What does it say that when the news broke last week that Carl Reiner had died at age 98, my first and only thought was, “How’s Mel doing?”
It says quite a lot.
Mel, of course, is Mel Brooks, the 94-year-old elder statesman of American comedy, who formed both a professional and personal kinship with Reiner in 1950 on the set of Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” and the two men remained close for the next seven decades—a relationship that outlasted both of their marriages (Reiner’s wife, Estelle, died in 2008; Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft, died in 2005) and would surely be included in any pantheon of great celebrity friendships.
Onstage, their most enduring partnership was unquestionably “The 2,000-Year-Old Man,” their recurring standup bit with Brooks as the titular über-senior citizen and Reiner as the unflappable reporter who draws him out. Offstage, they became known—thanks, in part, to a priceless episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”—for the dinners they would have at each other homes on a near-daily basis, which they enjoyed on plastic tray tables in the living room while watching “Jeopardy!” or some old movie. While Seinfeld offered them such delicacies as corned beef and brisket, Reiner was reportedly never happier than with a good old-fashioned hot dog.
In truth, my exposure to Carl Reiner is relatively limited, having never watched, say, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” nor any of the Steve Martin movies Reiner directed in the 1970s and 1980s. (His son, Rob, is another story.)
Brooks, by contrast, looms in my mind as very close to a deity. As a movie director, his work proved as foundational to my budding interest in cinema as any: I watched (and re-watched) “Young Frankenstein” long before stumbling upon the “Frankenstein” classics from the 1930s, “Blazing Saddles” before discovering the Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, and “High Anxiety” before delving endlessly into the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock. That my ignorance of the source material had no adverse impact on my enjoyment of Brooks’s parodies is a testament both to Brooks’s writing and the zany genius of his actors, including such comic luminaries as Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Kenneth Mars.
Culturally, Brooks’s crowning achievement may well be “The Producers”—both the 1968 film and the 2001 Broadway musical—which told the story of a financially desperate theatrical shyster who plots to swindle millions from his investors by way of a maximally appalling production called “Springtime for Hitler,” a scheme that goes haywire when—surprise!—the show becomes a smash hit. I’ve had few experiences of live performance to match seeing Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick devouring the scenery at the St. James Theatre in New York during a brief reunion of the show’s original cast in early 2004. While Brooks himself didn’t appear onstage, he played a leading role in a 90-minute PBS program about the recording of the cast album, which saw him at his high-octane, free-associating best.
Increasingly, Mel Brooks is to me what Ruth Bader Ginsburg is to most liberals: My own mental equilibrium is dependent upon his being alive and in relatively good health. In a way, this makes little sense, as Brooks hasn’t directed a new movie since 1995 and his more recent credits—mostly voiceover work—have flown straight under my radar.
On the other hand, it was less than four years ago that I actually saw the great man in person (albeit from a distance) when he came to Boston’s Wang Theatre to screen and reminisce about “Blazing Saddles”—an evening made more poignant by the fact that Gene Wilder had died just a few weeks earlier.
Now that Carl Reiner, too, has shuffled off to the great beyond, I worry—nay, dread—that Brooks will soon follow. Just as couples who’ve been married since World War II tend to synchronize their deaths to within days, hours or minutes of each other, it would make a certain cosmic sense for these platonic partners-in-comedy to depart Earth in rapid succession.
I hope I’m wrong, of course, as I’m not sure a world without Mel Brooks is one I’d want to live in. While some figures in popular culture seem to be truly immortal—looking at you, Queen Elizabeth and Betty White—the specter of death hangs over us all, causing us, in our better moments, to appreciate those we have for as long as we have them.
Speaking of appreciation, at this juncture I feel duty-bound to note that the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has been handing out the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor annually since 1998—including to Carl Reiner in 2000—but that not one of its honors has ever gone to Mel Brooks. While Brooks has certainly amassed his share of recognition through the decades (including by the Kennedy Center in 2009), it does seem a bit odd that the nation’s most prestigious life achievement award for comedy—one that has already been bestowed on the likes of Will Farrell and Tina Fey—has somehow eluded the man who all but invented an entire genre of film humor and is widely beloved because of it.
While it is generally true that taste in comedy is subjective, Gene Siskel was correct in noting, “There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact.” It’s high time this particular error were corrected once and for all. Lest we forget, the Twain Prize can only be given to a living person, and Mel Brooks ain’t getting any younger.