Laughs And Tears: Mel Brooks And "All In The Family"

Taking the same sort of odds-and-sods approach to Mel Brooks the way they did with Steve Martin (with the Steve Martin: The Television Stuff box), Shout! Factory brings us The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy. The five-DVD (plus one bonus CD) set is a treasure trove of Brooks ephemera which covers almost all of his career (save for his side-job as a producer for such films as The Elephant Man and The Fly), from his early days writing sketch comedy on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show Of Shows” all the way through his subsequent TV and movie successes.


Brooks is best known for broad parody comedies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, but he’s a shrewd businessman and a much more subtle talent than you might recognize; detailing the production of his first film, The Producers, in interview segments titled “Mel And His Movies” which are spread out across all five discs, we see him laser-focused and entirely sure of what he wants on the screen. Curiously enough, these interview sequences are some of the strongest material on the discs, giving us a real sense of the man — funny as hell but still a genuine craftsman — and they serve as an excellent companion piece to the nine-disc Mel Brooks Collection, which contains almost all of Brooks’ feature films (save for, curiously enough, The Producers, as well as Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead And Loving It).


The bulk of the set consists of various documentaries — including the excellent Excavating The 2000 Year Old Man, detailing the oft-recorded comedy routine between Brooks and Carl Reiner — and lengthy interviews at different stages of Brooks’ career. We also get TV episodes Brooks wrote and produced — including the 1965 pilot to the popular spy spoof “Get Smart” and the 1975 pre-Robin Hood: Men In Tights Merry Men parody “When Things Were Rotten” — and guest-star bits from shows as diverse as “Mad About You” (as Paul Reiser’s crazy Uncle Phil) to “The Electric Company.” Hidden amongst all this are gems like the faux-trailer for the 1963 gladiator epic My Son, The Hero, the Academy Award-winning 1963 short The Critic, and a variety of TV commercials Brooks directed in the 1960s. The bonus CD contains some of Brooks’ earliest gags — a bit Brooks did back in college in 1947 — musical numbers from may of his movies, radio commercials, and a 1964 roundtable radio comedy talk show hosted by David Susskind featuring Brooks, Nipsey Russell and Bill Cosby. It’s an astonishing collection and a must-have for Brooks’ fans. Also, Brooks will be on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Tonight at 12 midnight/11 central on ABC.


Also out from Shout! is the massive, incredibly comprehensive  All In The Family: The Complete Series. Much like last year’s all-inclusive “Barney Miller” box, this huge, 28-disc box set contains every single episode — all 208 (!) of them — of the show, which ran on CBS from January 1971 to April 1979. You can’t underestimate how important this program was— in the 1970’s, it was THE program and the template for the more realistic television shows, many of which were produced by “All In The Family” creator Norman Lear, which followed.


Based on the British sitcom “Till Death Do Us Part” (the same way Lear’s “Sanford In Son” was an adaptation of the British “Steptoe And Son"), “All In The Family” took a very open approach to the dysfunctional Bunker family, led by narrow-minded cab-driver patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), and Lear never steered away from controversy, taking an in-your-face attitude toward hot-button issues like racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, equal rights and menopause. While Archie’s rants occasionally feel on-the-nose, that’s only because we see them through the filter of time; sitcoms were significantly more bright and sterile before “All In The Family." Even its blue-collar antecedent “The Honeymooners” seems like a walk in the park compared to the constant conflict between Archie, wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Michael (aka “Meathead”) (Rob Reiner)— not to mention a supporting cast that included neighbor George Jefferson (Sherman Helmsley) and cousin Maude (Bea Arthur), both of whom would have sitcom spin-offs of their own to even a  surprise Season Two guest appearance by Sammy Davis Jr.


The massive box set includes not only each episode of the show, categorized season by season, but also a bonus disc that showcases a new interview with Norman Lear (who admits that a show this decidedly low-concept would never make it on primetime network TV today) and two 2008 documentaries about the birth and development of the show that feature Lear, Reiner, Stapleton, Struthers talking candidly about the program. Also included are spin-off pilots for 1982’s “Gloria,” starring Struthers as a newly-divorced Gloria; “Archie Bunker’s Place,” a 1979-1983 series in which Archie takes over a bar (and is essentially a continuation of “All In The Family”); and the short-lived “704 Hauser,” in which a black family led by John Amos moves into the old Bunker home. Best of all are the two “All In The Family” pilots — one (“Justice For All”) from 1968 and the other (“Those Were The Days”) from 1969 — that feature O’Connor as a more white-collar Archie Bunker, but, while Jean Stapleton is still Edith in both, the younger cast is completely different and the approach is less effective. Watching these is a fascinating way to wrap up the Archie Bunker saga.  


You can order The Incredible Mel Brooks from Amazon or directly through Shout! Factory, who have signed copies on hand. You can order All In The Family: The Complete Series through Amazon or through Shout! Factory

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