This interview was originally broadcast on May 20, 2013.
Over the 60 years that Mel Brooks has been in the entertainment business, his name has become synonymous with comedy. He is the man who broke Broadway records for most Tony Award wins with The Producers (an adaptation of his own movie); who satirized Westerns and racism in Blazing Saddles; and who poked fun at monster movies with Young Frankenstein.
Before the films, there was his TV career: Brooks was a writer for Your Show of Shows, one of the most influential comedy series in television history and a precursor to Saturday Night Live; and he was the co-creator of the spy spoof series Get Smart.
Brooks, who is the subject of an American Masters documentary, Make a Noise from filmmaker Robert Trachtenberg, that premiered May 20 on PBS, says his penchant for spoofing genres was firmly in the tradition of poking fun out of love.
"I loved Westerns as a little kid, and I loved horror films," Brooks tells Fresh Air's David Bianculli. "I had fun with them, but I also saluted the glory of the Western and the glory of James Whale's Frankenstein and Dracula.
Brooks grew up in Brooklyn, raised by a single mother (his father died of tuberculosis when he was 2) who was just scraping by. Going to the movies was his introduction to a larger world, and his mother recognized this. Even though she couldn't afford it, she encouraged his enthusiasm, one time even asking a neighbor for the final penny to pay the price of a movie ticket. The neighbor acquiesced.
"I was able to go see the Western," Brooks remembers. "So I cherish those movies because they really lifted my spirits and are indelibly ingrained in my brain as important steps in my world education."
That neighbor made an excellent investment. Brooks is one of 11 people to have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — widely considered something of a benchmark in the entertainment world. And his position as an American institution was further cemented in 2009, when he was tapped for the Kennedy Center Honors.
Funny story, Brooks says: It wasn't the first time he'd been offered the award.
"I shouldn't say this ... but I'll say it anyway," he says. "I was offered this — the Kennedy Center Honors — maybe a year or two before, and I said, 'Well, I'm going to wait for another president, if I'm still alive, if you don't mind.' I just didn't feel comfortable when Bush was president to accept the honors. ... Had I not gotten 110 awards — you know, I'm an EGOT, so I don't need any more. ... The Kennedy Center Honors, at the moment, I didn't need them. ...
"The only award I haven't received, I think, is Woman of the Year, and I don't know if that's not in the works. Just as an honorary Woman of the Year. I may get that too, but I'm not looking for it."
On Hitchcock and 'High Anxiety'
"I wrote a letter saying, basically, 'Dear Mr. Hitchcock, I do genre parodies and in my estimation you are a genre. I don't mean that you're overweight. I mean that you've done every style and type of movie, and that you're just amazing, and I would like to do a movie dedicated to you based on your style and your work.' And ... he called me and he said, 'I loved Blazing Saddles. I think you're a very talented guy, and come to my office.'
"I came to his office at Universal, and he told me to come back every Friday at a quarter to 12, because at 12:30 we would eat. So 45 minutes of work. And he would work on my script — on High Anxiety — with me. And he said, 'Well, don't leave out this and don't leave out that.' And he said, 'What are you going to do about The Birds?' I said, 'Well, gee, at the moment I haven't included it.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you have them attack you with ... their doody? If they all sh-t all over you, I mean, it's going to be funny.' I said, 'Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Hitchcock.' "
On thanking Gene Wilder three times when he won an Oscar for The Producers
"Gene brought a certain something that was never before, that was kind of creative comedy. And he worked tirelessly to play Leo Bloom. He's really the nucleus, the brilliant key to the emotion of the whole piece — and Gene worked for almost scale, for nothing, day and night. And ... I couldn't thank him enough. When I finally put the movie together, I said, 'It would have been a good movie with just Zero Mostel and anybody, but with Gene Wilder it's a wondrous movie."
On Madeline Kahn
"I'm in tears thinking about Madeline. What an incredibly gifted gift from God, Madeline Kahn. The funniest and most talented comedienne I think, including people like Carol Burnett, who are great, you know, and Gilda Radner who was magnificent. But nobody — listen to me, David Bianculli — nobody could approach the magnificence and wonder of Madeline Kahn.
"She was really a great gift to us all. ... I saw art [in her], not just funny. But I saw a person who was gifted with art. She's the only one who actually could have worked in opera as an opera singer, as a coloratura. She was that talented. Or I think she could have worked as a longshoreman in New Jersey. I don't think there's anything that Madeline Kahn couldn't do."
On being good at writing for and directing women
"It was respecting their ability to deliver comedy as well as — and sometimes a lot better than — male comedians. And they knew that I respected their ability and their talent, and they gave all because of it. And they weren't ashamed or afraid to reveal maybe unconscious aspects of their comedy talent, [aspects that] may have been a little off-color or a little crazy or a little bizarre, that they wouldn't show anybody. But they'd show it to me, because they knew I respected the full range of their gifts."
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DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. This week on FRESH AIR, we've been replaying what we feel would be some of your favorite interviews of the year if we'd asked you. Today we reach back into our 2013 archives and revisit interviews with comic Amy Schumer and comedian, writer and filmmaker Mel Brooks.
The Mel Brooks interview certainly is one of the favorite things I did for FRESH AIR this year. I love the guy and his work. On TV, he wrote for "Your Show of Shows" and "Get Smart." On film, he wrote and directed "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety" and "The Producers." And on Broadway, his musical version of "The Producers" broke the record for the most Tony wins.
When I spoke with Mel Books in May, it was when PBS presented an "American Masters" special on Brooks by Richard Trachtenberg's called "Feel the Noise." Here's the opening story Brooks tells in that special about his formative introduction to the Broadway musical.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FEEL THE NOISE")
MEL BROOKS: OK, I'm nine years old. Uncle Joe drove a taxicab. One day he said, hey Mel, I got two tickets to a brand new show called "Anything Goes." And he said, well, it's a musical, it's on Broadway, and we've got two seats, the last two seats in the last row of the second balcony. It's thrilling and Broadway theater, I'm nine years old.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ETHEL MERMAN: Why, it's Gabriel, Gabriel playing, Gabriel, Gabriel saying...
BROOKS: I couldn't catch my breath. There was Ethel Merman, no microphones, and she was still too loud, you know, and it was two miles away. One incredible number after another. I was literally crying with happiness.
BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BROOKS: David Bianculli, a pleasure to be here.
BIANCULLI: What I love about that is that you have so much enthusiasm in your voice, and I've always thought that you couldn't really do a great parody of something unless you understood and enjoyed it.
BROOKS: True. I loved Westerns as a little kid, and I loved horror films, and I had fun with them, but I also saluted the glory of the Western and the glory of James Whale's, you know, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." And, you know, what does a little kid in Brooklyn have when it comes to art? It ain't much, but those movies that you got in, and we didn't have any money.
I was the baby boy of four - altogether we're four brothers. My mother lost her husband, I lost my - I was only two. And he died of tuberculosis. And we were really, you know, poor, I mean dead poor. So I cherished those movies because they really lifted my spirits and are indelibly engraved in my brain as important steps in my world education.
BIANCULLI: And what about, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whom you lampooned in "High Anxiety"? Those would have come a little later for you, but you clearly loved those too.
BROOKS: Much later, but I - I always thought, you know, that Alfred Hitchcock was the very best director who ever directed films. And I had the idea for "High Anxiety." I wrote a letter saying basically, dear Mr. Hitchcock, you know, I do genre parodies, and I - in my estimation you are a genre.
I don't mean that you're overweight. I mean that you - that you've done every style and every type of movie and that you're just amazing, and I would like to do a movie dedicated to you and based on your style and your work.
And he said - he called me, and he said I loved "Blazing Saddles." I think you're a very talented guy, and come to my office. I came to his office at Universal. And he told me to come back every Friday at a quarter to 12:00 because at 12:30 we would eat, so 45 minutes of work. And he would work on my script, on "High Anxiety," with me.
And he said, well, don't leave out this, and don't leave out that. He said, what are you going to do about "The Birds." I said, well, gee, at the moment I haven't included it. And he said, well, why don't you have them attack you with their - you know, with their doody. He said it's going to be funny. I said thank you, thank you, Mr. Hitchcock. I loved him.
He was colorful, he was sweet, and he saw the rough cut of "High Anxiety." And he got up and wiggled by me, never said a word. I said, oh my God - oh, I'm ruined, it's terrible. And he left, and 24 hours later a beautiful wooden box arrives placed on my desk.
It is six magnums of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1961, priceless, maybe the greatest wine ever made, including Rothschild or any other, and with a little note saying have no anxiety over "High Anxiety," it's wonderful, love Hitch.
BIANCULLI: "The Producers" I consider your masterwork, and you've worked it several very clever times. I want to start with the 1968 movie and play a fast clip and then ask you some questions about it. It's basically about an accountant who discovers that a producer could make a fortune with a flop Broadway show by raising millions for a program that's so bad it would actually close on opening night.
In the movie, in the original 1968 film, Zero Mostel plays the producer, Gene Wilder plays the accountant, and in this scene they're going through stacks of scripts looking for a really bad play, which the producer thinks he's just found.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PRODUCERS")
ZERO MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) Touch it, touch it.
GENE WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) What is it?
MOSTEL: (As Max) Smell it. See it. Touch it, touch it.
WILDER: (As Leo) What is it?
MOSTEL: (As Max) What is it? We've struck gold, not fool's good but real gold, the mother lode, the mother lode, the mother of them all. Kiss it, kiss it.
WILDER: (As Leo) You've found a flop?
MOSTEL: (As Max) A flop, that's putting it mildly. We found a disaster, catastrophe, an outrage, a guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty.
WILDER: (As Leo) Let's see it.
MOSTEL: (As Max) This is freedom from want forever. This is a house in the country. This is a Rolls Royce and a Bentley. This is wine, women and song - and women.
WILDER: (As Leo) "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." Wow.
MOSTEL: (As Max) Wow, it's practically a love letter to Hitler.
WILDER: (As Leo) This won't run a week.
MOSTEL: (As Max) A week? Are you kidding? This play has got to close on Page Four.
BIANCULLI: That was Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the original movie version of "The Producers." When you won the Oscar for, I guess, Best Original Screenplay for "The Producers," you thanked Gene Wilder three times. Why did you do that?
BROOKS: Well because Gene, like Sid Caesar, in my life I've had a couple - well, Zero was magnificent, really, but Gene brought a certain something that was never before, was kind of creative comedy. And he worked tirelessly. He's really the nucleus, the brilliant key to the emotion of the whole piece.
BIANCULLI: Well, casting in a lot of your projects is so critical. So to jump to the Broadway version of "The Producers," how did you decide, or how quickly did you decide, on Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick?
BROOKS: Well, we already had Nathan right from the beginning. As soon as we thought of Max Bialystock, we thought of Nathan Lane, you know. And Nathan also thought Matthew was a great choice. Matthew was very, very good, talent, a good singer, he could do anything.
BIANCULLI: Well, here's an example of their chemistry. This is from the 2005 movie version of "The Producers" with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, just a fast clip when they're discussing the upcoming show, and Matthew Broderick's Leo Bloom asks how much money they should be investing in their own show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PRODUCERS")
NATHAN LANE: (As Max) Bloom, the two cardinal rules of being a Broadway producer are: One, never put your own money in the show.
MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As Leo) And two?
LANE: (As Max) Never put your own money in the show! Get it?
BRODERICK: (As Leo) Got it.
LANE: (As Max) Good.
BIANCULLI: No matter how many times I hear that, it's laugh-out-loud funny to me.
BROOKS: And it's true, I believe it. I've never put my own money in the show, you know. I put my talent on the line, and my money I save for Saturday night restaurants.
BIANCULLI: Now, you watched them perform so many times and then did the movie. How did their onstage chemistry change or deepen over time from your perspective?
BROOKS: Good word, good word, good word, David Bianculli, good word - it deepened. It did deepen because they got to love each other more and more in terms of their characters feeling the emotion for each other. So when finally, you know, near the end of their first year together, when - we were in tears when Leo makes that speech in the courtroom about how much - how good Bialystock really is, and how much he loves him. And so it did deepen.
BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks, in a conversation from May. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to my May 2013 interview with filmmaker, comedian, writer and composer Mel Brooks.
"Young Frankenstein" came out the same year as "Blazing Saddles." The stand-down seen as Gene Wilder as the scientist and Peter Boyle as the creature singing "Puttin' on the Ritz," and I know that that was not your idea, that was co-writer Gene Wilder's.
BIANCULLI: So how long did it take before you figured out he was right? And then I have a question about what sort of direction you gave to Peter Boyle for that number - especially his singing.
BROOKS: Well, actually, you know, when Gene first brought it up to show the wizardry of this, you know, Dr. Frankenstein, coming up with this incredible creature and re-animating dead tissue, and not only does it move, does it walk and talk, but it also dazzles you with song and dance, you know.
I said I think we're tearing it, Gene. You know, we're going too far. We want some of the verisimilitudeness quality that was in the, you know, in the original James Whale movie, you know, which was serious and scary, and I don't want to lose the seriousness and the scariness of it just for silly comedy, you know, just for taking comedy too far.
And he kept pushing. He said no, no, it will show, demonstrate the doctor's ability to teach the monster. And finally he kept bugging me, and I said look, OK, I'm going to shoot it, and I'm going to put it aside, and we'll see whether or not it's useful in the main body of the picture, OK? And then when I saw it later with all the film that we had collected, I said, gee, it may be the best thing in the film.
BROOKS: I called Gene and I said you're absolutely right all the time, and I'm glad we're - it's in, totally, and I'm looking on the cutting room floor for any outtakes, you know.
BIANCULLI: And what direction did you give to Peter Boyle like how he - and was "Puttin' on the Ritz" always the first song choice?
BROOKS: Yes, always. Irving Berlin and I said, Peter, sing it from your heart. Sing it like it's a cry of love and freedom and everything you can think of that's good. And he did.
(Singing) Puttin' on the Ritz...
BIANCULLI: Well, here it is from 1974.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")
WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Ladies and Gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs, Damen und Herren, from what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I present a cultured, sophisticated, man about town. Hit it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ")
WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits?
(SOUNDBITE OF SNAPPING)
PETER BOYLE: (as Monster) (Singing) Puttin' on the Ritz.
WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) Different types who wear a day coat. Pants with stripes or cutaway coat. Perfect fits.
BOYLE: (as Monster) (Singing) Puttin' on the Ritz.
WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) Dressed up like a million dollar trouper. Trying mighty hard to look like Gary Cooper.
BOYLE: (as Monster) (Singing) Super-Dooper.
WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) Come let's mix where Rockefellers...
BIANCULLI: You know, I have to thank you.
BIANCULLI: I have to thank you for that scene. It may be one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema comedy.
I'm going to jump to the "2000 Year Old Man" now. You started this act at parties. You recorded an album. You won a Grammy. You went on from there. I figure before I ask you my questions about the "2000 Year Old Man," I'd give a taste. This is from you and Carl on the Andy Williams show from 1966.
BROOKS: Oh, good. I don't remember that. Let me hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW")
CARL REINER: Of all the discoveries of all time, what would you consider the greatest? Would you say it was the wheel, the lever, fire?
BROOKS: Fire. Fire. Far and away, fire. Fire is the hottest thing going. Fire, you can't beat fire.
BROOKS: Fire used to warm us and light up our caves so we wouldn't walk into a wall, so we would marry our brother Bernie.
REINER: That's right.
BROOKS: That's Satan's hell, fire. And cooking, oh, you can't be fire.
REINER: When did they first learn to cook with fire?
BROOKS: It was an accident. That was an accident, a chicken.
BROOKS: A chicken walked into the fire by mistake and over. (makes sound) And over. Burnt. Burnt up.
REINER: What? That chicken?
BROOKS: Yes. We didn't use him. We kept around the cave as pets.
REINER: I see.
BROOKS: We love to hear eh, eh. We loved that. So we took it out to give it the funeral, you know, bury it, because it was our pet and we all went...
(SOUNDBITE OF SNIFFING)
BROOKS: Hey, that smells good.
BROOKS: So we ate them up and since then we've been eating chickens.
REINER: You know, I've heard this story, but I've heard that the animal that wandered into the fire accidentally was a pig.
BROOKS: Not in my cave.
BIANCULLI: That's Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in one of their...
BROOKS: I remember that.
BIANCULLI: ..."2000 Year Old Man" sketch. Do you remember how much of that if any was improvised?
BROOKS: Well, actually, when we were on television, we laid out the jokes. We laid out what we would do. When we made our first two albums, I said to Carl, don't tell me anything, nothing in advance, just hit me with questions than when I can't come up with a good answer, cut it.
When I come up with a great answer, keep it in. And that's the way we did our first two albums, you know, various characters and, of course, the "2000 Year Old Man" emerged as the leading comedy force in the albums.
BIANCULLI: Carl Reiner is widely and rightly acknowledged as one of the great straight men of all time, and working opposite him must've been a joy. But your friendship with him goes far past the projects you've done together, and now you're getting together almost every night to watch movies and have dinner. It sounds like such a nice thing to do.
BROOKS: Yeah. Well, it is. He's my best friend and, you know, we're like (unintelligible) tuck in bloom, we're joined at the hip. And he lost his wife may be a year or two years ago. I lost my wife maybe 10 years ago, so it's actually eight - to be exact. And we miss them, and they loved each other, too, so we can't find any other people that understand our ancient references, you know.
Now when you guys are watching movies together, just for your own enjoyment, and you're watching comedies, who and what, you know, gets you to laugh the most now?
Well, that's a tough question because if you say one name you're going to hurt somebody else's feelings. But, you know, I like the...
BIANCULLI: But without being exclusionary, what's the last one that you both watched together that made you both laugh? I'm not saying be inclusive, but what's the most recent one?
BROOKS: Well, I think "Wreck-It Ralph." We saw the cartoon, we liked it, with John C. Riley playing Ralph. I don't know if you the cartoon.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. No. I know that. The...
BROOKS: And we just loved, you know, Penelope played by Sarah Silverman. She's glorious.
BROOKS: And generally, she's one of the few new - you know, there's Amy Schumer come along too who is wonderful. But I mean, but there are people that come along that are really good and funny, you know, and Silverman was - we both love her.
BIANCULLI: I want to play one last clip. This is one that I absolutely adore. It's not a film that you directed. It's a remake of "To Be Or Not To Be" in which you and your wife Anne Bancroft play actors in Poland on the eve of World War II. And there's an early scene where you to perform a singing and dancing duet in Polish of "Sweet Georgia Brown." To me it looks like pure joy and...
BROOKS: It was. It was pure joy. It was pure joy, and "Sweet Georgia Brown" is one of Anne's favorite songs and one of mine. And, you know, and we'd often sing it together anyway and because I could do the harmonies and stuff. And with "To Be Or Not To Be" we said well, let's do that, and but we're in Poland, I suggested we do it in Polish.
BROOKS: You know, and just the only English we would do would be "Sweet Georgie Brown," you know, and it was - it worked. I mean, I think of all the rehearsals we did and the joy of finally being together, working on a movie together and being there every day. And, you know, so we saw each other for a period of three or four months 24 hours a day. And it wasn't bad. It was kind of beautiful.
BIANCULLI: If you don't mind me asking, this is a personal question not a cinematic one. Was there a secret to your marriage?
BROOKS: I don't know if there was a secret. I don't know what you would call a secret. I think we - from the first minute I saw her I fell in love, and it lasted until the day she died. That's something. That was the secret. I mean I just fell in love with her.
BIANCULLI: That was a pretty good answer. So thank you. Thank you very much, Mel. Congratulations.
BROOKS: Thank you, David. This has almost been fun.
BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks speaking to me last May. Coming up in another of our favorite interviews from 2013, one of the young comics Mel singled out as a current favorite, Amy Schumer. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET GEORGIA BROWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.