The American Film Institute was supposed to honor Mel Brooks last night in Hollywood. Well, they did, with a star studded audience and players on stage at the Dolby Theatre. But then Mel, who’s 86 and hasn’t lost a step, roasted them right back. It was sheer genius. About three hours of toasts, roasts, clips and tributes went by, all with Brooks quietly watching.
The live presenters ranged from his oldest and best friend Carl Reiner to Martin Short (in a hilarious musical number), Billy Crystal, Robert DeNiro, Amy Poehler, Cloris Leachman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, David Lynch, Morgan Freeman, Larry David, Cary Elwes, Sarah Silverman and finally Martin Scorsese, who presented him with the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award.
Some of it will make it to TV, some will not. Skillful editing will be applied to this very funny night of inside jokes that showed Brooks’s career chronologically. The only piece missing was any reference to “Get Smart,” as Buck Henry was unable to attend.
But the Dolby, turned into a dinner theater, was packed with celebs who didn’t speak including Brooks’s beloved former ingenue Teri Garr, as well as Dustin Hoffman, Lesley Ann Warren, directors Alexander Payne and Jay Roach, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, Paul Mazursky, Hawk Koch, Jon Avnet, Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher, “Mad Men” creator Matt Weiner, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber, Mike Medavoy, Disney chief Alan Horn, “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos.
Outgoing Sony chief Sir Howard Stringer introduced the evening with his usual panache.
On tape, the AFI rounded up Gene Wilder, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Clint Eastwood to explain how Brooks had perverted and parodied various genres to make his classic films.
Short cracked wise about Brooks in his opening number: “He never let his love of Scientology affect his work.” Yes, it brought the house down.
Kimmel pretended he was eulogizing, not celebrating, Brooks. The “Blazing Saddles” director quipped later: “Just for that, I’m going on Conan. I’m not dead or dying!”
And it was Brooks who got everyone back, deftly turned the night on its head and made sure this wasn’t the usual fawning Hollywood love in. Finishing the night, he he read from cards he’d written delivering his mock thank you’s to the AFI and to his friends.
He then announced he had no interest in returning next year to present the award to the 2014 winner, so he simply read a prepared statement congratulating that person–“he or she”– in advance with facetious sincerity– essentially lampooning the entire proceeding we’d just witnessed with Brooksian precision.
The AFI will have to sell the unedited show online so people can see the whole thing. It was one of those great nights in Hollywood where everyone’s relaxed, and the show just rolls. All the interviews with Brooks plus all the clips added up to a memorable event.