The 41st American Film Institute Life Achievement Award gala on Thursday evening at the Dolby Theatre honoured the king of comedy, Mel Brooks, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for attending. It was a good old fashioned “roast” where the 86 year-old Brooks got treated to a lot of jokes at his expense.
Roasting is a time honoured tradition that was started by the Friar’s Club which is a private club in New York City. It was founded in 1904 and is famous for its risqué celebrity roasts. The club’s membership is composed mostly of comedians and other celebrities.
Martin Short got the evening off to a flying start by singing a medley of songs from Brooks’ films, including I Want to Be a Producer and Springtime for Hitler from “The Producers” and the Blazing Saddles theme song surrounded by a amazonian cast of chorus girls who towered over the diminutive Short.
To start his spiel, Short said, “I’m not speaking from the heart, I’m speaking from the TelePrompter.” He then went into a series of jokes about Brooks being Jewish. Mel Brooks has been famous for making fun of stereotypes and none more so than Jewish stereotypes.
Billy Crystal said, “Very rarely do you get a chance to say thank you to one of your heroes. To me he’s an original, a true comic icon who made me want to be a comedian. So tonight, Carl…” Crystal then paused and nodded at Carl Reiner, Brooks’ oldest friend sitting at his head table, as the audience laughed.
Brooks’ close friend and “2000 Year Old Man” collaborator Carl Reiner said there were three people who thought that Brooks was “one of the funniest people in the world — Sid Caesar, me and Mel Brooks.” Reiner, who also worked with Brooks on “Your Show of Shows” repeated Brooks’ line “It’s good to be the king.” He then added, “Mel, it’s better to be one of your subjects because you have made your subjects laugh.”
In one of the evening’s few sentimental moments, Brooks walked over to Reiner and gave him a kiss on the cheek. For a man who has made his living out of making all of us laugh it seems only fitting that he should receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from AFI, and at 86 they barely made it in time. This is a man who served his country in WWII, Mel has been around for a long time.
Sarah Silverman also referenced the Jewish writer, director and actor’s lineage, as well as his Hitler obsession. Silverman said, “I never understood anti-Semitism as a child. But now I’m so grateful to live here in Los Angeles, surrounded by agents and producers who remind me every single day why there’s anti-Semitism” and that Brooks enlisted in World War II because “he knew even then that fighting Nazis would entitle him to a lifetime of Holocaust jokes.”
When Mel Brooks finally got his chance to speak, after he’d accepted the award, he said, “I grew up in a tenement at 365 S. Third Street. Everyone there was either working or destined to end up working in a garment center. But I took the road less traveled, movies, and they saved me. Movies saved my life and rescued my soul and no matter what was bad or wrong, they could be wiped out on Saturday morning.”
Another singularly touching moment was when Cloris Leachman, who had worked with Brooks on his 1974 film Young Frankenstein and the 1977 film High Anxiety, introduced the actress Terri Garr who worked with Mel on Young Frankenstein as well.
Garr has been suffering from multiple sclerosis and when Leachman called her name, the audience cheered as the camera panned to her. Jokingly, Leachman said to Garr, “Stand up so people can see you.” The 68 year-old star declined the invitation to stand but appeared to be touched by the crowd’s warm reaction.
There was a multitude of clips from Brooks’ films, taped interviews with him, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
One person missing from the event was Gene Wilder, the brilliant funny man who worked more with Mel than anyone else and he starred in The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote with Brooks. But Wilder did send in a short filmed segment. Wilder said, “You are a singular man. I love you, Mel.”
Former AFI recipient and Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese made the presentation to Brooks. He said, “With Mel’s films, all bets are off.” The 86 year-old Brooks got a very lengthy standing ovation as he made his way from his table to the stage.
As he stood behind the podium, Brooks said, “That’s enough praise. This is nearly an important occasion.”
Irreverence is Mel Brooks keyword and though past recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award have gotten emotionally choked up, this was not a problem for Mel. He went on a long set of one-liners and jokes that ranged from the pastrami-crusted beef fillet that was served at dinner, to Young Frankenstein placing only 13th on the AFI’s list of top 100 comedies.
Afterward he said, “A few people fell asleep. Who can blame them? It was a long night.”
For those of you who would like to see this event, Mel Brooks receiving the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award will be aired on 15 June.
By Michael Smith