I think now, more than a week later, Gene Wilder’s passing is finally settling in my head. At first I think I was inclined to ignore the news, or at least act like it didn’t faze me very much. But in the last couple days, it’s become increasingly apparent to me how much I appreciate Wilder’s films, his aura, and his friends.
I’ve been a huge fan of Mel Brooks for over a decade now. My love and fascination with him and his entourage began when I saw Rick Moranis in his Dark Helmet get-up on the cover of a Spaceballs DVD. A few weeks later I picked up a collection of eight of his movies and made sure I had seen the rest of his filmography. The nicest thing about the Mel Brooks films was that, as you go through his body of work, you start to notice a lot of the same faces. Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, Cloris Leachman, Sid Caeaser, Gene Wilder, and a few other comedians can all be spotted in multiple Brooks films.
Each member of the Brooks crew is different from the rest of the group and even though they changed characters from movie to movie, something of each comedian’s air or persona was present in all of their work. To me, Kahn’s eyes exude the same sarcastic tone throughout all of her performances in Brooks’s films. As recently pointed out by Rishi Kaneria, Wilder’s perfect grasp of comedic timing is one of the essential components of his shtick. It’s actually pretty easy to spot some of these key characteristics in members of the Brooks entourage and it was especially fun, as a kid, trying to learn from these comedic legends some of the more subtle aspects of their humor.
This isn’t all to say that the Brooks entourage is the only one of its kind. Especially with the start of SNL, it’s really easy to point to and distinguish between a few generational circles of comedians (the Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Kristin Wiig circles) that were produced from NBC. Aside from SNL, one can point to Jon Stewart’s wide spectrum of correspondents from The Daily Show or to Seth Rogen, James Franco, and their buddies as being two of the leading groups of comedians today.
What’s different, mainly, between the Brooks group and, say, Jon Stewart’s correspondents, besides their types of humor, is that I, and a lot of people my age, grew up watching Brooks and his pals. I was watching Silent Movie and High Anxiety before I really even knew what comedy was or what really makes a joke or situation funny. Over the last decade or so, I’ve found new ways of looking at some of my favorite jokes in Brooks’s movies, and jokes and bits that didn’t hit me when I was a kid have become some of my favorite shticks in comedy. So while there isn’t much that really makes the Brooks crew unique in and of itself, I’ve grown up with this ensemble—I’ve changed because it.
All of this makes it really difficult to hear the news every time one of the Brooks ensemble passes away. At this point, there’s really only Leachman and Brooks himself left. For some reason, Wilder’s passing has been especially noteworthy for me over the last couple days. More so than when I heard that Harvey Korman or Dom DeLuise had died, the death of Wilder has made me spend a lot of time thinking about friendship, comedy, and specifically the influence that he and the rest of the Brooks clan have had on the world and, even more specifically, how I view it.
The last week has also been a helpful lesson for me in how to handle grief. Days after Wilder’s death, Brooks was on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Of course, the two had to talk about Gene Wilder and while, to a small degree, Brooks did seem shaken up while discussing his friend, he told two beautiful stories about Wilder and their work together. That’s when I realized there are two ways you can handle death: wallowing in pain and remembering the beauty someone brought to the world. I’ll choose the latter of those two options every time.
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