Coronavirus Updates: USC  |  SCA

October 20, 2009

It’s All in Fun

Mel Brooks Speaks at Jack Oakie Masters Lecture Series

By Mel Cowan

USC School of Cinematic Arts students were treated to an afternoon with Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning writer/producer/director/actor and master cat-screech expert Mel Brooks, as part of the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Masters Lecture Series.

The series, now in its second year, brings leading filmmakers and artists to speak with students, and celebrates the legacy of actor and philanthropist Jack Oakie. With a remarkable career that spanned 87 films, as well as success as a vaudevillian stage performer, Oakie was nominated for the Academy Award in 1940 for his performance as Il Duce of Bacteria in Charlie Chaplin's film, The Great Dictator.

Jack Epps, Jr., Ph.D., hosts Mel Brooks during the 2009 Oakie Masters Lecture Series.
SCA partnered with Victoria Horne Oakie in 1981, and later the Oakie Foundation to provide support for SCA students from each of its six divisions. Foundation trustees David Sonne and Dr. Barry Pascal were on hand for the event. They  announced an additional $5,000 scholarship to the school, awarded in Dean Elizabeth M. Daley's honor.

The event, held in a packed Norris Theatre, featured a montage of moments from both Oakie's and Brooks' films, as well as the awarding of the Oakie Foundation Award to Brooks by Writing Division Chair, Jack Epps, Jr., Ph.D.  After Epps made a lengthy introduction of Brooks' accomplishments and the reasons the Foundation had chosen Brooks to win the award, the skilled comedian didn't miss a beat, saying, "You left out a few things."

Brooks, a natural raconteur, proceeded to turn the planned Q & A session into an irreverent, personal and very funny monologue, telling stories that ranged from the transformative experience of seeing his first Broadway musical, Anything Goes, to a hilarious recounting of a gut-busting lunch meeting with director Alfred Hitchcock. He also demonstrated the all-important comedic ability to recreate the sound of a cat having its tail stepped on, a talent he used in a sketch on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and again in Young Frankenstein.

Brooks spoke warmly of his many collaborators over the years, singling out associates Michael Gruskoff, Alan Ladd, Jr. and Jay Kanter who were in attendance, for their invaluable assistance in bringing his movies to the screen. The filmmaker made note of the origin of Young Frankenstein, which was greenlit via late-night phone call by Ladd, Jr., then head of Twentieth Century Fox, after Columbia passed on it due to budgetary concerns and Brooks' desire to shoot the film in black and white.
Collaborators and friends: Jay Kanter, SCA's David Weitzner, Alan Ladd, Jr., Brooks with Dean Daley and Michael Gruskoff.

Segueing into a Q&A session with the students, Brooks, in response to a student who asked whether comedy could be taught, related a pithy bit of wisdom from actor Andreas Voutsinas, who appeared as Carmen Ghia in the 1968 version of The Producers. The actor said about comedy, "Or you got it, or you ain't," to which Brooks responded, "Andreas, we don't start sentences with 'or' in this country!"

Closing the afternoon, Brooks thanked the audience and the Oakie Foundation for his award. "If you keep a close eye out, you'll be able to find it on eBay by tonight," he joked.

Regardless of sentence construction, it's clear that Brooks most certainly has "got it."

View all of the photos from this event.