Brooks has been putting on comedy for most of his life, from the 2,000-year-old man to making "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," not to mention turning "The Producers" into a hit stage musical.
The 86-year-old filmmaker posed for pictures and greeted fans before walking into the Dolby Theatre, but had no interest in talking to the press at the Hollywood event in his honor.
Instead he left the talking to actors he's worked with in the past.
"I love him; I love him very much," said Cloris Leachman. "Every time he meets me, he says that his wife was the second best actress."
The evening kicked off with a song-and-dance routine by Martin Short set to a medley of melodies from Brooks' films.
"The word genius is used a lot in Hollywood, so I might as well call Mel one," Short said.
The who's who of the comedy world attended the private dinner to pay tribute to (and roast) the Oscar and Tony winner, including Billy Crystal, David Lynch, Larry David, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Kimmel, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Conan O'Brien and Richard Lewis, as well as actors Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman.
"We are going to miss you so much, Mel," Kimmel said. "You were one of the greats. Rest in peace, my friend."
David blamed Brooks for his idle years as an aspiring comedian.
"Mel Brooks didn't get me into comedy, he kept me away from it," David said, recalling how he was intimidated by Brooks' talent. "I spent years doing nothing because of him."
Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg and Gene Wilder were among those lauding Brooks via video.
"I don't think there's any man anywhere who's like you," Wilder said. "I love you, Mel."
Director Martin Scorsese, a past recipient of the AFI honor, presented Brooks with his award, putting the comic legend in the same category as the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello.
"Mel has made his own tradition of greatness, and it's that tradition - drawing from the past, honoring it, toying with it, vamping on it, extending it to places wise men, very funny men previously feared to go - that's what we're celebrating here and honoring tonight," Scorsese said. "Mel has always made his own way, and he brought us all along for the joyride."
Brooks was almost all comedy as he claimed his prize. He directed an expletive at Kimmel, declaring, "I'm not gonna die."
But he dropped the funny stuff to thank the institute for recognizing him and to share his lifelong love of film.
"Movies saved my life," he said. "They rescued my soul. No matter what was bad or wrong, it could be wiped out on Saturday morning."
TNT will broadcast highlights from the ceremony as a TV special on June 15.
ABC7 Eyewitness News Entertainment Guru George Pennacchio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.