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Mel Brooks considers his new prestigious five-DVD box set to be the Mel Brooks of prestigious five-DVD box sets. During our hour-long conversation in advance of The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy, he points out that Shout Factory, the label putting it out, are actually the Rhino Records guys. “They did Billie Holiday and Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald!” It’s obvious that Mel considers himself to be as funny as those people. And truth in advertising, the box set is pretty incredible: It contains classic interviews with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson; weird one-off specials on the BBC like An Audience with Mel Brooks; documentaries such as Excavating the 2000 Year Old Man; the pilot for Get Smart; Mel’s bizarre 1963 Oscar-winning animated short The Critic; and even his guest turn on Mad About You. The whole thing kicks off with his “Hitler Rap” from 1983. “I think I invented rap,” he says. “I was sensational!” Here’s what else he had to say about helping to elect the first black president, why there will never be a another Spaceballs, and making Anne Bancroft fall in love with him.
They say that television is going though another golden age, but it’s very different from the first golden age. The 2000 Year Old Man sketch has such an improvised tone, whereas it seems like today’s TV is so planned out.
They have so many minutes for advertising, so that ad libbing is a no-no. Did you know that when we did the Show of Shows, it was really a live show? If Sid Caesar’s fly was open, that was it. If he suddenly got a bug in his throat and coughed for five minutes, that was it. One time — this is true — they got the order of the sketches wrong. So Sid was dressed as a Roman gladiator, with a helmet and sandals with wings on them, and he had a spear and a shield and a breastplate and a skirt … and the stage manager shoved him out there, and the set for this sketch was a board meeting. Kind of a big-business board meeting, big long table and people with pens and pads, and boom! He’s there. They look at him, he looks at them, mouths open, and nobody says a word. Two minutes pass. And Sid gathers his senses — he was always the best — and says, “Those damn costume parties go on until dawn! I didn’t want to miss the meeting.” And then they went on with the sketch. And the goddam great thing about Sid is that he used it. One of the accountants was out of line, and he flattened him with his spear.
At one point, you took Sid aside and told him that he should move to Hollywood and compete with the Danny Kayes of the world. But he stayed in New York on TV.
That’s true. I took him aside. I suddenly had an epiphany: My god, Danny Kaye is on celluloid; Bob Hope is in Hollywood on celluloid; Red Skelton is on celluloid; Sid is better than them all! He’s the funniest guy who’s ever lived! It was about midnight on Sunday night, and I know that on Monday we had to be up early and come into work. Couldn’t wait. I ring his doorbell, he’s on 941 Park Avenue. He said, “Yeah, yeah, okay, come up, what’s the matter?” I come up. I say, “I gotta talk to ya.” And he figured I needed a raise and I’m going to quit. This is the kind of drama you pulled to get a raise. But I said, “No, no, no.” I said, “I just want to throw this at you: In less than two weeks, you’re going to sign a paper that’s going to commit you for another two or three years to Your Show of Shows.” [But] I said, “Let’s go to Hollywood. Let’s make some movies.” He said, “They’re paying me $5,000 a show.” I said, “To hell with the money.” He said, “You’re right. You’re goddam right.” The next day he calls me into his office and he says, “I can’t do it. They offered me $25,000 dollars a show.” And I was heartbroken. And that was it. And I kept writing material for him until I left the show in ‘59.
And your prophecy came true.
Sure. I did it myself. I swam to shore. I knew that I would be overcome by the waves of forgetfulness. I swam to a higher place where I could breathe. Right after I made enough money with Get Smart.
The box set saves so much of that television stuff.
It’s designed archivally to tell you where things came from and how things came to be born. And at the end of each DVD, there’s twenty minutes I talk about my movies. Each one. I explain my love, my life, you know, what movies mean to me, and some anecdotes from them. It kind of completes each disc.
It seems like your love of movies informed your television work, and then later you put that improvised television energy into your movies.
I loved genres. I loved horror. I loved Westerns where the guys in the white hats would always win and the bad guys would get their comeuppance. I loved Tarzan, and I loved the jungle pictures. And I loved early sci-fi where you could see the cardboard and the wires. It was a great splendid joy those movies gave to me as a kid. I lived for them. I was so happy. My mother grabbed me by the hair, dragged me home so I could have some dinner. Talk about a movie buff; I was an obsessive-compulsive moviegoer.
Do you think if you were growing up today with that obsessive-compulsive energy that you would’ve been put on Ritalin?
Ahhh, probably. Maybe. Maybe. No, the manic energy was only in and around the movies. Once I got out, I was normal. After an hour, when I was eating spaghetti, I was okay. I was normal. I was just digging into the next meatball; I was fine and happy. My nervousness and insanity never surrounded my home life, just my love of movies. There was no television in my childhood.
When you were writing for Sid Caesar, you couldn’t get out of bed and make it to work. You were perpetually late, coming in around noon or one. And your Carnegie Deli bagel and your coffee would precede your arrival.
Exactly. I just have trouble sleeping. To this day I have trouble sleeping. You know, why sleep? You’re wasting your time. You can think of a joke or something. I guess I loved the joy of sleeping until I was 5. Little kid in a carriage having a bottle of milk, in the sun, being wheeled around. What could be better? But after that, when there was fun to be had and things to be done.
What about school?
I fell asleep in school all the time. All the time. I was quick. I was, you know, fast. I could think my way with the teachers. I knew a smattering of every subject to get me by. E=MC2. I was covered.
There’s a 1983 BBC variety show, An Audience with Mel Brooks, where you bet Helen Mirren five pounds that your Hamlet can beat Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet. You lose, of course.
When I was listening to him, I knew: no chance.
It seems like a lot of your career is bringing the highbrow material a little lower.
It’s a very delicate balance. You don’t want to be a highbrow. Because then you’re just shoving intellectualism or artistic references in their face. What you want to do is pull them up a little bit so they get some of the beauty of Oscar Wilde or Nikolai Gogol or George Bernard Shaw, these great wits. Bring the audience up to it with you. I’ve always said the audience is smart. There’s always going to be someone in that audience who’s going to know just what your references are. In Blazing Saddles, there’s a guy they throw a rope around him, and he’s wearing a hat and a suit, and they drag him through the mud and he just says, “Well, that’s the end of this suit.” Somebody is going to get it. Earlier in my life, somebody would say, “Why are you wasting time with that? Nobody is going to get that.” But I had such great respect for the audience’s ability to find things and celebrate them.
Your most intelligent audience might have been when you watched High Anxiety next to Alfred Hitchcock at a test screening. You said he laughed twice.
He did, he got it. He poked me when the newspaper print swirled down the drain after Barry Levinson hit me with the newspaper. He poked me and said, [English accent] “Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
These jokes are immortal, but do you resent President Obama a bit for dampening the shock value of the Sheriff Buck character?
Oh, yeah, by making the black sheriff acceptable, he’s destroying my movie! [Laughs.] But it’s okay. I made the movie to help make that happen. He’s part of my great plan. My enormous plan that one day the black sheriff will be the president of the United states. He’s a wonderful guy. I got the Kennedy Center honors a couple years ago. He made a speech, and he was so good. He said, when he was 12, he snuck into Blazing Saddles and thought it was one of the greatest movies he’d ever seen. He said, “I guess I can say that because the statute of limitations has run out.” He was so sweet, so good. He patted me on the back, and I felt great. I must say, it was the same award that I turned down two years earlier when Bush was president. The honor for me wasn’t worth siding with the folks who invaded Iraq. I was a soldier in World War II. And you can get killed doing this thing, it’s never a good thing, but there was no reason to endanger all those lives.
Your love and respect for Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner and Neil Simon is obvious, but you did seem to know how funny you were.
There’s no sense beating around the bush and being modest. I’m one of the best! I didn’t mind tooting my own horn. Shame on me, but that’s the truth.
Did any of that confidence come from facing death in World War II?
Some of that comes from just getting away with it. My god, I have nothing to lose now: 88 shells bursting down the road twenty yards away, twenty yards sooner and I wouldn’t be here. What do I got to lose? I can be obnoxious as I want to be because I’m celebrating being alive.
There’s a lot of Carson appearances in the box set. And its obvious Johnny got a huge kick out of you.
Oh, yeah. There’s nobody like him. There are other guys, and all the late-night guys are good. But a lot of them wait for their chance to trump you. To get their joke in. But Carson, he was like an audience. He was just bewitched by your stories and your talent. He would be like a little kid. I would do Jews at the Mountains, or the Cary Grant story, I did all my stuff. There was just that benign, munificent smile on his face. It would be a pleasure to look at! He was great.
So, what do you think has changed? The new guys are a little too eager? They need to get their hits in?
The younger guys are a little braver. I think Jimmy Fallon and Conan and Kimmel, I think those guys are pretty brave. I think they’re taking it back to a better place.
So you think they’re braver than Leno and Letterman?
Well, I, uh …
Come on! You fought in the Battle of the Bulge, you can say whatever you want.
I think because they’re working for bigger networks, and more commercials are at stake, and they’re just a little more restricted in dealing with the show.
So maybe the same thing will happen to these guys when they move up an hour.
I hope they don’t. I hope they’re just up and coming for a long time.
You and Gene Wilder used to argue about how silly-funny he found you. He wishes you would play it a little straighter. And then you thought he was being too silly-funny with his scene in Young Frankenstein where he does “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with the monster.
Well, we had a big fight about that. Finally, I said it’s going to make the whole damn movie seem foolish if we have a musical number with “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” And he said, “Well, I think it’s a great way to show the monster’s talent and aptitude.” I said, “Well, all right, we’ll shoot it and if I don’t like it, I can cut it out gracefully. You’d never know.” Then we looked at it, and I said, “Gene, it’s the best comedy in the picture. You’re absolutely right.”
So was Gene right about you being too silly-funny?
Gene was a consummate actor. He acted comedy beautifully from his heart. He was different.
He was going for truth rather than the laugh.
All the time, all the time. Dom Deluise was amazingly funny, but he didn’t give a shit about the truth; he just cared about the laughs. And he got many of them.
So, what’s your philosophy? Is getting the laugh the ultimate litmus test for comedy, or is it about something deeper?
You know, I’m kind of selfish, I want the laugh. But I want it to be a smart joke. Or at least a joke that tells the audience, I’m aware of the human condition. I’m aware of what goes on in our minds and our hearts.
Or our colons. That’s why the farting scene in Blazing Saddles is actually so memorable.
What would really happen if they’re scraping beans off a tin plate, they’re drinking black coffee — they’ve gotta make gas! And in every Western I’ve ever seen, they don’t make a peep!
The relationship between you and Anne Bancroft is alluded to throughout the boxed set. There’s a talk show called “How to Be a Jewish Son” where you talk about what a disaster it was when Anne met your mother, and you talk about converting from Judaism to Catholicism. Any truth to that, or just going for the laugh there?
No, no, no. If you’re in a lot of trouble, and you want to tell God to help you, and you make a Jewish star, it’s going to take a little while. Sign of the cross? Ten seconds, boom, I’m covered. That was that joke. But I wasn’t going to change my religion, and Anne never asked me to.
So with regard to religion, you guys went Dutch.
We were in love for 45 years until she died. I thank God for that wonderful, wonderful period. She was incredibly supportive, and I was to her. Every once in awhile, you know, when she’d do something there would be three great reviews and one terrible review. And that one terrible review would be crushing. And I would stay up all night with her. And the same thing with me. I remember when we were just married, only about a year or so, and The Producers came out and the New York Times really smashed it.
They called Zero Mostel fat!
It was just … but she was with me all night. It was a very difficult night. I kept saying, “Look, I can always go back to television. I was very successful with The Show of Shows. I was really successful with Get Smart. I’ve got some other ideas for good television shows.” And she said,” Never. You’re an artist, and you’ve got to make movies, and you were born to do it. And you are going to do it.” She was incredibly beautiful and supportive. And I went on because of her. If I wasn’t married to her, there would’ve been another I Love Lucy. I would’ve gone to where I was welcome.
She pushed you.
She pushed me. As a matter of fact, I needed an opening song for the chorus of “Twelve Chairs.” And she gave me a yellow pad and said, “I have a piano in the attic. I’ll see you in the morning.” And it took me all night and I did. I wrote “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.” She had faith in me.
I don’t want to be disrespectful, but Anne Bancroft was a huge catch. How did you sweet-talk her?
She was doing a guest spot on the Perry Como show. He had Jimmy Durante and Anne Bancroft. It was a great show, and I was in the audience for rehearsal because I was working on a show called All American on Broadway with Charles Strouse, Buddy Strouse who wrote Bye Bye Birdie. He said he had to stop by and see Anne Bancroft, she’s doing something at the Actor’s Studio and I’m going to be playing piano for her. I said Anne Bancroft? Really. Wow. Beautiful and funny. And she came out in a white dress, and I was in love. That’s it. BAM. That’s it. So with the end of her number, it was just a rehearsal, they weren’t filming or anything, I said, “Anne Bancroft! I’m Mel Brooks! And I love you!” And she laughed, and after rehearsal, she came up to Buddy Strouse, and I was introduced, and she said, “So you love me?” And I said, “I do, I do.” So we walked outside, and she said “I need a cab,” and I whistled. And she told me later that whistle sealed it.
Have you ever gotten approached to remake Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein?
Yeah, I have. There was some talk about doing a kind of animated version of Blazing Saddles, called Blazing Samurai. It might still be in the works. And it sounded cute to me. It’s okay with me. I’ve got the originals. I’ve got the negatives. I’ve got the Real McCoy. If their version doesn’t work well, that’s okay. Let ‘em try. I’m not going to stop anybody who has a great love for one of my movies and wants to try their version.
Like parodying Hitchcock with High Anxiety.
I used to come to his bungalow on the Universal lot and talk to him. He said, “You’re missing one of my movies. The Birds.” I said, “I thought of The Birds, but it’s kind of expensive.” He said, “You’ve got to do The Birds, because I could just see them shitting all over you.”
So Hitch gave you that joke?
Yeah! He didn’t say a word after watching the rough cut with me. He walked out without saying a word. Oh Jesus. Oh my God. He hates it. The next day, I got a beautiful wooden case of Chateau Haut-Brion. It’s one of the five great wines.
You have any left?
I have three left. 1961. And these are magnums. They’re worth a fortune. But I can’t bring myself to drink it because I think of this fabulous guy, this fabulous man. This sweetheart of a guy. Now he’s pilloried because they say he was a sexual maniac when it came to Tippi Hedren. You know, there may have been a pass here and there — I don’t blame him — but I can’t see it. Maybe they’re trying to make something more exciting. It’s a show. Anthony Hopkins is playing him, and the subject matter — I can’t wait to see it — is Psycho, and what he told me is that he had to raise money for it himself. The great Alfred Hitchcock, the studio wouldn’t put up the money for it. But he put up the money, and that’s what made his fortune.
They’re going to have Star Wars 7. You never did History of the World Part II.
That was a joke! I’m sorry I did that, the kids kept writing me letters asking when are we going to see part two.
Or Spaceballs 3: The Search for Spaceballs 2.
That was in the movie. And that was a dead-on joke. How could people think there would be another Spaceballs? I mean, when you ring the bell, Spaceballs is great. It rang the bell. I couldn’t do better. What can I tell you.
Here’s a clip of Brooks on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: