Near Greatness

My Night With the Funniest Man in History

I was just waiting for dinner when someone told me, 'Mel Brooks is here. He's at table 62.'

Photo by Tom Caltabiano

When I was 9 years old, my mother took me to a movie that exploded with racism, sexism, horse-punching, fart jokes, cartoon violence and more laughs per square inch than any other film I'd ever seen. It was 1974 and the film was "Blazing Saddles."

Without it, there are no "Airplane" movies, no "Borat," no "The Simpsons," no "South Park," no "Family Guy," no modern comedy as we know it. As a comedy writer, I've quoted from "Blazing Saddles" (or referenced it) so many times that I've lost count. The genius of the movie was that Mel Brooks took borscht-belt shtick and added all the crazy, disgusting stuff comedy writers say or do in the writers' room when no one is looking, and he put it all on-screen.

I don't know why my mom took me to see it alone. Usually one or both of my two brothers would be there, inside the big boxy theater on Andrews Air Force Base, home of Air Force One. And I'm not even sure why she took me to see it at all, other than she had no idea what the movie was about. My parents kept a tight leash on our TV-watching and movie-going. We weren't allowed to watch "Three's Company" because it was too smutty, and I remember when we went to see "American Graffiti" — as soon as someone mooned a car window in that movie, my parents pulled us out.

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"Blazing Saddles" was a revelation. I sat in a dark theater with several hundred strangers who'd never seen anything like it before: Nazis rode next to Klansman through the American West, gay chorus boys hissed at each other, African-American laborers sang Cole Porter and Cleavon Little as Sheriff Black Bart delivered exploding Candygrams and won over the dimwitted and racist town folks. I laughed so hard that I can still remember how sore my face felt afterward. As for my mother, I don't remember her NOT laughing, but I don't remember her laughing either.

Cut to 41 years later. I'm at the Governor's Ball, which is the afterparty of the Creative Arts Emmys awards. A good friend has just gotten a lifetime achievement award and I'm just there for the party and a chance to see if my tuxedo still fits (answer: sorta). I'm waiting for dinner when someone tells me, "Mel Brooks is here. He's at table 62."

That's all I need to hear. I head over to the table where Governor LePetomaine sits in the flesh, 89 years old and still a firecracker. He looks even more like Mel Brooks than he does onscreen.

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"Can I kiss your ring?" I ask.

"You can kiss whatever you want," he tells me.

Mel laughs as we get our picture taken together. I lean in and tell him the story of seeing "Blazing Saddles" with my mother.

"Afterward, my mother said, 'That was the worst picture I've ever seen.'"

"Really?" Mel asks, looking a little worried.

"And I told her, 'I want to be a comedy writer.'"

Mel laughs at the story, and as we pose for a picture, I say to heck with it — and kiss him on the cheek. He roars with laughter. I'm so happy. I just made the funniest man in history laugh. Twice.

   
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