Be (1983)Brooksfilms, To Be Or Not To Be (1983)

31. He Found Love Immediately

Brooks wouldn’t have to wait long to find love again. In fact, his divorce from Baum couldn’t have come at a better time. In 1961, at an audition for a Perry Como show, Brooks met another actress, Anne Bancroft. In his own words, “From that day[…] we were glued together”. They weren’t so much “glued” as they were bonded…by the force.

B&W photo of Anne Bancroft looking at camera - 1952Twentieth Century-Fox studio, Wikimedia Commons

32. He Found His “Only Hope”

It didn’t take long for Brooks and Bancroft to make their love official. The couple got married in 1964 and had a love story to rival any fairy tale as one the few examples of a Hollywood couple that actually stayed together. Brooks credited Bancroft with being his “guiding force” and called her his Obi-Wan Kenobi.

She definitely brought him to the light side.

B&W photo of Anne Bancroft wearing dress is looking at side - 1964NBC Television, Wikimedia Commons

33. He Sold Over A Million Albums

Brooks’ character, the 2000-year old man, quickly became more than just a party trick. He and Reiner began performing their little sketch on The Steve Allen Show and it became a national sensation. A little while later, they released the comedy album, 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, which sold more than a million copies in one year alone.

And thank goodness it did, because Brooks was running out of money.

Mel Brooks wearing black suit and hat is performing on stage - from The Steve Allen Show (1952)CBS, The Steve Allen Show

34. He Was Over Being Sensible

Hot off the heels of his success with the 2000-year old man, Brooks created the television series Get Smart with Buck Henry. The series was a departure from the “sensible situation comedies” that dominated at the time and audiences fell in love with Brooks’ “crazy, unreal comic-strip” style of comedy. They couldn’t get enough of him.

Until they had more than they could take.

Mel Brooks wearing black suit and sunglasses is standing with open mouth in front of people - 2006Featureflash Photo Agency , Shutterstock

35. He Made A Furor With The Führer

After some difficult years, it looked like Brooks was finally back in business. And he wanted to do things his way. His next project was an experimental and controversial musical comedy. Brooks’ script was so controversial, n fact, that most major studios wouldn’t touch it.

Heck, they would barely touch him.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks wearing German military uniform - from To Be or Not to Be (1983)Brooksfilms, To Be or Not to Be (1983)

36. He Faced “Physical Threats”

Most of the major studio executives in Hollywood at the time were, like Brooks himself, of Jewish descent. Suffice to say, they were not very receptive to the idea of a musical comedy whose lead character was...a man named Adolf. Brooks recalled meetings where producers said to him, “Please get out of here before you get hurt”.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is seating on desk and looking at side - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

37. He Produced A Winner

After years of shopping around his controversial script, Brooks finally managed to make it and his gamble paid off. His experimental debut feature film The Producers became a cult classic that thrilled audiences. Even the stodgy studios had to confess that Brooks had successfully satirized the führer and he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Some moviegoers, however, thought the film was garbage.Gene Wilder in The Producers wearing gray suitCrossbow Productions, The Producers (1967)

38. He Could Hum A Tune

For Brooks, writing a musical had been something of a challenge. Even though he had grown up playing the drums and the piano, he had no official musical schooling. As such, he couldn’t read or write music. So, in making The Producers, he hummed all of the tunes into a tape recorder and then had an expert transcribe them.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is singing in the stage - from The Steve Allen Show (1952)CBS, The Steve Allen Show

39. He Played Musical Chairs

The Producers was only a moderate commercial success but it cemented Brooks as a distinctive filmmaker. Enough so that he was able to obtain financing for his next film, The Twelve Chairs, based on the Ilf and Petrov novel of the same name. The making of the film, however, turned into a comedy (albeit a black one) all on its own.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is seating on stairs and holding a picture - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

40. He Barely Survived Yugoslavia

Brooks and his team arrived in Yugoslavia to make The Twelve Chairs. But they barely survived the experience. As Brooks put it, “When I went to Yugoslavia, my hair was black. When I came back, nine months later, it was gray”. He also lost 71 pounds during filming because the only safe thing for him and his cast to drink...was a laxative.

Mel Brooks wearing black suit and yellow tie is making a face gesture  - 2017Kathy Hutchins, Shutterstock

41. He Had A Blazing Disaster On His Hands

Brooks’ next film, Blazing Saddles, became one of his most enduring works. But it almost never left the cutting room floor. When he screened the western-themed satire for Warner Brothers executives, basically no one laughed. The head of distribution even said, “Let's dump it and take a loss”. But Brooks knew better.

And he desperately needed a win.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks wearing grey suit and bow tie looking at side - from Blazing Saddles (1974)Warner Bros , Blazing Saddles (1974)

42. He Was A Man Of The People

Before they just scrapped the movie, Brooks set up another test screening. This time, he put Blazing Saddles in front of the studio’s regular employees. The blue-collar crowd loved the off-color humor and were rolling with laughter by the time the credits began rolling. 

The Warner Bros executives relented and the film was a resounding success.

Harvey Korman and Mel Brooks talking in the office - from Blazing Saddles (1974)Warner Bros , Blazing Saddles (1974)

43. He Loves Raisinets

Brooks is one of less than 20 people to have the distinction of being an EGOT (i.e., someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). But of all of his awards and accolades, he might be proudest of his Raisinet. He mentioned the chocolate treats once in Blazing Saddles, and the company was so grateful, they started sending him free Raisinets every month.

Mel Brooks is seating with reward statues on his desk ,looking down - from Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)Brooksfilms Productions ,Mel Brooks-Unwrapped (2018)

44. He Was Even Funny When He Was Silent

Brooks was so funny as a writer and director that he could make audiences laugh without so much as a word. And that’s what he did with 1976’s Silent Movie. The only line of dialogue in the film came, rather ironically, from the legendary mime Marcel Marceau who exclaimed, “Non!” The film was so quiet that the only sound in the theater was that of laughter.

From one person, in particular.

Screenshot: Marcel Marceau is talking on telephone - from Silent Movie (1976)Crossbow Productions, Silent Movie (1976)

45. His Wife Called Alan Alda An Idiot

During a screening of Silent Movie, one person’s laughter rose above everyone else’s—the M*A*S*H star Alan Alda. After the movie ended, Alda approached Brooks to congratulate him on a film well done. Without missing a beat, Brook’s wife, Bancroft, responded, “Oh, that was you laughing? You see, Mel? I told you some idiot would find this funny!"

B&W portrait of Alan Alda looking at side - Circa 1960SPhotographer-Friedman-Abeles, New York, Wikimedia Commons

46. He Never Matched His Career Highs

Brooks continued making films throughout the 1980s and 90s but nothing topped his earlier accomplishments such as Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. In fact, his biggest hit of the 90s, Robin Hood: Men in Tightsalmost didn’t happen. 

When Brooks called the film’s eventual star, Cary Elwes, Elwes hung up on him because he thought that Brooks was joking.

Screenshot: Cary Elwes looking at camera - from Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)Gaumont, Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

47. He Hasn’t Lost His Voice

Even though he’s almost 100 years old, Brooks shows no signs of ever giving up show business. Though he’s never really retired, he mostly only did voice overs from the 2000s onward. That is, until he returned to writing and producing to make a sequel to his hit History of the World: Part I

The sequel was a huge success—but he had lost something special along the way.

B&W photo of Mel Brooks wearing black suit, yelling - 197720th Century Fox, Wikimedia Commons

48. He Could Never Love Again

Much like with Baum in his first (disastrous) marriage, Brooks and Bancroft kept the details of their happy relationship private. So it came as a surprise to everyone, including close friends, when Bancroft passed away of cancer in June of 2005. 

Brooks has never been the same since. “Once you are married to Anne Bancroft,” he said, “others don't seem to be appealing”. 

Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft hugging and smiling to people - 1991Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

49. He Was Vulgar

The famed film critic Roger Ebert recalled the public’s reaction to The Producers. Shortly after the film came out, he stepped into an elevator with Brooks, Bancroft, and another woman. The woman recognized Brooks and accosted him, saying, “I have to tell you, Mr Brooks, that your movie is vulgar”. But Brooks was ready with a textbook response:

Brooks simply smiled and said, “Lady, it rose below vulgarity”.

Roger Ebert wearing glasses and looking at camera - 1970Rebert, Entheta, Mazurka, BlueMint, CC BY-SA 1.0 ,Wikimedia Commons

50. He Received Hate Mail—A Lot Of It

That lady in the elevator wasn’t the only one who thought Brooks had crossed a line with The Producers. In the months following the film’s release, Brooks received angry letters from, as he said it, “every Rabbi in New York”. To his credit, he responded to every single letter himself, explaining that ridicule was the only way to deal with the terrible memory of WW2.

Screenshot: Mel Brooks is looking at side with sad face - from Screw Loose (1999)Atmosphere Film S.r.l, Screw Loose (1999)

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