Mel Brooks, director, producer, writer and actor, is in an elite group as one of the few entertainers to earn all four major entertainment prizes – the Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar. His career began in television writing for "Your Show of Shows" and together with Buck Henry creating the long-running TV series "Get Smart."
Many hit comedies followed, including "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "High Anxiety," "History of the World Part I," "Spaceballs," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It."
Here, he talks about "Mel Brooks: Make a Noise," an American Masters profile chronicling his illustrious career. The PBS special is set to premiere nationwide on Monday, May 20, at 9 pm (CDT). And in June, Brooks will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute (AFI) at a gala tribute airing on TNT.
Kam Williams: Hello, Mr. Brooks. I'm honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Mel Brooks: Thank you, Kam. Hey, what the hell is Kam short for?
KW: It's short for Kamau, an African name.
MB: I'm so sorry to hear that. I thought it might be short for my last name, Kaminsky. I was hoping you just took my last name and shortened it to become part of the family.
KW: (Chuckles) No, I took the name back in the Seventies during my brief career as a jazz musician. You started out as a jazz musician, too, right?
MB: I did, I did. We were both jazz musicians, so it's like we already know each other. In the early Forties, before I went off to World War II, I was in a little five-piece group that played at those Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskill Mountains. One night, the comic at the Butler Lodge got sick, and his boss, Pincus Cohen, begged me to perform in his place. I told him, "That name is redundant. Pincus and Cohen, you don't need 'em both. We know you're a Jew." (Laughs) He said, "I've watched you doing rehearsals. I can tell you're a funny guy." I knew all those dopey jokes, so I went up on stage, and that's how I got into comedy. I was only about 15 at the time. ...
KW: I have a million questions for you from fans. ...
MB: Sure, sure.
KW: Film student Jamaal Green says: "Hi Mel! I am a huge fan of your work from "Blazing Saddles" to "Young Frankenstein" to "Space Balls." But I would like to know, if you have any plans to do some new "2,000 Year-Old Man" skits?"
MB: Thank you for that question, Jamaal. However, I've become the "2,000 Year-Old Man" now, and I have a "2,000 Year-Old Man" brain. When I originally wrote it, I was in my thirties. I was young, and hip, and smart, and could think fast. I'm no longer there. Things have slowed-up incredibly. Synaptic connections are taking me to strange places in my brain. I think I probably could eke out one more. Carl (Reiner), who recently turned 91, is hot to trot, but I'm not sure.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: "What was the hardest film to shoot because of laughing breaking out on the set?"
MB: "Blazing Saddles" was pretty damn funny. The crew was constantly cracking-up and ruining takes. So, finally, I sent my assistant to Woolworths to buy a thousand white handkerchiefs. I gave one to everybody on the set. I told them, "If you feel like laughing at something, you stick one of these in your mouth, bite on it, and laugh through it." Anytime I wasn't sure whether a scene was working or not, I'd look over my shoulder, and if I saw a lot of white handkerchiefs, I'd know it was funny. That became my litmus test. The crew's laughing could've ruined the picture, Bernadette, but we saved it with the white handkerchiefs. It also turned out to be a great way to test to see if something was funny. ...
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles says: "Thank you, and Anne (Bancroft, his late wife), for that incredible performance of 'Sweet Georgian Brown' in Polish to open your re-do of 'To Be or Not to Be.' On the NBC 'Today Show,' you said 'Annie is funnier than I am,' and I remember that side-splitting, incredible thing with her eyes. How did she speak to and influence your projects?"
MB: Harriet, she was incredible right from the first time I met her. I was writing "The Producers." She immediately became my sounding board. I didn't trust anybody else. I'd write something and show it to her. Then she'd mark it up with "This is brilliant!" or "Never let this go!" and once in awhile she'd say "This stinks!" (Chuckles) She was really responsible for getting the best out of me, like the trainer of a racehorse.
KW: Hollywood Hills realtor Jimmy Bayan says: "Mel, you once said you and Anne were glued together from the day you met until the day she died. She obviously really 'got you.' Can you tell me, what made your marriage sizzle for so many years?"
MB: I can't, Jimmy. What is it, magic? Magnetism? Meant to be? Who the hell knows! We were very lucky. Fate may have had a hand in it.
KW: Roger Klein says: "You are a great filmmaker. You are to movies what the Rolling Stones are to Rock & Roll."
MB: I was never recognized as a movie director, Roger. Never! They always talk about my being a great writer and comic, and an important producer, But I've never been saluted as a filmmaker, except by a few colleagues like Alfred Hitchcock. He once said to me, "Nobody appreciates your directing skills. 'High Anxiety' is brilliant! The back lighting!" He thought of me as a wonderful director, but no one else did.
KW: Did it bother you?
MB: I never really got that upset about it because I was doing what I wanted to do. If you can do what you want to do in this life, the rest is gravy. Instead of going to work, you're going to joy every day. ...
KW: Harriet says: "You set a very high standard for revamping old films, with 'To Be or Not to Be,' 'Young Frankenstein,' and 'The Producers.' Do you have your sights on another old classic that you care to discuss?"
MB: There's a good-looking old lady who lives in Cincinnati that I have my eye on, but I'm not sure as far as show business. (Chuckles) Maybe musicalizing "The Twelve Chairs," one of my overlooked films, for Broadway. Or "Blazing Saddles." They both cry out for music, and they both have good stories.
KW: Why do you think "Blazing Saddles" remains as fresh as ever?
MB: What makes it last so long is that there's a black sheriff that everyone in that world of 1874 wants to see dead right away. But he endures and gains the respect of the townsfolk, especially the Waco Kid (played by Gene Wilder). That's the engine that drives it, and that's why it's still around. It's around because there's a tremendous amount of focused emotion in that movie.
KW: When I interviewed Quentin Tarantino about "Django Unchained" he attributed the demise of the Western to "Blazing Saddles". He said that you had parodied the genre so effectively that no one could take them seriously anymore.
MB: (Laughs) I don't know. Maybe he's right. But I wouldn't take credit for that. ...
KW: What is the best advice you can give to young people who would like to follow in your footsteps as a filmmaker?
MB: I have no advice for anybody. Something impels you, and you have to keep going. Something mysterious drives you, and you'll have to take a thousand nos before you get your first yes, and they let you do your stuff. ...
KW: Wesley Derbyshire asks: "For better or worse, how do you see comedy changing on the screen over the past half-century?"
MB: That's a good question, Wesley. I wish could answer it. Comedy is too vast a subject. I don't know what it is. It's reaching a place in us that is unrestrained. That place where we can no longer be a proper part of society, and just have to laugh. If you have the ability to reach it in yourself, you'll reach it in others. But how it's changed, I don't know. All the sitcoms have gotten very sexual, but not necessarily funnier.
KW: I agree wholeheartedly, Mel. Thanks for being so generous with your time, and for sharing so many anecdotes, insights and remembrances.
MB: It was my pleasure, Kam. Nice talking to you.
“Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” is an American Masters profile chronicling Brooks’ illustrious career. The PBS special is set to premiere nationwide on Monday, May 20, at 9 pm (CDT).