Mel Brooks won’t sit down. The good people at Radio City Music Hall have set up two chairs on stage, one for the moderator Kevin Salter and one for Mel. If they had known better they could have cut their furniture budget in half.
Last night, after a screening of Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks commanded Radio City in a Q&A that felt more like a standup performance. At the age of 90, Mel addressed the audience with the energy of someone half his age. He told some jokes, he told some stories (some he’d told before, and maybe new ones), he sang his theme song, and he even did his famous cat impression. For an hour he had the audience right where he wanted them.
Mr. Salter came out first and said a few words, which was fortunate because it would turn out to be one of his few chances to do so. He introduced Mel, who came out to riotous applause, and rather than join the moderator at the two chairs that were set up, Mel walked to the center of the stage and began to tell a story based on something that he had just remembered. This would be the pattern that would follow for the remainder of the evening. What had triggered his memory this time was the last time he had been on stage at Radio City Music Hall. It was when the Tonys were held there in 2001 and The Producers won 12 of ‘em. He then described watching the most recent Tony ceremony with trepidation, as Hamilton came very close to breaking his record. (Don’t worry. They only tied.) With this, he turned around to join his moderator, asking, “Okay, what do you want?”
Obviously, with the passing of Gene Wilder this week and the audience having just watched Blazing Saddles, the first question was on the subject of Gene’s comedic genius. It was with this question that the audience got their first taste of what they were in for. Before Salter finished his question, Mel was already getting up out of his seat. “When I first met Gene…”
On Gene Wilder
Mel told two stories about his dear friend Gene Wilder. The first was of their first meeting, which was backstage at a play that Mel’s wife Anne Bancroft was also appearing in. Incidentally, Mel also told this story on The Tonight Show the other night, but the gist of it is that he promised Gene a part in The Producers that night, and after reading the script, Wilder was highly dubious that Mel would ever get the money to make a movie hinging on a song called “Springtime for Hitler.” Luckily he was wrong.
The second tale came from the filming of The Producers, when it came time to film Gene’s character’s freakout scene involving his blue blanket. This came at the end of a long day of filming, and Gene complained about being too exhausted to do the scene. Mel then demanded to know what “gives you energy” and then force fed him chocolate bars and black coffee to fuel the inspired performance.
On Blazing Saddles
Mel initially had no interest in doing Blazing Saddles. A studio executive bumped into Mel on the street while Mel was “staring at the ground, looking for change” and told him about a Western/comedy script he had just read called Tex X. Mel told him it sounded like a funny idea, but he only made films “that are born in my own head.” When the executive told him “I think I can get you a hundred thousand dollars…” Mel changed his mind rather quickly.
You may know that Richard Pryor was one of the writers of Blazing Saddles. You may also know that Pryor was originally going to play the lead, until the studio refused to insure him. In solidarity, Mel threatened to quit the production until Pryor convinced him to stay, not willing to lose the last two writer’s payments he’d miss out on. The two auditioned a number of actors for the role of Black Bart, but when Cleavon Little was found, Pryor gave his seal of approval. According to Mel, Pryor quipped, “You know, I’m lighter, I have a mustache. I could be Cuban. But not that mother…”
Blazing Saddles went pretty far for its time (and for today as well), which was reflected in the studio notes from one executive that would have, according to Brooks, turned the film into a 12 minute short. But there is one joke that he did cut from the final movie because “I’ll occasionally be risque, but this was filthy.” As it appears in the film, Lili Von Shtupp, played by the wonderful Madeline Kahn, turns out the lights as she makes her way over to Black Bart. She then asks him, “Is it true what they say about the way you people are… gifted?” We then hear a zipper sound effect and Lili announces, through her accent, “It’s twue! It’s twue!”
Mel claims that in the original version, it went a little differently. He acted out the scene for us, and in between the shouts of “It’s twue!” Mel made, shall we say, some slobbering noises. Black Bart then interjects, “I hate to disillusion you, Ms. Von Shtupp, but you’re sucking on my arm.” After the giant laugh it got from the crowd, Mel said “Maybe I’ll put that back in the movie…”
On Madeline Kahn
Madeline Kahn became a staple of Brooks’ movies, appearing in Young Frankenstein, History of the World Pt. 1, and High Anxiety, but her first was Blazing Saddles as the aforementioned Marlene Dietrich-esque crooner, Lili Von Shtupp. Having only seen her on screen, Mel brought her in to audition and he thought she was wonderful, but since she was playing a lounge act, he did have to ask to see her legs. She consented after saying, “Huh. It’s one of those auditions then.” Mel, uncharacteristically flustered, tried to explain himself, carried out the rest of the audition, and then thought to himself, a few moments after she left the room: “Why couldn’t it have been one of those auditions?”
On his wife, Anne Bancroft
Mel told a very sweet story about his late wife during what was a dry spell for him that coincided with her starring on Broadway in The Miracle Worker. They were out to dinner, and when it came time to pay the bill, she slipped him a twenty under the table so that he could still be the one to pay it. But, when he told the waiter to keep the change, “she hit me! ‘You leave such a big tip when it’s my money?!’”
Working with Sid Caesar
Mel retold the famous story of being held outside a hotel room by his belt after annoying Sid Caesar (I’ve actually already retold this one over here), but he told another one I don’t remember hearing. While in the car with Sid, Caesar’s car scratched the side of a taxi cab, and as you might expect, the cab driver yelled angrily at Sid. Mel begged Caesar not to get out of the car, but Sid insisted he was just going to talk to him.
Seeing the giant, hulking man that is Sid Caesar getting out of the car, the cab driver began to roll up the window, leaving only the triangular vent window open. Sid began to shout at the cabbie, “Excuse me, can you remember your birth? Do you remember when you were born?” The cab driver was confused, but Sid continued: “Try to remember when you were born! How you were born! Ah, you’ll never get it. I’m going to reenact it for you.” Sid reached through the small vent window, “grabbed the guy by his collar and started pulling him. He would’ve made sausage out of him!”
Mel tagged his story: “It’s all true! You don’t have to make up stuff. You just have to remember!”
Boxers or Briefs?
And this is only scratching the surface. I don’t know how he does it, but Mel is still going strong, only using the chair so he can pretend to fall asleep when the moderator asks him a question. Full of energy and stories, Mel, just like his movies, have aged quite well. And based on how spry he was in his performance last night, again, just like his movies, there’s a chance he might outlive us all.