Even the “2000 Year Old Man” had to start somewhere. Back in 1952, 26 year-old Mel Brooks was just another struggling comedy writer, penning sketches for a revue — albeit one backed by names like Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor. “Curtain Going Up” had a two-week tryout in Philadelphia before a planned Broadway debut. Alas, the show never made it to the Great White Way, but the uber-talented Brooks certainly did. Again. And again. And again.
Do you remember seeing your first mention in Variety?
At that point, I was so happy to get my name in Variety, even if it was just for a parking ticket! All my life, a mention in Variety, especially a good review of my shows on Broadway or of my films, has meant an awful lot. I was always very, very happy when I got a good review — and very angry when I got a bad review.
So what happened with “Curtain Going Up”?
Eddie Cantor was a famous vaudeville comedian in those days. One of his daughters, Marilyn, created and produced the show, and I had a sketch in it. Leonard Sherman and Ronny Graham got a glimpse of it in Philadelphia. When they heard it was closing, they asked me, “Can we take this fathers and sons sketch and use it in (our show) ‘New Faces of ’52?’” And I said, “Of course!”
Was that your Broadway debut?
Yes. “New Faces” was a hit! It got wonderful reviews at the time. It was the beginning of my Broadway career.
What was the best thing about that time in your life?
I got to meet all these wonderful people, like Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence and Alice Ghostley. And best of all, Ronny Graham became my buddy and we began writing together. When I did big movies like “History of the World: Part I,” he would help me write. We were tight for about 20 years until he passed away
What was the toughest thing about that time?
Probably just making a living, you know? I finally got lucky with Sid Caesar, who hired me as a staff writer for $150 a week. It was a lot of money in 1952. That was a fortune! So I began saving it.
Who were your mentors?
Moss Hart, who I met at a party when I was doing the “2000 Year Old Man.” He loved it and he took a liking to me. Every time I’d write something, I’d send him a rough draft and he would be very helpful. He was a lovely, lovely man. I have good taste, I can tell you that. I knew I was good. I was just blessed. You have to be blessed. I would identify people and know that I would want to write like those guys. I don’t think I ever surpassed them, but I kind of got them.
If you could go back to that time, is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t think I would. Life was good. Writing comedy for skilled, important comedians in the ’50s and ’60s was heaven. Normally, as a comedy writer, the comic would just mute the material, but Sid Caesar always lifted our monologues.
What’s a lesson you learned from this experience?
If you’re a comedy writer, do yourself a favor and find yourself a great comic to write for. Even the bad jokes. will land.