A Love Letter to Mel Brooks

Cover art for eight Brooksfilms

Thanks for being so funny for so long.

Dear Mel Brooks,

As you know, you are great. I’ve enjoyed your work my whole life, but I’ve never said thank you. Granted, my whole life adds up to less than half of yours. But even half your age is, you know. So I’m overdue to say to you:

Thanks, Mel, for a lifetime of fun.

Like every modern American, I have a “when I met Mel Brooks” story.  Mine begins in 1980-something. It has to do with a certain shop called the Video Peddler and a videotape format called Betamax. You remember Beta tapes, but many people do not. Like laser discs and high-definition DVDs, they lost one of our periodic media format wars. Basically, they were smaller, better versions of VHS tapes, but were the sole property of Sony. Since folks other than Sony wanted in on the emerging “home video” market, the nostalgia industry now cashes in on VHS and Beta is the legendary nerd stuff.

Sony’s loss was my gain, however. In one of my family’s many ill-fated technological decisions, we bought a Betamax. We lived in a small farm town in northern Idaho. Wait — you are from New York. So you probably don’t know what “small” means here. I mean, less than 1,000 people, surrounded by wheat fields. Beautiful, but lacking in cinemas. So a highlight of my week at this time were family drives down the road to the less-small city where we would visit the Video Peddler, returning with rented movies for the Beta machine and inspiration for my 10-year-old mind. 

Like my parents, the Video Peddler had unwisely invested in Betamax. In fact, we may have purchased our player from them at a steep discount after they realized it was time to cut their losses. 

I met you in their discount bin. It was overflowing with all sorts of films on Beta. Many of those movies looked great, at least judging by their cover art. My challenge was to find movies that were A) cheap, B) looked good and C) my parents would let me watch.

History of the Word Part I — what a cover! A roman soldier yelling in the foreground, some kind of Biblical thing going on top right, maybe a guillotine top left, and definitely ladies right and left. It was worth a shot.

My parents both said the same thing when I showed them my pick: “Oh. Mel Brooks.” 

I gathered that this was someone in the movie. Clearly, they had not seen this film, and instead began talking with each other about other movies with this guy in them. I stood with the box in my hands, waiting for a verdict. In one of those magical kid moments of disappearing from adult notice, my parents moved on to something else — maybe what they wanted to watch once us kids were asleep, or maybe one of my sisters asked them a question.

Having kids of my own now, including a 10-year-old, I get it. There’s a lot of questions to answer, a lot of things to say “no” to, and sometimes you miss something. I can’t imagine that my parents, had they seen History of the World, would have allowed me to watch it, much less buy it. 

Whatever happened, I didn’t get a yes, I didn’t get a no. Instead, I nonchalantly slipped “History of the World, Part 1” up on the counter when we checked out. And just like that, with practically zero scrutiny, I had my prize.

Back home, I waited until I was sure I would not be interrupted. I pulled the power knob on our 19-inch television downstairs. I inserted the black cassette into the player.

Mel, listen. 

Had I been literally, physically teleported into the middle of the Roman Senate in 23 AD I would not have been more awestruck.

I lost awareness of our basement, my own feet, as I beheld the dawn of man. I learned that the world’s first artist was Sid Caesar, but his art was defiled. And I mean defiled, Mel! I learned that there were 15 — 15! — commandments. 

These things were so hilarious to me, that they seemed they had to be — like all the funniest things — completely true. Indeed, through the screen, real truths were being revealed to me in such quick succession that my tiny brain began to fizz and crackle.

In Rome, there was Gregory Hines trying to dance his way out of being fed to the lions. There was plumbing being pitched as the newest home improvement. There was Juluis Caesar. There was someone attempting to collect unemployment insurance as a “Stand up philosopher.”

“Stand up Philosopher. I coalesce the vapor of human experience into a viable and logical comprehension.”

“Oh,’ says one of the Golden Girls (Bea Arthur). “A BULLSHIT artist!”

Holy cow. Not only did I not hear that word too much at the time, I never heard it wielded so expertly, snipping away the fog of unreality like yanking off a toga.   

May I say, sir, that you are the Michangelo of swearing? Many people, and also many comedians, use a lot of cuss words. Some are quite good — scattering them everywhere like dots in a Jackson Pollock painting.

But like Michaelanglo chipping away all the marble that is not David, Mel Brooks uses the word “bullshit” to cut away the pretension, revealing the dirty idea behind the word.

A few of your greatest swearing triumphs include: the bit in History where you and your pals disguise yourselves as senators by putting on togas and muttering “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,” the “asshole” routine in Space Balls, the “used to be Shithouse” line in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and of course, the n-word in Blazing Saddles. 

They say you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today. They could not. They are not you. For my part, the way the townspeople keep dropping that word so casually really captures the essence of their racism — which is so pervasive they don’t hear it, even when it’s hurting people.  

Plus, America’s first Black President, Barack Obama, personally told you he loved Blazing Saddles while awarding you with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So, I think you’re going to be on the right side of history, Mr. Brooks.

Speaking of History, my point is, Part I opened a new, enlightened era in my life. The Mel Brooks epoch. There was a promise of “History of the World, Part II,” which would include Jews in Space. That hadn’t come out yet, but so much more had!

 As a teenager, I stayed up late regularly, but my longest stretch without sleep was a 72-hour “Get Smart” marathon on Nick at Night.

In college, my pals and I often conversed through favorite movie lines — many of them written by you. I particularly remember Blinken’s “You lost your arms in battle!” And Little John’s, “Don’t let the name fool you — in real life I’m very large.”

Oddly enough, once I was working, the command of Yiddish I acquired through your instruction would occasionally earn me the esteem of coworkers. I even made newspaper editors in Idaho learn how to spell “tuchus.” 

But once you have kids — or at least once I had kids — it’s harder to find the time for great film. My Brooks intake slowed. Yet, there I was, watching PBS with my toddlers (today teenagers) and I said, “Wait! That Sheep is Mel Brooks!”

You do a funny sheep, man.

And now, when Son No. 1 is 17 and Son NO. 4 is 5, History of the World Part II is coming out. After all these decades, it happens this month! 

Some people say life stinks. But those people don’t know Mel Brooks. I’ll make sure Sons 1-4, plus Solo Daughter, know Mel.

It’s important to do so because all through my life, I keep rediscovering the work of Mel Brooks, and it makes me happy every time. Just last year I read your autobiography, “All About Me.”

It wasn’t until reading that, in 2022, that I realized you backed another film from my youth, “Solarbabies.” It wasn’t that bad — even if it cost you your personal fortune. And to think, throughout your career, you’ve had a regular lunch meeting with friends like Mario “The Godfather” Puzo and Chunk from Goonies — and you are 96 years old! Amazing!

I like to drum — you like to drum, but you talked to Buddy Rich! I read about World War II in school, and you disposed of hidden bombs in World War II! I see doctors, and you are an amateur doctor! Kismet.

Most of all, though, Mel, I appreciate your class. Being funny and irreverent is not the same thing as being cruel. A lot of famous people like to stir up a little controversy with their life stories. Name names, settle scores. But you wrote your book like an actual doctor, dispensing good advice while doing no harm. You shared your experiences, your friends, your fun — all at your own expense and no one else’s. You deserve an award. And you got lots of them.

Plus, you met and married the love of your life, you have kids you love, and you’ve been doing what you love for damn near a century.

What I’m saying is, I’m a fan of yours, Mel Brooks. Nine-year-old me was a fan, 21-year-old-me was a fan, 45-year-old me is a fan, and if I make it to 96 too, I’ll still be a fan of Mel Brooks.

If you ever die, I hope I see you in heaven.

Your pal, 

Adam E-H Wilson

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