Irreverent and often raucous, the 41st American Film Institute Life Achievement Award gala Thursday evening at the Dolby Theatre honored the king of comedy, Mel Brooks, in a full-on laugh fest.
Martin Short got the evening off to a flying start by singing songs from Brooks' films, including "I Want to Be a Producer" and "Springtime for Hitler" from "The Producers" and the "Blazing Saddles" theme song surrounded by a bevy of statuesque chorus girls who towered over Short.
"I'm not speaking from the heart, I'm speaking from the TelePrompter," said Short as he went into a series of jokes about Brooks being Jewish.
"Very rarely do you get a chance to say thank you to one of your heroes," said Billy Crystal, who related how he became friends with Brooks at PTA meetings when his daughter Jennifer and Brooks' son Max were in the same class in grade school. "
Brooks' close friend and "2000 Year Old Man" collaborator Carl Reiner said there were three people who thought that Brooks was "one of the funniest people in the world -- Sid Caesar, me and Mel Brooks."
In one of the evening's few sentimental moments, Brooks walked over to Reiner and gave him a kiss on the cheek
Cloris Leachman, who worked with Brooks on 1974's "Young Frankenstein" and 1977's "High Anxiety," described him as "equal parts genius and mensch. Face it Mel, we're old -- not compared to Carl."
Leachman also introduced "Young Frankenstein" star Teri Garr, who has long been afflicted with multiple sclerosis. The audience cheered when the camera panned to her.
"Stand up so people can see you," she said to Garr, who waved off standing up but seemed touched by the crowd's warm reaction.
Conan O'Brien pointed out that Brooks was "one of the greatest storytellers" and described how his family would always stay up to watch him when he guest starred on the "Tonight Show." "Even our cat laughed," he said. "Mel is still the king and tells the best stories."
Jimmy Kimmel told Brooks "you are one of my favorite tiny old people," and David Lynch, who directed the 1980 classic "The Elephant Man," of which Brooks was executive producer, even brought out the dark blue trench coat he wore every day on the set.
Robert De Niro added an impression of "The Elephant Man."
There was a multitude of clips from Brooks' films, taped interviews with him, Reiner, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
One person notably missing from the Dolby was Gene Wilder, the brilliant funny man who starred in "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," which he co-wrote with Brooks.
Wilder did finally make a brief appearance in a filmed segment. "You are a singular man," he said quietly. "I love you, Mel."
Former AFI recipient and Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese made the presentation to Brooks. "With Mel's films, all bets are off," he said.
Brooks, 86, received a lengthy standing ovation as he made his way from his table to the stage.
"That's enough praise," Brooks told the adoring crowd. "This is nearly an important occasion."
Though the majority of AFI recipients, which have included such diverse entertainers as James Cagney, Alfred Hitchcock and Tom Hanks, are usually overcome with emotion during their acceptance speeches, that wasn't the case with Brooks.
It was all schtick as he waxed comedic on everything from the pastrami-crusted beef fillet that was served at dinner, to "Young Frankenstein" placing only 13th on the AFI's list of top 100 comedies.
"A few people fell asleep," he chortled. "Who can blame them? It was a long night."
TNT wil air the tribute on June 15.
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