By Mike Sacks, Vanity Fair
Although responsible for such comedy classics as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs, not to mention 2001's multi-Tony-Award-winning musical The Producers, Mel Brooks is not one to rest on his laurels--a good thing, as his laurels might very well let out a high-pitched squeak when sat upon.
One of the few artists to have won an Emmy, an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Tony, Brooks, over the course of his six-decade career, is also infamous for his countless late-night-talk-show appearances, many of which have now been collected on the six-DVD boxed set, The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged, out this month from Shout! Factory. Also included are sketches from the 1950s series Your Show of Shows (where Brooks served as a writer), guest spots on various sitcoms (including Mad About You and The Tracey Ullman Show), and his rarely seen, award-winning 1963 animated short, The Critic.
In this exclusive VanityFair.com interview, Brooks talks at a frantic clip about various topics, including what it was like to work in one of the most celebrated writers' rooms in TV history, why the Western-themed flatulence joke in Blazing Saddles nearly got cut (so to speak), and why laughter just might be our only effective balm for our inevitable demise.
The Hollywood Blog: You might be responsible for getting more people into the field of comedy writing than any other person in the history of mankind.
Mel Brooks: You've left out Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and a couple of others.
Yes, but the writers' room at Your Show of Shows is seen as the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees--as good as it gets. The image of bantering with writers of such talent, I'm sure, influenced more than a few writers to go into the comedy field.
Maybe, but it wasn't all fun and laughs. It wasn't all like the [Neil Simon play] Laughter on the 23rd Floor. We worked hard. There was a hostility in the air. It was very highly charged. It had to be, you know? The room was filled with this amazing talent, and it was competitive. Sometimes the room was just bathed in laughter. Other times, the competition was fierce. You'd brawl over each line, each joke, each idea.
You're not making it out to be like the writing room on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
When you have that many creative minds fighting over so much creative material, it's bound to get heated. These shows were weekly, live; each of them was 90 minutes long.
Looking back, I do think the writing staff was about the best bunch of comedy writers ever assembled under one roof. You had Joe Stein, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba. Larry Gelbart, who created [the TV show] M*A*S*H and who wrote the screenplay to Tootsie. Brilliant. You had Mike Stewart, who was just the typist for the room! He later went on to write Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! This was the typist, not even a writer for the show!
You've talked in the past about how the Warner Bros. executives were not thrilled with all of scenes in Blazing Saddles. Were there any particular scenes they wanted cut?
The executives didn't want the farting scene kept in the movie. They wanted that out. I told them I would get rid of it, but I never touched it. Obviously, that scene, as well as others the executives didn't like, were kept.
The scenes that were eventually cut had to do with racial issues. There was an interracial love scene between Cleavon Little and Madeline Kahn that had to be cut short. What you see in the movie is the lights go out and Madeline says, "Oh, it's true, it's true!" The joke we had written was for Cleavon to then say, "Excuse me, ma'am. I hate to disillusion you, but you're sucking on my arm." We had to tone down the racial aspect of that scene. It was too much for its time.
Blazing Saddles is now considered a comedy classic, but at the time it wasn't loved by critics. What do you think they missed when Blazing Saddles was released in 1974?
I think they missed the irony. They missed the satire. They missed the greater message. As a writer, you can appeal to the critics. It can be done. But you'd lose half the audience.
It was also the subject matter. In The Producers, which the critics also despised, the main problem was that we were dealing with a subject--Nazis--that up to that point had never been dealt with. Even now it's hard to deal with. You see a film like Life Is Beautiful; it can fail miserably. You've got to know how to do it. It's tricky. You have to have the perfect vehicle, the perfect Trojan Horse. For me, that vehicle was the worst musical in the world. And by using that vehicle, I could get across more serious topics. The musical became an orgasm of insanity that allowed everything else.
You once described your comedy as midnight blue, not black. What's the difference for you between those two hues?
I've never been hopeless, I've never been despondent, but sometimes I will hit tremendous lows. And I feel that I've got to show that in comedy. I need to show that characters can be despairing but not suicidal. They can be agonizingly despondent but they never quit. They will always go on to the next step; they will always get back up the ladder. Midnight blue is that thin brushstroke. It's not pitch black. It's the color just before darkness comes at sunset. Or just after the lightness arrives after sunrise.
Is it true that you based Zero Mostel's character in 1969's The Producers on a real-life character that you knew?
I did. I worked for that guy. He was a producer; he put on shows. For one show, I worked everything: I was the stage manager, I was the assistant producer, I was one of the actors. This was in the early 40s. It was called Separate Rooms, and the play was about a theatrical event. I played a character named Scoop Davis, and I had one line, the opening line. I ran out on the stage and screamed, "We made it! It's a hit! It's the greatest thing since pay toilets!" That was my opening.
I'd put up advertising cards in barbershops for this producer. I can't tell you his name because he has grandchildren, and I don't want them to know he screwed a lot of little old ladies. But that character was based on a real person. There's a line in the movie that comes from real life. It's absolutely true; I heard this guy say it. In the movie, Zero Mostel says to a little old woman, "Make out the check to Cash." And she says, "Cash? That's a funny name for a play." And he says, "Well, so is The Iceman Cometh." That comes from real life.
Your son Max is also a writer. He's the author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, but, for a time, he was a writer on Saturday Night Live. From what you've seen, how different was the creative process for a writer on S.N.L. versus Your Show of Shows?
You know, Saturday Night Live is really fun, but Max was one of 18 writers on the show. That's a lot. He slept under his desk in a sleeping bag. He got very few jokes onto the show, very few. I think he got one or two sketches in the two or three years he was there. For some of them, he'd say to me, "Why did they turn that down?" I'd answer, "I would have used that." He wrote a commercial parody for a medication that had side effects like nausea, headache, abdominal pain. Max added "sudden bouts of anti-Semitism." I think that's great. The things that could happen if you ever took this medicine. . . .
Things worked differently on Your Show of Shows. We'd never throw anything out that we could piece together or sharpen.
That's a very Depression-era mentality. Don't ever throw anything out.
Absolutely. "Why are you cutting the ends off the sandwiches just to make sandwiches for high tea? What are you doing?! You could live for years on those crusts!" Yeah, the writers grew up with that mentality, and we never threw away a joke that we thought we could eventually use.
Why do you think Sid Caesar's career was so successful in the beginning and yet didn't sustain itself through the years?
Well . . . [Long pause] My brother Lenny was a waste gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress in World War II. He told me that unless you fired your .50-caliber machine gun in short bursts, the bullets would go askew. If you shot in long bursts, parts of the rifle would burn out. And you wouldn't be able to get a true aim on an enemy fighter. So short bursts, always short. We knew that Sid would be outrageously funny in short bursts. But too much of a good thing didn't work. You could never have an audience accept Sid in a movie playing a grocery man or candy-store owner or a cab driver. There was too much genius. Just too much.
Did you ever have any thoughts over the years of writing a novel? Or short humor fiction for The New Yorker, similar to what Woody Allen writes?
Max, my son, has a wonderful narrative skill. His images are beautiful and so perfect, and you always know just where you are and what's happening. And I don't have that. I am a dialogue professional. Nobody can write better ping-pong than I can, the back and forth. But you need a great deal of narrative skill, like a Tolstoy, to write a novel.
It's odd that even writers considered at the top of their games, such as yourself, notice weaknesses in their work that others might not see.
You'll notice that with anyone, in any profession. You'll see a golfer who looks perfect, but there's something about his skill that won't match his expectations. And you know, it has to be that way. You should never be totally content with yourself.
Are you still affected after all these years in the business when an audience laughs at something you've written?
Oh, it's the best. The best thing in the world is writing a joke, having an audience get it. I will never grow tired of that. It's magical.
You once said that you were afraid of death, and that humor is your scream and protest against the good-bye. You said this years ago. Do you still believe that?
I kind of do. I kind of do. We're all afraid of dying. When you're laughing, it's hard to think of death. So I think, basically, yeah, that still works.
Do you feel that your work, your writing, is your chance at immortality?
I don't know. I don't think there is any immortality, really. But it's a chance to live a little longer, to be around a little longer, and for your great-great-grandchildren to maybe see something you've done. It's like scratching your name in the bark of a tree. "I was here. I did something. I made my mark. And I will not be completely erased by death.
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