Sunday, 11 September 2011
Mel Brooks Interview
The friendship between Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett may not be as widely trumpeted as the one between Brooks and his longtime collaborator Carl Reiner, but the two first met in the mid-’60s while working on an advertising campaign for a beer manufacturer, and have remained close ever since. In December 2010, Brooks and Cavett sat down at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills to tell tales of their lives and times, even bringing “surprise” guest Reiner into the proceedings for a story or two. The resulting performance, Mel Brooks And Dick Cavett: Together Again, premières on HBO tonight. The A.V. Club spoke to Brooks before the special, discussing his friendships with Cavett and Reiner, the experience of co-writing Blazing Saddles with Richard Pryor, the unexpected increase in the number of Spaceballs fans over the years, and whether he’d ever tell his fans to go fuck themselves.
Mel Brooks: I want you to know I’m completely unprepared.
The A.V. Club: I’ll try to go easy on you.
MB: But that’s the way I always am. [Laughs.] It’s better. It’s so much better, I find. You know, the first two records that Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks made [as] The 2,000 Year Old Man, we weren’t in business yet. We were kind of still entertaining ourselves and some friends. Like, we’d go to a dinner party with friends, and they’d say, “Do The 2,000 Year Old Man!” So I never knew what Carl would ask me, and it always turned out to be somewhat more insane and funnier that way. The first two albums we did, 2,000 Years and 2,001 Years, were just off-the-cuff. Ad-libbed. After that, we made a third one, which I think was called At The Cannes Film Festival, and we had to have subjects, at least. Not jokes. We never wrote jokes. But we wrote subjects. Who would the characters be, and where were the settings and stuff, so I’d get an idea. Quite often, it was better if he said like, “I’m here in the studio of the famous Greek sculptor, Andreas Vutcenis,” or whatever. [Laughs.] And then we would talk for a while, and then we’d either get lucky or not lucky. Quite often, we’d get lucky. Like, if he said, “That’s beautiful! Why did you create it, and why do you display it in such a strange place as above your doorway?” I’d say, [In the voice of The 2,000 Year Old Man] “Well, that’s not really one of my sculptures. I didn’t really make it. Somebody brought it in and put it there. It’s called the air conditioner.” So we’d get lucky just being foolish and ad-libbing. That’s why I wanted you to know I’m totally unprepared: depending on what you ask, you might get an answer in a Jewish accent.
AVC: Together Again kicks off with a clip of you stepping onto the stage of Dick Cavett’s talk show in 1970, but you’d actually worked with him before that, though, right?
MB: Oh, yeah, we did the Ballantine Beer commercials. I was the 2,500 Year Old Brewmaster. [Laughs.] A lot of it was good. All of it was ad-libbed. Of course, since it was commercials, he had one or two stopping points where he had to mention the name of the beer. But it was great. We really enjoyed it.
AVC: Was that your first encounter with Cavett, or had you met him before that?
MB: It was before he had his show, so yeah, it was the very first time I’d encountered him. And I remember saying, “You know, for someone who’s not Jewish, you’re pretty good.” [Laughs.] And he took it the right way. It was meant to be just a silly joke.
AVC: And you’ve kept in touch over the years?
MB: Oh, yeah, he’s always calling me from Montauk, telling me that he was at a restaurant the other night and he overheard what people said, and if it’s particularly engaging and funny, he’ll call me and tell me. We talk maybe once or twice a month and just catch up. He was surprisingly funny [on the special]. In fact, he was too damned funny. I like him to be kind of genteel and witty. I told him that. “On the show, I don’t want you to be really funny. I want you to be witty. I can always top witty with belly laughs. But I can’t top really funny. So don’t be really funny.” [Laughs.] And he was bad. Which is to say that he was really funny. Many times. He told that terrible, terrible story about Tallulah Bankhead. [Laughs.] Wow. That was really… shocking. And wonderful. And then, you know, every once in a while he would say something like, he imitated Alfred Hitchcock speaking and said, [Doing a Hitchcock impression] “Grace Kelly was the most promiscuous woman I have ever met.” I’m like, “Where did this come from?” [Laughs.] But I love him. And I’m so glad that we did this, because outside of Carl Reiner, I’m really not that comfortable onstage with other partners. But I was comfortable with Cavett.
AVC: I actually contacted Cavett to see if there were any questions that he didn’t get to ask you during Together Again.
MB: You did? [Laughs.] What did he say? What did he say?
AVC: “With your background, what did your parents tell you about Santa?”
MB: [Admiringly] Oh, that was good. That was good. I would’ve said, “Never heard of the guy. Jews never heard of this guy, you know. The only time we ever met him, I think he was doing a bit for Coca-Cola. He had a nice red face, and he was drinking a Coke. That was the only time I ever saw Santa.” [Laughs.] That’s pretty good. That’s a pretty good question. Look at this guy! He still comes up with ’em!
AVC: Speaking of Carl Reiner, what an astonishing coincidence that he should happen to have been in the audience for the taping of the show.
MB: Yeah, well, I said, “You’d better be there, because we’re going to throw a spotlight on Seat R2, and there’s gonna be a mic there, so you might as well sit there. Because I’m sure he’ll bring up The 2,000 Year Old Man, and you’re gonna have to give us the genesis, because you’re the architect.” [Laughs.] I don’t want to take any credit or responsibility for The 2,000 Year Old Man. That’s all Carl.
AVC: The rapport and comic timing between the two of you kicks in the second he steps up to the mic. Is the friendship as strong now as it was then?
MB: Yeah, as a matter of fact, we… do weird things. [Laughs.] We entertain each other. I remember once about—oh, I don’t know, was it a year ago or so? He took a band off a cigar that he’d been given—he doesn’t smoke anymore—and it was so beautiful, the cigar band, that he put it on his finger and was admiring it. And I said, “Where’d you get that ring? It’s a beautiful ring.” He said, “No, it’s just a cigar band.” I said, “Are you kidding? They wouldn’t take the time and trouble. Look at all the work that went into that! That’s not a cigar band. That’s a ring, man!” [Laughs.] And, you know, we’d go back and forth with that. Just two Jews in a room, no audience. Once in a while, we crack up and fall on the floor.
AVC: So you two still hang out regularly?
MB: Oh, yeah, I still see Carl two, three times a week.
AVC: During the special, Cavett discusses how Bob Hope’s visit to Lincoln, Nebraska, was more or less the first time he’d ever been face to face with a real star.
MB: He does. And he says something brilliant: “There was nothing between us but air.” I thought that was just magical. A wonderful descriptive phrase.
AVC: Do you remember your first significant celebrity encounter?
MB: You wouldn’t know mine. It was a guy named Larry “Buster” Crabbe. He played Flash Gordon, and he was Tarzan for a year or two, back when Johnny Weissmuller abdicated or something. So there was Larry “Buster” Crabbe, and he was at a Loews theater in Brooklyn. And in those days, they did a movie, maybe two movies, and they’d shill by doing a little revue—a couple of juggling acts and stuff—then bring out the star. And the star at this one was Larry “Buster” Crabbe. So I was 12 or 13, and it was really thrilling to see him there. I waited back at the stage door, there’s an alley, and there were a couple of people, and I was [high-pitched gasp]. But I was a smart little kid, and when he came out, I screamed, “Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, you’re the best thing since sliced bread!” And he really laughed. He got such a kick. He said, “How old are you?” I said, “I’m 12, and I loved the show. Can I please have your autograph? I know it’s a bother.” And that’s the first autograph I ever got. Larry “Buster” Crabbe! Flash Gordon! His act was altogether foolish. I mean, they provided him with a crazy act with quick-change costumes where he was Flash Gordon for a while, then he was Tarzan, and then I think he was Sherlock Holmes. And, believe me, he was the furthest thing in the world from Sherlock Holmes. [Laughs.] Talk about a miscast. Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Sherlock Holmes? With an Indiana accent? So anyway, that was the first celebrity I ever met. My heart stopped. I couldn’t believe I saw him in person. “That’s the guy who saved everybody on planet Earth!”
AVC: You talk in the special about how you developed a certain degree of friendship with Alfred Hitchcock, whose films were the direct inspiration for High Anxiety. Did you hear from any other actors or directors from genres you parodied?
MB: Well, first of all, I admired Hitchcock so much. I was just head over heels in love with him and his work. I don’t think he was ever nominated for an Academy Award—he certainly never won one—and I tried to figure out why. I said, “Why the hell not?” [Although Hitchcock’s only Oscar was the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, he did actually pull five Best Director nominations during his career. —ed.] I mean, my God, Psycho, The Birds, North By Northwest… the most insanely creative guy. Even the early stuff like Saboteur, the very early works, you could see there was a master of film. Maybe the best director in the world, and he never won. And I finally figured it out. I said, “I know why I have never been nominated for an Academy Award for directing.” The only Academy Awards I’ve ever won, one was for The Critic, a cartoon [short], and the other was for The Producers, for the screenplay. But Hitchcock wasn’t taken seriously because he was a personality. He did the TV show [Alfred Hitchcock Presents], and he was ribald and witty. And friendly. And you know, intimacy breeds contempt. You’ve got to be lofty. Got to be Fred Zinnemann or somebody we don’t know to get an Academy Award. Not a personality.
There was a semi-personality, though, and that was the other director I was going to talk to you about, the other director I was in love with and thought was a great artist: Billy Wilder. He had seen my work. So did Hitchcock. He loved Blazing Saddles. Every once in a while, he would say, “You know, you’re very bright. You’re very good.” It was wonderful to get praise from those guys. And Billy Wilder, he loved The Producers. He thought it was a work of genius. So I hung around with him, and I asked him all kinds of questions. I had lunch with him and followed him around like a poodle. I loved him. I mean, a guy who could do Some Like It Hot and could also do Ace In The Hole. I thought it was the most dramatic movie I’d ever seen. Such drama. And then he could do The Fortune Cookie. He could do a comedy. He could do any kind of picture. He was just a master director.
AVC: How was the experience of working on Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David?
MB: Oh, that was great. I mean, that’s the guy. He is the guy. He’s that pain-in-the-ass guy. [Laughs.] He is! He’s very argumentative, and he always thinks he’s right! But it was a great experience. He has great flow. He goes with the punches. And I’m such an ad-lib type guy myself, so it was great. It was perfect. The vocal ping-pong on that show was all real, and most of it was made up. It was great. It was a great experience. But you know, you’d never want to live with him. He’s not anybody that I think anybody would ever want to live with. Right or wrong, he’s so damned opinionated. And contemptuous of any ideas but his own. [Laughs.] But you get what you pay for, and he’s worth it.
AVC: You’ve worked with Larry David, you’ve worked with Paul Reiser. Are there any current comedians you’d like to work with?
MB: I don’t know. Nobody’s asked me. But I like a lot of stuff. Mad About You was very fun. Because they gave me this insane character in Uncle Phil, so I could comb my hair crazy and behave in a truly insane fashion, which, you know, half of me is really, truly insane. And I will do extraordinary things. You know, I never stuck to the script on that show, which they must’ve found crazy, because other actors have to wait for the right line to come in on. So finally I at least decided to give them the last line of each speech, so I could give them their entrance. [Laughs.] But I really enjoyed working with Helen Hunt and Paul. They’re so good. So talented.
AVC: The A.V. Club did a piece recently called “Heckling Hitler: 15-plus attempts to make the Führer funny,” which included The Producers and both versions of To Be Or Not To Be, and the whole thing was more or less inspired by a comment you made to Spiegel International: “With comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power.” Do you think you’ve succeeded on that front?
MB: Well, yeah, I think. You get on a soapbox, and these guys are brilliant orators, but you can cast a spotlight of ridicule. You’re gonna bring anybody down if you make fun of them and people laugh at them. So that was my mission. I did a wonderful bit, and it’ll be on—I’m working on a Mel Brooks box set. I don’t know what that is, but I’m working on it.
AVC: That’s for Shout Factory, right?
MB: Yeah, for Shout Factory. It should be out next summer. Or Christmas. I don’t know. But I’m getting things together for it like “The Hitler Rap” that I did for To Be Or Not To Be. A lot of weird stuff. There may actually be 15 minutes in the box set on Hitler. You know, he’s been a very important source of revenue for me. [Laughs.] Adolf Hitler. We’re getting even with him!
AVC: Nostalgia obviously pays pretty big dividends for you, but have you given any thought to writing a new script or directing a new film?
MB: No, but a lot of people have been after me to do a Broadway production of Blazing Saddles: The Musical. And I’ve got a few good ideas for songs and for production numbers and such, how to open it up. And it’s a pretty good idea, because it’s almost a musical in and of itself. Just that one number that Madeline Kahn did, it took to the heavens, it was so beautiful, her performance of it. “I’m Tired,” you know, when she did the Marlene Dietrich take-off. Just that alone, it would be worth the evening for, I think. So, you know, I’ve got to think about it. It’s pretty dangerous stuff, using the N-word. I wouldn’t shy away from it, but I don’t know if I could get away with it. I got away with it then. I don’t know if I could get away with it today. [Laughs.] But if I did it, I certainly would go all the way.
AVC: You got “street cred,” as it were, for Blazing Saddles by bringing in Richard Pryor to work on the script. How did you first run into him?
MB: I think I saw Richard Pryor in New York. I think he was at the Vanguard. I was writing Your Show Of Shows, and I told him, “You’re an absolute genius. I mean, you just condense life and you put it into a 40-minute show. People, relationships, fear of death… you’ve got everything. You just tell the truth in a stark, honest, crazy fashion. You’re really terrific, and I want to be your friend.” And we were friends for a long time.
AVC: What was the collaborative process like on the script, given your different comedic sensibilities?
MB: Well, you know, one of the writers was a dentist. Al Uger. He was Norman Steinberg’s partner. So he gave us the dental point of view on the Old West, whatever that is. [Laughs.] Steinberg was a young lawyer who wanted to be a comedy writer and not a lawyer, so we got the legal point of view on the Old West. You would think that Richard Pryor would give you the black view. You know, the black guy’s torment and broken heart. But no, he loved Mongo. He wrote, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” Brilliant. He loved Mongo, so a lot of Mongo was Richard Pryor. And I wrote a lot of the black stuff, always checking with Richard. “Can I say this? Can I say that?” Like, I would do some bad black jokes, and Richard would say, “Good, go with it, fine.” And every once in awhile, he’d say, “Yeah, that’s all right to say that. But that’s not funny.” He was terrific.
Blazing Saddles happened this way: I’m walking down the street and I hear somebody say, “Looking for change?” I look up, and it’s David Begelman. He’s running a big agency with Freddie Fields—CMA—and he says, “You know, something came into my office the other day from Richard Zanuck and David Brown. It’s called Tex X.” I said, “That’s an intriguing title. What is it?” He says, “It’s about a black sheriff in 1874 and how they want to string him up.” I said, “You know, I like to write my own stuff.” But I was broke, my wife was pregnant, and he said, “Well, you know, maybe I can get you some real money if you write and direct it. Come back to my office.” I came back to his office and read this treatment by… I think it was by [Andrew] Bergman, all by himself. I read it, I loved it, and I called Bergman and said, “If I do this, would you write it with me?” He said, “Absolutely.” I said, “And we need a black guy to validate any use the N-word.” [Laughs.] “We can’t do that. And there’ll be a lot of it, because there’ll be rednecks who’ll be happy to use the N-word at the drop of a hat.” So he says, “Sure.” And I say, “Also, I like this kid Norman Steinberg.” By the way, Norman Steinberg went on to do My Favorite Year for my production company. Beautiful, beautiful movie. And he’s a great writer. So I said to Begelman, “Okay, we’ll do it. And I’ll direct it.” So we all sat in an office in New York, and when it got to be two or three in the morning and there was nothing open but Chinatown, we’d go down to Chinatown and have Chinese food and keep writing. [Laughs.] We just enjoyed each other’s company. And it turned out to be quite an unusual and crazy, funny, brave script. I kept saying to all the other writers, “Write anything you want. Write from the bottom of your heart. Write from your unconscious if you can get in there. Write everything you can, because this ain’t gonna get made, anyway.” [Laughs.] And strangely enough, Warner Bros. liked it.
It’s a great, great story, the birth of Blazing Saddles. We wrote it. I went to Hollywood, I filmed it. There was a rough cut, I showed it to [Warner Bros. executive] John Calley and [Warner Bros. chairman] Ted Ashley and… well, there was a lot of different people. And Calley was the only one who chuckled. There were no laughs. I mean, Jesus, you figure you’d get a few! But Leo Greenfield, who was in charge of distribution then, said, “I’ve never said to anybody in this company, ‘Let’s eat this picture, just pay for it, eat it, never show it, because it would embarrass the company.’ I’m saying it now.” [Laughs.] He says, “This is too embarrassing. We can’t release this picture.” So we were finished, you know, because they all kind of agreed that it was just too irreverent, too crazy, cast a bad light on Warner Bros.
So Michael Hertzberg, who was the producer of it—and of The Twelve Chairs, also—said, “I’ve arranged for a screening at Studio Screening Room 12, it’s the biggest screening room at Warner Bros., and I’ve invited every secretary, every assistant, everybody.” Two hundred seats. Strangely enough, come 7 o’clock that night, there were about 300 people there, all packed in, sitting in the aisles, going against fire regulations. And almost as soon as the Warner Bros. logo burst into flame and burned away like an old-fashioned Western, when the Chinese worker who’s building the railroad faints from 110-degree heat and Slim Pickens says, “Dock that chink a day’s pay for napping on the job,” right from there, they never stopped guffawing, laughing, falling over themselves. It really was an old-fashioned laff riot. That’s L-A-F-F. And it must’ve gotten back to some of the executives, because suddenly they’re saying, “Well, let’s open it in three cities, in theaters like the East Side of New York, the Loop in Chicago, and Sunset Boulevard in L.A.” So they opened it in these three cities, and it got all kinds of great reviews, really. Ebert and Siskel went nuts for it in Chicago. It just was great. And then slowly but surely they fed it to some more cities and many theaters, and it was a big hit. But I thought we were finished. I thought that was the end of it. But when the reviews first came out for my first movie, The Producers, Renata Adler—you don’t forget the names—of The New York Times crucified it, and I said, “Look, I made a living with Get Smart, I can go back to television.” That’s what I thought. I thought that was the end of my movie career.
AVC: Your comedy is generational to the point where it seems like the majority of your younger fans are holding up Spaceballs as your defining work.
MB: They do. They do! You know, kids come over to me at various places—theaters, restaurants, and stuff—and they talk about Spaceballs and even Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I don’t know if they’ve even heard of Blazing Saddles!
AVC: Does it surprise you that your fan base has developed in such a way that different films appeal to different generations?
MB: It is amazing. Well, you know, Spaceballs is a weird combination, because it’s a simple, sweet little fairytale, and it’s crazy and out-there and making fun of and taking apart sci-fi, Star Wars, and Star Trek. So the kids, they get it. They’re with it. And all the little girls love it because it’s a little fairytale where the princess gets to marry the right guy.
AVC: With the ongoing fan base for Spaceballs, the time would seem to be right to finally do History Of The World, Part II: Jews In Space.
MB: Well, I mean, that’s just a great title. But there’s nothing behind it, you know, except what you saw on the screen: a couple of guys with teffilins doing a hora. That’s about it. [Laughs.] There ain’t much to write about with Jews in space, because very few of them will venture into space. You can find them in lobbies. They’ll be in lobbies in any great hotel or office building. But you won’t find too many Jews in space. I found the only ones—there were maybe half a dozen of ’em—and I filmed them.
AVC: Jumping back to the special, Cavett tells how Jack Benny said to him of his over-exuberant fans, “Sometimes you just want to tell them to go fuck themselves.” Do you echo those sentiments? It seems like it’s probably only one “may the Schwartz be with you” away from happening at any given moment.
MB: No, no, never. I’m so grateful. I never thought I’d make a living not lifting, not driving, not working at a machine somewhere, making garments. [Laughs.] So I just think it’s a miracle that just for bullshitting and talking and making funny faces you get to pay the rent. They give you thousands of dollars, you can go into a restaurant and order anything you want. I can’t believe it. So I’ve never turned on my fans.
Let me tell you one more story, about Ronny Graham. Have you ever heard of Ronny Graham? He was the star and the MC back in 1952 when I had my first sketch on Broadway. It was called New Faces Of 1952, and Leonard Sillman was the genius behind it. He discovered a lot of people. He did New Faces Of 1934 and found Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca. And then he did New Faces Of 1952, and he discovered Paul Lynde and Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence and Robert Clary and Alice Ghostley. All wonderful, talented people. But the MC was Ronny Graham. And like I waited for Buster Crabbe, people would wait for Eartha Kitt, and Paul Lynde and Alice Ghostley to some degree, and they’d sign autographs. There was always a big tumult at the stage door of the Royale Theater at 45th Street. And for some reason, Ronny Graham would come out much later, and there was never anybody waiting for Ronny Graham or his autograph. But that didn’t bother Ronny. He would burst out of the door, saying, “Let me live! I have a life, too, you know! I can’t sign autographs every night! Give me a break! I can’t breathe here!” [Laughs.] He’d do this whole bit as if he was surrounded by an audience. It really had me on the floor. Every night, he’d say, “I’m just like you! I’m just an ordinary person!” So, anyway, fans, I’ve never been ungrateful. I’ve been assaulted by press and fans, but for me, it’s fine. It’s like chocolate pudding with whipped cream. Thank you, and thank you again. I’m glad to do it as long as I can.