MEL BROOKS: A Monument to American Comedy

-by Andy Dudas

Full transparency: I have yet to see the original The Producers and I haven’t seen The Twelve Chairs.  I sit here awash in your judgement.  So while I haven’t seen all of Mel Brooks‘ films, I have seen Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part 1, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, The Producers(2005) and High Anxiety I’m going to estimate on the low side and say a total of a combined 742 times.

Brooks imprinted on me at an early age.  For the longest time, all I had to go by was a VHS copy of Blazing Saddles recorded from CBS.  Watching Blazing Saddles on network television would be like watching The Wizard of Oz in black and white or The Jazz Singer with the sound off.  It’s just wrong.  Not appreciating these works of art in the way they were intended to be consumed would be so…wrong.

In Blazing Saddles, Melvin Kaminsky(by birth) paints with profanity much in the same way Michelangelo’s brushes and pigments graced the Sistine Chapel.  After writing that sentence I can now legitimately imagine a chapel(or synagogue) ceiling covered with “you use your mouth prettier than a $20 dollar whore,” “the little bastard shot me in the ass,” “the bitch was inventin’ the Candygram,” and “up yours n-word.”  And yes, I am in the camp of believers who think his careful and thoughtful use of this awful word was done so in a way that no one else could or is capable.  A Jewish director, a team of Jewish writers and Richard Pryor…who else could ‘get away’ with this?  This could be the greatest example of laughing at ourselves while at the same time reminding us of how awful we can be to each other.

This is not to say Brooks only works blue.  Far from it.  From his choice of naming the sheriff ‘Bart,’ who is African American therefore giving us the standard western bad guy ‘Black Bart’ bad guy moniker as the good guy, to his Marx Brothers/Abbott and Costello style ‘meeting is adjourned…it is?’ back and forth, to smashing through the fourth wall and rampaging across the Warner Brothers lot as the film breaks out onto the streets of Los Angeles…and so much more it’s just not practical to list all of the wonderful moments of this film here.  And now I will remind you that so much of my youth was spent watching an edited-for-TV version of this…tragedy.

Just within the last few years, I am embarrassed to admit did I finally see High Anxiety.  The shower scene that culminates with the newsprint running down the drain I would argue is the single greatest homage/parody ever put to film.  History of the World: Part 1 is also rather new to me.  One way or another, I never saw these films as a kid.  HOTWP1 is so much fun.  Bea Arthur: “Oh…a bullshit artist.”  Harvey Korman: “Don’t get saucy with me, Bernaise.”

Spaceballs was special to me as I grew up a Star Trek and Star Wars kid.  I’ve recently heard a comedian who is much younger than me, tell of how he saw Spaceballs first and then at a later time, Star Wars.  I cannot imagine what that must do to your brain.  To not know the source material from which the parody is based…that’s all kinds of wonderfully messed up out-of-sync weirdness.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights for me was wonderful.  To see Richard Lewis as Prince John and the Carey Elwes as Robin Hood just kind of brought some balance to the world.  I cannot say exactly how, but for me it did.  And Jean Luc-Picard as King Richard…holy crap!!!

The Producers(2005) is a wonderful film adaptation of Brooks’ broadway version of the same show from which was adapted from his Oscar winning film The Producers.  An adaptation of an adaptation of an original work that in total garnered Mr. Brooks one Oscar, twelve Tonys, and one Grammy.  Feeling inadequate yet?  Maybe that’s just me.  As my life has wound it’s path to discovering and performing in musical theater in the last decade, this movie speaks to me on so many levels.  Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick…and Roger Bart just killed me.  “That’s our Hilter!”

But Young Frankenstein… you had me at “there wolves…there castle.”  Or “Igor, help me with the bags.  Soitenly.  You take the blonde I’ll take the one in the toiben.”  The list of quotable lines here is nearly endless.  Every line of dialogue a masterstroke.  Within the last few months we watched Son of Frankenstein.  His shot for shot, scene by scene parody is without parallel, even down to the darts scene(“Nice grouping”).  I don’t recall the first time I saw ‘YF.’  I was never into the old monster movies or horror films of any kind really, so it wouldn’t have held those kinds of appeal to me.  The basic knowledge of Mary Shelley’s original novel from 1818(yeah…that’s over 200 years old!) and the creature being brought back to life was enough to get the gist of Brooks’ jokes and gags.  But after seeing ‘Son of Frankenstein’ specifically, WOW…the jokes got funnier, the script richer, and the parodies broader.  If you haven’t seen Son of Frankenstein and are fan of Brooks, I couldn’t recommend higher that you watch them back to back and draw your own conclusions.

A little over 10 years ago I managed to become involved in my local community theater.  My hometown is populated by less than 40,000 – it measures only 8 miles by 6 miles – I had lived here my entire life less than 15 blocks away and one way or another, I had never attended a show much less stepped foot into the Murray Theater that has stood to this day at the corner of 10th and Main streets since 1909 and has housed Richmond Civic Theatre since 1952(in operation since 1941).  Somehow, the universe lined up and I found myself cast in the role of Jud Fry in Oklahoma!  Some 20 auditions, 12 shows, and a Cogsworth, The Tin Man, and a Stanley Kowalski later…my life has been transformed.  Live theater gives me a singular rush of creative satisfaction that can only be slaked by another performance, another show, another script, and yes, another audience.

As I am now pushing 50 and on the back half of life, I choose which shows to audition for much more carefully.  If I am only peripherally acquainted with a show…I am probably not that interested.  To be fair, I have found some shows I didn’t know in the least and found some really interesting roles, specifically Professor Friedrich Bhaer(Little Women the Musical), Snoopy(You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown), and the Old Man(A Christmas Story the Musical).  But why go through the anguish and suffering of the audition process to potentially have your hopes dashed yet again over a role that you hardly know???  Whereas a show that holds some lifelong significance, something that is woven into my DNA, I must audition.  It’s that simple: I must.  So yes, there have been disappointments over shows that I was kind of interested in and some massive heartbreaks over shows that were bucket list roles.  You win some, you lose some.  As an amateur, I do the best I have with what I’ve got.  But when RCT announced its schedule for the 2018-2019 season and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein was listed, my mind was made.  Audition, I must.

I can count on one hand the number of roles that I really, really want to play.  A couple of which I have already missed out on.  Froderick Fronkensteen…this was one the universe destined me to audition and ultimately in which to be cast.  As I sit here typing this, we are 37 days away from the curtain being raised on this musical stage adaptation of Mr. Brooks’ masterpiece and my first line actually is:  That’s Fronkensteen.  My name, it’s pronounced Fronkensteen.  Today, I consider myself the luckiest man, on the face of the Earth(yeah, it’s like that for me)…  A meaty marathon of a role with layer upon layer of commitment that will tax my modest reserves of ‘ability’ to their limits.

This is the role from which I could walk away for good and say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”  To go all Ted Williams on it and find that satisfaction of finally realizing what I have been chasing all these years…I expect might be the ultimate satisfaction of a job well done.  To take a step back and let my thoughts coalesce into an exhalation of: Finally.  This is it.  I am whole.

As an ‘artist’ that’s not a feeling I have experienced many times, maybe only once or twice.  But to be given the reigns so to speak(insert Roll in the Hay reference here), with the lead role in what my family considered a staple of entertainment while we were growing up…I suppose I am the kind of artist who is seeking approval and adulation from an audience.  Guilty: yes, I like it when they applaud.

So, as many of my blogs and ramblings rarely make a coherent point, let me wrap up by putting this out there for the universe and the Internet to do its magic:

Mr. Mel Brooks, if this should happen to find you in time and your schedule allows it, I would be honored if you could make your way to 1003 E. Main St. Richmond, Indiana for one of our performances in March(we have a spare room).yf-rct

IMG_7392Andy has interests varying from painting and singing, to photography and prop making.  Pretty much anything that has a creative element.  Amateur status in all endeavors, he finds art everywhere he looks.  Always seeking his next inspiration.

If what you have read here today inspires you, please check out the rest of our website.  The Dudas Inspiration Venue for the Arts needs your support.  Please contact us for more information.DIVAlogo good

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