Pete Hammond

It was completely appropriate that AFI‘s 41st Life Achievement Award honoree Mel Brooks made his entrance at the Dolby Theatre to the Steven Sondheim song, “Comedy Tonight”.  It set the tone immediately for a very different evening than any that had come before at this annual event. Look at the list of the 40 previous AFI honorees, and there’s not a single solely comedic filmmaker or actor in the whole bunch. Yes, there are some — like Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols, Shirley MacLaine and Tom Hanks — who have made a few classic comedies but no one whose whole screen career is built on laughs. The AFI finally corrected that glaring omission Thursday night.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the American Film Institute honors the art — and the farts — of American film,”  said AFI Board Of Trustees Chair Sir Howard Stringer in welcoming the star-studded crowd. “When I telephoned Mel to tell him the AFI had voted him in as the 2013 recipient, he responded instantly, ‘What took you so long?’ Fair enough. Comedy is routinely short-changed at many awards ceremonies , particularly the Oscars. It is often said comedy is harder than drama because funny is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. That makes  Mel, without question, Hollywood’s principal lightning conductor.”

I have been to many of these AFI nights, but I rarely remember so much warmth in the room, and this one definitely had the funniest speeches. Maybe Hollywood needed a laugh. And the crowd got several with expertly chosen clips from such Mel classics as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles (Stringer’s “farts” reference was to the famous campfire bean scene shown in its entirety), Spaceballs, High Anxiety, Silent Movie and on and on. There also was a very short clip from his more obscure second directorial outing, 1970′s The Twelve Chairs. When I talked to Mel as he ate his dinner (just before Martin Short and a group of dancers took the stage singing a number from the Broadway musical version of The Producers to start the main presentation), I told him that of all his movies, the one I really loved most was that little gem, Twelve Chairs. “Thank you so much for saying that. That is my favorite of all my films,”  he told me. “I am so happy because I just learned Turner Classic Movies has contracted it for a six-month run for the first time, so more people will be able to see it now.” He clearly also was excited to be the center of attention on this night as he sat at the table of honor with family and longtime friend and partner in the “2000-Year-Old Man” routines, Carl Reiner.

Incidentally this is the first year of a new TV deal for the AFI Life Achievement Award event. It will air this month on TNT and TBS and then as part of a yearlong run on TCM along with a package of Brooks’ movies. AFI CEO and President Bob Gazzale told me this is the ideal home for the show and they have signed a three-year deal with the Turner networks. AFI Board member Rich Ross of Shine told me before the show that the selection of Brooks was unanimous and a perfect choice for the first of the Turner shows. At the post-party, Stringer told me it was an obvious choice and was so happy they finally got to honor to a true comic legend. As he said in those opening remarks, “Hopefully it starts a trend.” Gazzale told me the response was so strong that contemporary comedy talents including Zach Galifianakis, Seth Rogen and Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to attend even though they weren’t part of the tribute.

In his opening remarks, Gazzale drew big laughs as he said: “Early in the planning for this night, the phone rings. ‘Gazzale,’ he says, ‘Italian or Jew?’ Clearly disappointed that I even answered at all, he made me an honorary Jew with a deadline of tonight. So, Mel, as I begin my exodus back to goyville  I say to you mazel tov and thank you.”

A long line of stars paid tribute both in person and on tape, but thankfully the night stopped short of turning into a Friars roast. There was more an air of love and respect in the room. And laughs, of course. “If Mel Brooks tells you you’re funny — it’s almost as good as Woody Allen telling you you’re funny,” Short said to kick things off. Allen, who worked with Mel as a writer on the classic ’50s TV series You Show Of Shows, actually was featured quite a bit in taped interview segments extolling the genius of his friend. Of course Allen is another comic legend who could, and should, be the recipient of this award. But he would never show up — and that’s a requirement.

Billy Crystal paid tribute to Brooks by praising him as the inspiration to his whole career. “The 2000-Year-Old Man comedy album came out two weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, and I devoured it. I knew it backwards and forwards. I didn’t want to be a Yankee anymore. I wanted to be Mel Brooks. At my Bar Mitzvah, instead of a yarmulke I wore a big black hat and a cape. I stood next to my rabbi and read from the ancient sacred Torah. The rabbi was a little ancient himself, and in the middle I just stopped and said: ‘You know I was there when they wrote this. I used to play handball with the prophets.’ This was 1961. It was Mel who made me want to be a comedian,” he said.

Reiner in his brief toast said, “I would like to acknowledge three people who early on knew Mel Brooks was one of the funniest people in the world: Sid Caesar, me and Mel Brooks.” Sarah Silverman came on to say, “Mel, you have been friends with Carl Reiner for over 50 years, which makes it clear you are unable to make new friends. Finally a lifetime achievement award for Mel Brooks. Wow. What an elegant way to say, ‘Hey, let’s wrap it up,’ ” she said.

Some past AFI honorees including Clint Eastwood (on tape) and Morgan Freeman and Robert De Niro in person also got their moment to toast Mel. “I got the AFI award in 2003,  when it still meant something,” joked De Niro. Frequent Brooks co-star Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety) got one of the biggest laughs of the night when she talked about her Academy Award. “As you may know, I won an Oscar in 1971 for The Last Picture Show. I started working with Mel a year later, and I haven’t won one since. Not even a nomination. But life is too short to be bitter. Face it, Mel, we are old. Not as old as Carl!”

Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Cary Elwes, Larry David, Gene Wilder (on tape) and David Lynch – who Brooks hired to direct The Elephant Man for his Brooksfilm production company — spoke as well. And Amy Poehler also scored, even though she has no history with Brooks and said she thought they were honoring Mel B. of Spice Girls. But she touched hearts with this line, “My wish is that every man in the audience tonight feel half as funny as Mel Brooks and every woman in the audience feel as loved and be as loved as much as he loves Anne,” a reference to his late wife Anne Bancroft, whose presence was strongly felt in the room and on screen, particularly in a musical clip from To Be Or Not To Be.

Finally, 1997 AFI honoree Martin Scorsese presented him with the prestigious award. “Mel has made his own tradition of greatness,” he said. “In Mel’s films, all bets are off. The boundaries of what’s funny or what isn’t kind of fade away or tumble like that sheet that was falling in It Happened One Night.” He said as the 86-year-old Brooks bounced to the stage: “Mel has made his own comedy his own way and reminded us yet again what it is all too easy to forget: You can be a great filmmaker just for laughs.”

Then Brooks took over. “Normally I don’t agree with AFI’s choices. Tonight I kind of do,” he said in the middle of a riff about the food and some of the people  in the room. “Movies saved my life and rescued my soul. I thank the AFI for giving this to me,” he added before pulling off one final pure Mel Brooksian moment by noting that the previous year’s AFI honoree usually has to come back and toast the new honoree. But he said he didn’t want to have to get back into a tux “with the red handkerchief” and sit through this again next year, so he led the crowd in “pre-emptively” toasting next year’s (as-yet unchosen) honoree. “He or she is a remarkable person. I’ve known him or her for over 20 years, and he or she is the only person that I’ve never been jealous of because when someone is truly talented you just have to salute it. Here’s to you for a well deserved award and to the AFI , you finally got it right!” he said.

Leave it to Mel Brooks to send up the whole event and get the last laugh. In his case, AFI, you really did get it right.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.