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Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett: The highlights

December 8, 2010 | 11:36 am

Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett sat down with close to 2,000 friends and fans Tuesday night at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Cavett was in town to promote his latest book, "Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets," a compendium of his New York Times columns that combines reminiscences with observation. Brooks was there to help, holding up the book from time to time to remind the audience of the occasion.

"I feel somewhat like a panther or a leopard on an overhanging limb of a tree, and there's a rabbit walking underneath," Brooks said, comparing Cavett -- whom he called "sweet" -- to a vulnerable bunny.

"Because you said that," Cavett responded, "I"m going to tell a couple things I had decided not to tell."

Cavett is, of course, best known as an erudite and incisive talk show host, whose calm, bred-in-Nebraska demeanor proved a fertile foil for everyone from Janis Joplin to Groucho Marx. Brooks is the comic filmmaker -- "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles," "Spaceballs" (everybody always leaves off "Spaceballs") -- whose 1968 movie, "The Producers," became a Tony-winning Broadway hit more than 30 years later.

Brooks and Cavett know each other from their early days as comedy writers, and on stage they traded anecdotes like old friends. Clearly they'd mapped out some of the things they'd touch on: There was much Jewish-Gentile banter, a shared recollection of a Ballantine Beer ad they'd done together, and tales of meeting Bob Hope as young men, then again later as celebrities.

In one of several obviously prearranged "spontaneous" moments, when Brooks called out to Carl Reiner, who was sitting in the third row, the 88-year-old film director-writer-actor joined the conversation for a bit from the audience.

Reiner, who is remarkably quick-talking and still very funny, told the story behind the famous 2,000-Year-Old Man routine that he and Brooks did in the 1960s and '70s.

It was a night full of Hollywood reminiscences. Because Brooks and Cavett admire comedians of an earlier generation -- Hope and Marx among them -- the evening harkened the industry's Golden Era. The night was also a kind of club meeting of Hollywood funnymen: In addition to Reiner, director Paul Mazursky was also in the audience, responding when Brooks called out to him from the stage, cupping his hands against the lights and looking into the crowd.

Brook and Cavett also talked about Alfred Hitchcock, with whom Brooks lunched regularly while working on "High Anxiety." Cavett, who spiced up by his Hitchcock anecdote with an impression of the wheezy director, recalled something that happened during a break in the taping of Cavett's talk show: Hitchcock, who had been sitting silently during the taping, suddenly spoke up, apropos of nothing.          " 'Grace Kelly,' " Cavett remembered him saying, " 'was the most promiscuous woman I have ever known.' "

Other notable moments of the evening: Brooks jumping up and singing "Springtime for Hitler" -- in the voice of Frank Sinatra; and Cavett's talking about Fred Astaire's response to what Katharine Hepburn said about him and Ginger Rogers (something like, "He gave her class, she gave him sex").

Much of what Cavett and Brooks said can't be repeated because they used plenty of words they never got to say on '70s TV. And a lot of their comedy exists in the moment, in the pacing and the delivery. Brooks  was particularly brilliant Tuesday night with both the long slow build and the well-told story with comic zingers dropped in nonchalantly, like grenades. Cavett seemed more direct -- I'm going to tell you a funny story now -- but his anecdotes tended to end with a one-two punch, the obvious funny line followed by a curve from another direction. He even got Brooks to do a spit-take.

After the recent hubub over Steve Martin's 92nd Street Y appearance, it was nice to see a large audience embracing the more than hourlong conversation through whatever turns it took. The only exception were a few who had some trouble hearing as the sound in the balcony of the historic and magnificent Saban, where restoration is underway, was a little muffled.

During the question-and-answer session, Cavett talked about his stint as the narrator in the Broadway revival of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." He's not on the cast album, he said, because he engaged with hecklers too much. Brooks also answered a question about Broadway, saying "Blazing Saddles" is "almost a musical" and "a good possibility."

"I'm really proud of our friendship," Brooks said as they wound down. "I really am."

"I"m moved," Cavett said, dry as dust. "Can you tell?"

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Dick Cavett, left, and Mel Brooks banter on the Saban Theatre stage. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times