Mel Brooks has just welcomed a visitor into his office when the comedian gets noticeably excited. "Have you seen the Hitler rap?" he asks, referring to the satiric music video from 1983 that has him busting rhymes dressed as the Fuhrer. "Oh, we have to watch it."
Brooks jumps from his chair and calls for an assistant to fire up a DVD.
"I'm a rap pioneer," he says with a gleam in his eye as he watches himself on-screen. He adds, "This would be big on YouTube," possibly unaware that the video has in the past few years in fact become a viral-video sensation.
At 86 and with almost every accomplishment under his belt (Brooks is one of 11 people in history to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards), the comedian continues to show an unusual vigor.
Brooks spends most days each week at his Culver City office and continues to jot down notes for what he hopes might turn into a "Blazing Saddles" Broadway musical.
Now audiences can see more of Brooks. A new five-disc boxed set of early material, "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy," has recently been released. He has been making the rounds to late-night shows hosted by the likes of Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. He'll also receive a lifetime achievement award from AFI at a gala in June.
Brooks stars in an hourlong special on HBO, "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!," in which he recalls to the BBC veteran Alan Yentob some of his career highlights, a broadcast that's one part reminiscence and one part greatest hits.
Brooks filmed it as a benefit for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and though it's not exactly bursting with new material, fans will be tickled by the classic stories, such as the day he was with Sid Caesar when the "Your Show of Shows" star threatened to pull a cab driver through a small window, or how he and Carl Reiner would improvise their famous "2000 Year Old Man" skits.
That changed when his uncle took him to "Anything Goes" — that is, the original 1934 Broadway production with Ethel Merman — and he realized that entertainment was a career option. "I knew right then. I'd heard about heaven, and this was it."
It later rescued him from being "near-suicidal" on an Army base in Oklahoma during World War II, where he felt like a fish out of water. He and another New Yorker decided to put on a show riffing on the differences between the Northeast and the heartland. It instantly cheered him up.
Brooks eventually made his way to the Borscht Belt before coming to Hollywood to create TV shows such as "Get Smart!" and generation-defining films such as "History of the World Part I," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles." ("Obama once told me he snuck in to see ('Saddles') as a 12-year-old," he says proudly.)
Brooks, who's never met a joke he didn't like, is a reminder of an era when comedy was peddled at Grossinger's, not on Funny or Die. But he's managed to stay relevant this century with Broadway smashes such as "The Producers" and says he keeps current with the new stuff.
He likes "The Book of Mormon" and "Modern Family," watches Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert "religiously" and isn't averse to some of the gross-out fare the studios have taken to churning out. "I really enjoyed 'The Hangover' and even liked the second 'Hangover,' though not as much. A tiger in the toilet — that's funny!"