Last year, when Mel Brooks had a TV special on HBO, he spoke with me for an extended exclusive interview. This year he has a new HBO special, and we talked at length again…
Mel Brooks Strikes Back, which premieres Monday, Dec. 10, at 9 p.m. ET (and repeats Thursday, Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. ET, among other times), is a sequel of sorts to last year’s Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again, which had the two show-biz veterans standing on the stage of a large theater, swapping stories without benefit of clips or props.
This time, the person questioning Brooks on stage is BBC executive Alan Yentob (far left, with Brooks), but this time there are clips — from Your Show of Shows and Blazing Saddles, from The Producers and High Anxiety, and from a variety-show performance of Brooks and Carl Reiner doing their "2000 Year Old Man" routine.
As with his previous special, Mel Brooks was gracious enough to have a lengthy and freewheeling telephone conversation, specifically for the TV WORTH WATCHING readership.
The interview was long enough that he fortified himself at the start (“You’ll hear me munching on a cinnamon raisin bagel — no cream cheese, no butter,” he informed me), and lengthy and entertaining enough to be split into two parts. The conclusion, which focuses on his new DVD/CD boxed set The Incredible Mel Brooks, will appear here very soon.
Bianculli: This is now the second sort of memory-lane HBO special… It’s just more and more clear to me what a natural performer you are in front of an audience.
Brooks: Why wasn’t I doing that on Your Show of Shows? It saved my life that I didn’t.
Bianculli: That’s exactly my question. I know, in talk shows, you’ve always been incredibly entertaining — but as an actor, too, you’re so strong. Did you never lobby to get more screen time on Your Show of Shows?
Brooks: Au contraire. I don’t know — something in me said, "Don’t do it." First of all, honestly, as a performer, all my passions were completely fulfilled by Sid Caesar. He could do anything, and do it better than anybody who ever lived. So there was no need to play vocal ping-pong on stage with Sid Caesar. Privately, we used to do it, because I was his stooge — we would hang around together 24 hours a day. I loved him…
And it worked out. I was very lucky. Later, when I decided to throw caution to the wind and star in my own movies — in Silent Movie (pictured right with Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman), or even in The Twelve Chairs, I took a part as some kind of Russian peasant — I was good.
I always felt I’d rather have somebody really talented carry my message. So to begin with [on The Producers], there was — my first movie, right? — Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. No room for me. Two extremely talented, wonderful guys who could carry my dialogue, my characters, and carried them forward beautifully. Very happy with that movie. Didn’t make any money, but happy with it.
Then I did The Twelve Chairs — happy with Ron Moody, Frank Langella, and the late, great, beautiful Dom DeLuise to carry the comedy. And there was a little part — in Russian, you call them a muzhik. A muzhik is a peasant or a serf, and I was perfect for it. And I played it, and I was good…
Blazing Saddles, that was successful, and I played a very small part in that (pictured left, with Cleavon Little and Harvey Korman). But I watched audiences, and I always got my laughs. I knew I was good, because I was good in the mountains, in the borscht belt [the predominantly Jewish summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains]. I was funny. But I guess I was afraid of the big time.
And finally, when Gene Wilder went on to do his own Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, and I needed someone for Silent Movie, I said, “Well, what the hell? They don’t even talk. Me, Marty Feldman, and Dom DeLuise — how bad can that be?” And we did Silent Movie, and it was successful. And that gave me the courage to go on and be the star of High Anxiety or History of the World, or whatever came next.
But had I done Your Show of Shows, it would have been the same thing as Sid Caesar. I mean, Sid Caesar was kind of I hate to say this — used up. Thirty-nine shows a season, an hour and a half [each week]. Can you imagine? Just even physically, how could you do that? But the world — Americans, anyway — got enough of Sid Caesar so that he wasn’t needed for anything else. It turned out to be that way.
Bianculli: Did your identification of yourself as a writer also have something to do with that?
Brooks: Yeah. I had a devil on my shoulder. He kept torturing me. [Brooks tells of having regular Tuesday night New York dinners in the late Sixties and early Seventies with, among others, Ngoot Lee, Speed Vogel, Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo — a regular gathering that started out with Lee doing the cooking, but eventually moved to different Chinese restaurants, with Lee ordering for everyone.] And Joe would torture me, because Joe would say, "You’re really a deep intellectual. Don’t you really want to write? Don’t you want to use your narrative skills? Don’t you want to say something about the arc of humanity? You’re too good to just end up putting jokes on the screen." He would torture me. He’d say, "Isn’t writing better than acting or performing?” And finally, I had a big fight with him, I said, “No! It isn’t! Acting is just as good. It may not last as long, but it’s just as good." We used to have fights like that… We’d torture each other.
Bianculli: How did the HBO sequel come about?
Brooks: Ed Victor [a literary agent whose clients include Brooks’ son Max, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z] works with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and he raises money for them. And Alan Yentob [creative director for the BBC] is always the host, somewhere in the world, interviewing people, raising money for him. And he did it with me [in England], and then [Victor] asked me to do it again, at the Geffen Theater in Westwood [CA]. And I said sure. And he said Alan would be in town, and Alan’s a very dear friend of mine. I love him. He created a couple of funny things when he was a young guy working for Arena [in the U.K.], and wrote a faux documentary about me called —
Bianculli: I Thought I Was Taller [A Short History of Mel Brooks, in 1981]. Is that the one?
Brooks: Exactly. Good stuff. He’s been a dear friend of mine ever since. So I ended up there, to raise some money, and I said, "Film it. And after we pay off whatever expenses — rent, the light and camera people — whatever money is left is going to go to that Leukemia & Lymphoma Society." So I’m very happy to do it.
Now I didn’t tell HBO that, begging them to be good people. I’m going to tell you a story — and nobody has this story, and we’re both going to be in trouble for it, and I know he’s [HBO executive Michael Lombardo] going to be very angry at me for saying this story, because this is really gossip. Are you ready? This is the real story of our interview.
We talk [on stage] for an hour and a half or something, Alan and I. Some of it turns out to be very funny, and some of it turns out to be Proustian, and rather touching, and just good stuff… And there’s question-and-answer [with the audience] at the end, at which I am sensational. That’s always good.
We edit it, and I call CAA, which was kind enough to sell the Dick Cavett show to HBO [last year’s Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again, at right] — I never thought it would get sold. But CAA were brilliant. They sold it to Michael Lombardo [HBO president of programming], who took a big chance. Dick Cavett? Mel Brooks? I mean, we’re a hundred years old. Who gives a shit about a special with these guys, you know? But he put it on, and it was ultimately very successful.
So here’s another one with Mel Brooks. This one doesn’t have Dick Cavett, or Carl Reiner in the audience — it has this guy Alan Yentob, unknown to anybody except 16 people at the BBC, where he’s the creative director and they work with him every day…
So we do this at the Geffen, and it’s good. It’s waves. Sometimes the waves are massive waves of nonstop comedy, rolling really good stuff, and sometimes placid waters of contemplation that are truly and deeply interesting — which you don’t get on television. Television is highly charged. It’s hard to get something reflective, you know? Thoughtful. It’s very hard to get that kind of thing.
So getting back to the story that should never be told. You with me?
Bianculli: Yes, I’m with you. I’m waiting for you to tell it.
Brooks: So we do it, we edit it, we finish it, talk to CAA. And they say, we’re going to take it, as a courtesy, because he did the Cavett thing, to Michael Lombardo. And I said, "Don’t." And they said, "We have to," and I said, "Don’t. Ask Michael to join, like he did before with the Cavett show, a group of 50 to 100 people watching it in a screening room at CAA. And if he likes it, he would certainly have a forward position in it, because of his kindness before. Besides, they pay the most." And they said, "We can’t do that. It would be impolite." I said, "Impolite? I thought we were in show business. What are you talking about?"
So they send it to Lombardo. He calls me — he’s the sweetest, smartest guy in the world — and he calls me and says, "No, no, no, no good. This is no good." He says, "It’s wonderful. I’m going to make a copy of it and watch it myself every other night, because I love it, but I don’t think it works for a network, because we don’t know who the hell this guy [Yentob] is, and it’s kind of sweet and it wanders. And [in the last one,] Cavett is known a little bit, and Carl Reiner is famous, and you’ve got kind of high-powered kind of cannon shots and machine-gun comedy. And this one, it’s sporadic." And he said, "I hate to tell you this, but I don’t really think it’s for HBO."
So I call CAA, and say, "How dare you? How dare you send it to him? Check with me!" I said, "get them all together. The same group of people from Comedy Central and wherever, all 80 of them." And I called Michael Lombardo back, and I said, "Would you see it again, with a group of people? You’re off the hook, you don’t have to buy it. But would you see it again, with a bunch of people in a room, and not be insulted that they’re not HBO, they’re Showtime or whatever?" He says, "Of course. For you." And he means it. He’s a sweet guy. "For you, yes, I will do it."…
And we do it, he shows up… And it goes like gangbusters. They like it. The 80 or so inside people, they love it. They laugh, they do whatever you would want them to do from the screen to the audience. It’s over, I hustle out of there, I leave in a hurry. And before I could get to the door of the CAA building, two hands are clasped, banged on my shoulders, holding me. And I hear, "Wrong! I was wrong! Forgive me!" I turn around, and it’s Michael Lombardo. He says, "You were right.” You cannot watch a comedy show from your desk, and judge it. You’ve got to see it with other people." He said, "I don’t want to lose this. And I’ve decided I’m going to be the purveyor, the disseminator, and the distributor of all Mel Brooks comedy — as much as I can get my hands on." …
Bianculli: One classic comedy piece excerpted in your new HBO special is the classic “This is Your Story” [a sketch from Your Show of Shows]. I should tell you, it killed, again, in my TV History class [at Rowan University in New Jersey] this year. Every time we show it —
Brooks: God bless you. You play it for your class?
Bianculli: Oh, yeah. I play it after showing them the first 10 minutes of an episode of the actual This Is Your Life, so that they’ll know what you’re making fun of.
Brooks: That’s brilliant. So they know exactly what the satire is about.
Bianculli: Yes. I’ve got to do that with almost everything I show them. Because otherwise, they wouldn’t have the context of the Fifties.
Brooks: Oh, yeah, of course. I never think of that, because I’ve lived through the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties —
Bianculli: But they absolutely adore it. And then when I point out to them afterwards, there are no cue cards, and this is live, they are thrilled by the energy of “This is Your Story.” So here’s my question: Both the [Incredible Mel Brooks] DVD and the HBO special credit you as a writer, if not the writer, of that sketch, And I was wondering if you can remember, at this point, how much of it was yours, or how the idea was conceived and pitched?
Brooks: Listen to me carefully, Bianculli. Even if I remembered to the line, I would never tell you. I would never tell you, because that is a secret code of comedy writers.
Once, we admitted it. In the boxed set, [co-creator] Buck Henry and I, before we showed the pilot episode of Get Smart, I said, "Okay. I’m going to say something I think I created, and you’re going to say something you think you created. Hands up first!" He put his hand up, Buck Henry did, and said, "The cone of silence!" And I was shocked. I said, "Oh, my God, you’re right! It was you. It wasn’t me!" And then he stuck his hand up, and I said, "Another?" And he said, "No, yours! The shoe telephone." And I said, "Okay, I invented the cell phone. So we’re even." But that’s the first and only time we’ve cut the pie up.
Bianculli: I love that that’s your response. But I have a follow-up question that I think you’ll have no problem answering. Because, regardless of who wrote what, you know what was written — and I imagine you’ve seen that sketch many times —
Brooks: Uncle Goopy? Are you kidding? It’s one of my favorite sketches of all time.
Bianculli: So what is your favorite moment from it that was not written? That was just born on the stage, in the physical or the comic moment?
Brooks: Okay. There’s a lot of stuff. After he [Sid Caesar, as the ambushed biographical subject of “This is Your Story”] gets on the stage — stay with me, Bianculli — after he gets on the stage, almost everything is written. But pre- the ushers dragging him up, almost everything is ad lib. He’s swinging his coat, he’s going up the wrong aisle, he’s smacking the ushers down, he’s trying to escape, he’s fainting when they mention his name — that was his idea. I would say the first third of it is all ad lib. And the next two-thirds of it: [Howard Morris as the clinging] Uncle Goopy, and all the people that come on stage as part of his life, it’s all carefully written…
Bianculli: One more question about the HBO special. You talk about the different tones… and at points, you get wistful when you allude to your marriage. And that great clip that ends the show, with you and Anne [Bancroft] —
Brooks: Oh, yeah [sighing].
Bianculli: — singing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish [from To Be Or Not to Be, left]. I’m sure you knew that was coming — I presume you knew that was coming — but I had not seen it since she died [in 2005]. I’d seen it when the movie came out, and maybe once on video. And it was emotional for me to watch, just as a fan of hers and as an admirer of you guys as a couple —
Brooks: Yeah [quietly].
Bianculli: And what a great moment that is to have on film. But I was wondering: what was that like, to watch that in front of an audience, and what emotions were going through you?
Brooks: Honestly, Bianculli, to begin with, David, I cut it out. I said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And I was implored by different sources that said, “This is important. It’s beyond your judgment whether or not it should be seen or not. It’s good, it’s different, and it shows something that — never before were the two of you together doing this. It’s not for you to take it away from us.” And I kind of agreed with it. I said, “Okay, all right. It’ll be painful, but it is a remarkably entertaining, beautiful moment.” And there will be many hundreds of thousands of young people who don’t know anything about our marriage, our relationship, they only know about the number, and they would appreciate it. And I bow to that judgment.
Bianculli: But even to those who know about that both, in that clip, you’re individually as well as collectively great. You just radiate enjoyment. It’s such a wonderful number.
Brooks: Yeah. It’s true. It was some of the most delicious moments of my life in show business. To be able to share it with the person I loved so much, you know? And I couldn’t have done it without her. I just watched her lips. She cued me on everything. She was so brilliant and professional. It was great.
So there. I answered that one.
And for the rest of his answers — about The Incredible Mel Brooks boxed set, now available as a fabulous DVD/CD holiday gift — please check out MEL BROOKS: THE TV WORTH WATCHING INTERVIEW, TAKE 3.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Want to read more from Mel but don't want to go back to scan for those pesky little hyperlinks in the story? Try these:
Mel Brooks: The 2011 TVWW interview
Mel Brooks: The 2012 TVWW interview, Part 2