How fully I recommend this book: 7/10
Lesson 1: In satire, everything surrounding the comedy has to be real.
In Young Frankenstein (one of my favorite films ever), Mel Brooks shares that, for the comedy to work, the film had to be in black and white, and the costumes, walls, floors, and all else had to be real and true to the original Frankenstein films.
The comedy works because of its real backdrop.
Lesson 2: If you’re a creative producer, use references.
Mel Brooks used references for all of his productions. He used them to give his actors something to aim for, to limit his options in cinematography, and more.
This is not plagiarism. It’s referencing numerous sources, combining them in unique ways, and adding one’s own taste. You know, like human creativity!
Lesson 3: Consider mood and context before asking for a favor.
Mel Brooks shares how he approached a studio executive to request more money for a film production.
Brooks first confirmed with the executive’s secretary and collaborators that he was in a good mood (or not in a bad one!).
Then, he chose not to approach the executive in his office, where he would feel pressured by the studio to say no. He casually asked him in a hallway walking back from lunch, and he got the money!
Lesson 4: When acting in comedy, never play it funny. Play it real.
The best comedy acting is not heightened: It’s real.
Mel Brooks: “When it’s funny, your character doesn’t know it’s funny. You’re just doing your job. The audience knows when it’s funny. But you don’t.”
Lesson 5: “When you parody something, you move the truth sideways.”
This is a perfect description of parody!
I wrote two parodies for my first book of short fiction (in Spanish) titled Bebé azul, and this lesson certainly describes both.
Lesson 6: The talent of a writer.
Mel Brooks: “Every human being has hundreds of separate people living inside his skin. And the talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities, and have them relate to other characters living within him.”
Lesson 7: Seek to make work that lasts.
Mel Brooks left a lucrative TV career to move to Hollywood and make films, because he sensed that, at the time, film work would outlast TV work.
He was right, and he’s left his rich creative contribution for us and future generations, which may mean more than short-term praise or profit.
Lesson 8: If you do your best work and keep doing it, you’ll find your people.
Just by doing his best work, Mel Brooks found meaningful love and friendship.
The work led him away from what wasn’t for him, and toward what was.
Lesson 9: “First, do it as written. Later you can make it your own.”
Mel Brooks would often say this to comedians he’d write for, and I love this approach! He says, “Without information, there is no joke.” In a good script, the jokes are there and also their required information, so if actors improvise to be funny, important joke and narrative information can be lost.
Also, like in music, “doing it as written” teaches you the foundations of the craft, which then lets you make anything your own.
Lesson 10: “The only test of comedy is laughter.”
If people (it doesn’t have to be everyone) aren’t laughing, then it’s not a comedy, or it’s a comedy that isn’t working for one or many issues that must be tweaked. That’s it!
The lighting, showmanship, charisma, writing, etc. are all secondary to laughter (this is only true in a pure comedy).
Lesson 11: “When making a movie, always strive to create an illusion of reality.”
This applies to all the arts.
Lesson 12: “Show business is ups and downs. We can only hope to get more ups than downs.”
Lesson 13: In American culture, always ask for what you want.
In other cultures, this might be seen as intimidating. In the US, it’s considerate and transparent to be open about what you want, because how can people help you if they don’t know what you want?
Lesson 14: If the storyline doesn’t work, the laughs won’t work.
Or they won’t work as well as they could!
In film, “People can laugh wildly at a movie and then come out and say it wasn’t any good, it was cheap laughter.”
Great comedy films are not just a series of great jokes; they’re great stories with real characters and emotional substance.
Lesson 15: Language is rhythmic, certainly so in comedy.
Mel Brooks: “As far as I’m concerned, a joke has to end with a rim shot.”
When you write comedy, consider the rhythms and sounds in the words you are choosing. Are they serving the comedy?
Lesson 16: How to deal with notes from people outside the creative process.
Mel Brooks: “Like I’ve said before, as far as movie executives are concerned, always agree with them, but never do a thing they say.”
Hilarious. There may be exceptions to this, of course, but in most cases, people outside the creative process just don’t understand how to actually improve a piece of creative work.
Lesson 17: Protect your art by producing it yourself.
Work with great collaborators, of course! But it’s your vision, and the best way to bring your vision to reality is to produce it yourself.
Lesson 18: Edit out what doesn’t work (even if you love it).
Mel Brooks writes about how he often cut many jokes and moments he loved, because they were not getting a laugh when they should, or they were simply not contributing to the good of the overall film, performance, or project.
Lesson 19: Failure is vital.
Mel Brooks: “Nothing helps you to succeed like failure.” It helps you find reasons for each failure, which will help you achieve future success. It teaches you. And it’s proof that you’re really going for it!