“Let’s go! Ask me questions and I’ll try not to lie!”
That’s Mel Brooks on the other end of the line. He’s talking to me to promote his very entertaining episode of the PBS series “American Masters,” “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise” (premiering Monday, May 20th at 9pm ET/PT). I’m talking to him because in a very real sense, there is no me without him, and I want to say thank you. My parents’ first date, on August 10th, 1968, was to see Brooks’ first movie as writer and director, “The Producers.” Thankfully, it went well. But what if the night had flopped as badly as “Springtime For Hitler”? I shudder to think. When I first get on the phone with Mel, I tell him how deeply intertwined my family history is with his work, and how grateful I am that he made a good movie. “So if the interview goes badly,” I told him, “you have no one to blame but yourself.”
Mel laughs, and I feel like someone just stamped me with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. If Mel Brooks thinks something is funny, it’s funny. For more than half a century, Brooks has been cracking up millions of people, first as a writer and performer on television (working behind the scenes of “Your Show of Shows” and then in front of the camera with Carl Reiner in their “The 2,000 Year Old Man” routine), then as a writer/director/producer and star of movies (“The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Spaceballs,” and more) and producer/writer/composer on Broadway (“The Producers,” winner of the most Tony Awards in history). “Make a Noise,” directed by Robert Trachtenberg, covers all of it through archival footage and new interviews with friends, colleagues, admirers and Brooks himself.
I asked a few questions about the documentary, but mostly focused on other subjects: his favorite part of his job, the reason for his obsession with fourth wall breaking, the secret to perfecting the iconic campfire scene “Blazing Saddles.” Throughout, Brooks was cheerful, open, and hysterically funny. And I’m pretty sure he only lied a couple times.
It’s interesting to talk to you in conjunction with a documentary because that’s one of the few genres you never satirized.
Yeah, but now that you mention it, I’m making a note: “Satirize… a… documentary.” Okay. That might be my next movie.
You never thought about it?
I don’t know why I didn’t. You know who did it so brilliantly, and I guess as a result I stayed away from it? Rob Reiner, with “This Is Spinal Tap.” That movie’s brilliant. So he had “crazy documentary” covered.
In “Make a Noise,” you tell this story about the first time you performed on stage, at the age of 15, at a place called The Butler Lodge. And you accidentally broke a glass, and to cover the mistake you walked to the front of the stage and said, “I’ve never done this before! I’m 15 years old!” From your very first gig, you were breaking the fourth wall, which has remained one of your trademarks through your entire career. Why do you love doing that so much?
Y’know, it works. It worked for Pirandello and it works for me. You go on, and you do a play and you do characters, and you do kind of a make believe and then all you’ve got to do is just partially, brilliantly, tell the truth. Like with a camera that’s slowly moving into the beginning of a scene in a dining room outside of a garden and there’s these French windows — if you crash into the windows, you’re, like, telling the truth in a literally shattering way. So I’ve found that to be a very important tool in my comedy arsenal. Fourth wall breaking is literally telling the truth.
If you had directed this “American Masters” episode instead of Robert Trachtenberg, how would it be different?
I don’t think it would be as good! I think what I liked about it is it kind of reflected the comic anarchy that’s me. It didn’t go particularly chronologically; there were no rules. He went wherever he thought it was interesting and funny. I’m not unhappy with it. My only comment I have is I should have taken another 20 minutes for makeup. I wish I was better looking. I hardly did any makeup. I thought I was much better looking. And I was dismayed to see this crazy, shrunken little wrinkly old man. I said, “Who the hell is that guy?”
You’re being too hard on yourself.
Yeah, not so bad, but there was a shot of me earlier in it where I was on a beach where I was just an Adonis. I was really a good-looking guy, I think between the ages of 18 and 23. And then, boom, it all went to hell.
What happened when you turned 23?
I don’t know, but I became, like, a baked potato. I shriveled and wrinkled. So just for vanity and ego and looks alone I wouldn’t have been as simple and as honest as Trachtenberg. He also did an amazing job getting people like Tracey Ullman, Joan Rivers, Rob Reiner. He found so many different people — it was like a diamond; there’s so many different facets. He did a great job. It was all there, laid out. I have to salute the producer, Susan Lacy, who does a great job with “American Masters,” and Robert Trachtenberg, and let’s not forget PBS. I mean if Romney had won, there would have been no more Big Bird, no more PBS. So it’s just amazing that it’s still functioning when half of America thinks that the other half, the PBS half, or the people on unemployment should be, I don’t know, dismissed or gotten rid of.
Of all the hats you wear — writing, directing, producing, acting, even promoting, I guess — which one gives you the most pleasure?
No question, it’s writing. Everything starts with writing. And then to support your vision, your ideas, your philosophy, your jokes, whatever, you’ve gotta perform them and/or direct them, or sometimes just produce them. Sometimes I just produce things because of my baggage. I have a lot of baggage. I am known as a comedy person.
So, like, doing “The Elephant Man” — if it said “Produced by Mel Brooks,” and that gets out, they’re gonna expect him to have a funny trunk. So I produced it through my company, Brooksfilms, and never mentioned my name or the word Mel or anything. And I have to be careful to this day. If I do a serious picture like “The Fly” or “84 Charing Cross Road” or “Frances” it’s gotta be Brooksfilms, it cannot be Mel Brooks, because there’d be utter confusion because of that baggage.
Does that frustrate you?
It does, because I’d like to prove to the world that I am a really nifty director. For the first time, by the way, I’m getting a salute in that direction from the AFI. I’m the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award this year at the American Film Institute, and that’s a big deal and it’s nice that they recognized me. Everybody says comedy. In print, nobody ever says “He did a good job as director.” Hitchcock said it, and so did Billy Wilder. I had lunch with Billy Wilder once and he said, “Y’know ‘Young Frankenstein’ is the most brilliant directing job this year.” But nobody else mentions that I’m a good director.
I’ll be sure to make that clear in my article.
I am a good director!
Most movies look tamer the older they get. “Blazing Saddles” is the rare movie that seems to get edgier as time goes on. I doubt anyone could make it today.
Yeah, it’s a strange phenomenon.
I was wondering what you thought about that, and whether you think movie comedy has gotten too soft and too politically correct these days.
Sometimes movie comedy gets lazy. They go for a lot of sexual or physical jokes. They lean on them. I mean I’m a master of vulgarity — but not just plain old vulgarity. There’s just too much dirty words and dirty activities that are not woven into the plot correctly. It’s just dirty for dirty’s sake.
Speaking of the proper use of vulgarity, when you’re shooting the campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles,” how do you know you have the right take? How many takes does it take to get that scene perfect?
I think I had the right take in take one.
I mean it was so bold already, what was I going to improve? An extra sound here or there? I think I used take one. We only did two takes; usually I do three or four. They were all good. But we had to make those sounds. Those farting sounds were made in the editing room by putting soap and water under our armpits to get a certain sound.
This is a secret; I don’t know if I ever told anyone this. Soap and water under our arms, and then every once in a while we’d imitate things. I was looking for the verisimilitudinous sound qualities — so it would sound real. Because, y’know I don’t get a laugh until about the third fart. At first, it’s just disbelief: “What?! Did I hear that?! Oh my God: they are!” And by the sixth or seventh one some people are falling out of their seats. I’m very proud of it but a little ashamed of it at the same time.
No, no. It should only be pride.
[laughs] You’re good, Matt. I appreciate it.
When I was going through your recent “The Incredible Mel Brooks” box set and watching the various clips, I noticed that anytime someone mentions Hitler, you almost always have a comb in your pocket ready to do the impression of the mustache. Do you ever use that comb to actually fix your hair or do you just keep it handy in case you ever need to imitate Hitler?
Once in a blue moon, I comb my hair with my comb. Most of the time I just use the end of it to do the mustache. I do like a cheap joke.
Of all the characters you’ve played, is there one you feel particularly close to? Does one reveal something personal about Mel Brooks?
Goddard Bolt in “Life Stinks.” I felt very close to that guy, the billionaire who makes a bet with another billionaire to live in the slums and the streets in Downtown L.A. for a month without any help from anybody and survive.
When I’m in a bad mood, I’ll put on “Blazing Saddles” or “The Producers” and it cheers me up. When you’re in a bad mood, what movie do you put on to cheer yourself up?
Not a bad mood necessarily, but if I’m unhappy or blue I’ll put on “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Swing Time” or any of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and they’ll get me out of it.
People ask me, “What is your favorite movie?” I could sound like a genius and say “Les Enfants du Paradis” from Marcel Carné, or I could say “The Bicycle Thief” by De Sica, or “Grand Illusion” by Jean Renoir. These are all brilliant, great films. And I could sound like a great film intellectual. But it’s not true. I like them, but I love the ’30s musicals. They’re my favorite.
You’ve done great stuff on Broadway in the last couple years and you have the new documentary, but do you ever get the itch to direct another movie?
I do, I do. I’ve been getting that for the last four or five, maybe six months. Getting an itch to make a little black and white movie about something, I don’t know. I’m just looking for the scheme. I like schemes, like “The Producers” — “You can make more money with a flop than you can with a hit.” Just that one line, and you’re off and running. A whole parade of characters come in, based on one line; “you can make more money with a flop than you can with a hit.”
So you’ve got the inkling, you’re just looking for the next scheme.
Yeah I just need the scheme, and the flood of people that follow the scheme.