After serving his apprenticeship as a writer on the legendary television comedy Your Show of Shows, Mel Brooks staked his claim to comedy greatness with the album The 2,000 Year Old Man, in which, as the eponymous sage/grump (think a slightly more Borscht Belt Bernie Sanders), he answers questions posed by interviewer and long-term collaborator Carl Reiner.
This, minus Reiner, was broadly the format of last night’s live conversation with Brooks at London’s Hammersmith Apollo following a screening of Blazing Saddles. Although nearly one-tenth the age of his creation (92), the writer-director-performer held a packed house rapt, still with a prodigious memory for anecdotes and jokes and the energy of a mere 60-something. And while some of the showbiz tales may have long been committed to memory (and some of the jokes nearly 2,000 years old themselves), Brooks came up with several sharp rejoinders on the spot in response to audience questions. Plus, still a consummate professional, he finished bang on time to the minute. On the day when President Trump blew into town, it was fortunate Brooks was on hand to remind a London audience what they love about Americans. In the course of the discussion, we gained several insights into Brooks’ background:
1. He got his start at the sour cream station
Like so many leading lights of his generation, Brooks began his career doing stand-up in the Borscht Belt resorts of the Catskills. But before that he was a drummer providing rimshots for the comedians, until one night a comic didn’t appear and the resort owner said, “Melvin, Murray is sick. Can you do the jokes?” and the rest is history. But before that, Brooks worked as a busboy, manning the sour cream station. “I would get a stainless steel tub of sour cream. I would bring it out to the dining room table. In five minutes it was empty,” he said. “The normal cholesterol rate in the Borscht Belt was 1,400.”
2. He showed High Anxiety to Alfred Hitchcock
With some trepidation, Brooks showed a rough cut of his Hitchcock tribute High Anxiety to the master himself, and to Brooks’s distress, Hitchcock left the screening without saying a word. But the next day a silver-wrapped box containing six magnums of fine wine arrived with a note saying “It’s a wonderful film. Love, Hitch.”
3. He was once thrown out of the window by Sid Caesar
On his second year as a staff writer on Your Show of Shows (where the writers room included Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon), Brooks was writing new material every night, working with showrunner and star Sid Caesar (who Brooks described as “the funniest guy that ever lived and the strongest comic that ever lived”) in a Chicago hotel room. “We worked very hard, but one night Sid drank about a bottle of vodka and was smoking his cigar,” Brooks recalled. “It was a hot summer night and I said ‘I need air, I can’t breathe,’ ” whereupon Caesar opened the window, grabbed the writer by his belt and collar, “and held me out over the street. I was in the air. I knew which taxis were empty. And he said, ‘Got enough air?’ ”
4. His first experience in Hollywood did not end well
Having been invited out to Hollywood to write Pal Joey for Columbia, Brooks made friends with a distinguished novelist and contract script writer named Alfred Hayes. One day when the two writers returned from lunch, they discovered Hayes’s name had been removed from the slot on his office door, the studio’s preferred method for letting a writer know they’d been fired. Outraged, Brooks snuck in with the janitors and “changed every name on every office at Goldwyn Pictures — about 500 names,” he recalled. This led to his being summoned by furious and fearsome studio boss Harry Cohn, “and Harry Cohn,” Brooks said, “he, y’know, knew people.” Producer Jerry Wald pleaded on Brooks’s behalf, urging Cohn, “He’s a funny kid. Don’t fire him.” “I don’t want to fire him,” Cohn said. “I want him killed!” And Brooks hastily returned to New York and YSoS.
5. Gene Wilder was not his first choice for the Waco Kid
When Brooks was casting Blazing Saddles, he “wanted the Waco Kid to be a real Western weathered face,” so when he noticed John Wayne sitting opposite him at lunch in the Warner Brothers commissary, he asked the star to read the script. Wayne, according to Brooks, declared it “the funniest script I ever read” but felt it was too filthy for his audience. Brooks’s next choice was the Oscar-winning actor Gig Young, a recovering alcoholic. Shooting his first scene as the Kid, Young was hung upside-down. But instead of delivering his line, “a lot of green stuff shoots out of his mouth,” Brooks recalled. After an ambulance took Young away, Brooks was crying and called Gene Wilder in New York. “I said ‘Gene, I’m in trouble,’ and he said ‘I’ll be right out.’ He flew out the next day. Gene saved the movie for me.”
6. He cut a line from Blazing Saddles on grounds of taste
Brooks had final cut on Blazing Saddles, and, he said proudly, “I cut almost nothing,” although after seeing a rough cut the head of Warner Brothers at the time had told him “’You got to cut out the farting scene. You can’t punch an old lady’ … I took about 20 notes. If I’d listened to him, it would have been a 12-minute movie.” But he did make one cut of his own volition. Dietrich-esque chanteuse Lili Von Shtupp is sitting in her darkened boudoir with black Sheriff Bart, asking, “Is it twoo what they say about you people? Is it twoo?” At that point, Brooks had the sheriff reply, “ ‘I hate to disappoint you there, Miss Von Shtupp, but you’re sucking on my arm.’ Even for me it was too much,” Brooks admitted.