Mel Brooks is one of the great comedy minds of the 20th century. He was part of the greatest comedy writing staff ever assembled – at various points, it included Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Woody Allen, among many others – for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.” He and fellow Caesar alum Carl Reiner gave the world the 2000-Year-Old Man, and later he and Buck Henry created the classic James Bond spoof “Get Smart.” And that’s all before he went into the movie business and gave us “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and all the rest.
Mel Brooks is also one of the great talkers in showbiz, which is apparent if you’ve ever seen him on a talk show (say, telling his classic Cary Grant story on “The Tonight Show”), or if you watch him in tonight at 9 on the HBO special “Mel Brooks Strikes Back!,” where he’s interviewed by BBC creative director Alan Yentob about the ups and downs of his career.
When I got on the phone to talk to Brooks about the special, and about his new Shout Factory DVD box set “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy” – a delightful, wide-ranging set collecting past Brooks TV specials, classic Sid Caesar sketches, episodes of “Get Smart,” “When Things Were Rotten” a Brooks appearance from “Mad About You,” and a lot more – I knew I had a half-hour to talk to one of my idols, and that I’d be lucky to cover a fraction of his career. In the end, I was only able to hit a few highlights, including his time as a writer for Caesar – “I always thought I was destined to push a rack of clothing from a dress company to the post office, and that would be the arc of my career,” he told me right before the section I’m excerpting below, “but because of my association with Sid Caesar, it turned out to be completely differently.” – his segue into a full-time satirist, and his role in making one of my favorite movies of all time, “My Favorite Year,” starring Joseph Bologna as a thinly-disguised Sid Caesar, Peter O’Toole (never better) as a thinly-disguised Errol Flynn and Mark-Linn Baker as a thinly-disguised Mel Brooks.
With “Your Show of Shows,” Sid and Max Liebman assemble the greatest writing staff in comedy history. Was it a competitive environment? Was it friendly?
It was love and hate. It was kind of like pups in a box, all fighting for their mom’s tit. Mike Stewart, a little red-headed kid, he was our typist, and Sid would look at him, and either point to me or point to Larry Gelbart or Neil Simon, meaning, “This moment goes to them. Write that joke down. Write that idea down.” It was thrilling, and it was anxiety-making, to say the least. But it wasn’t pushing racks into the garment center. And every night when I left the writers room, I literally would get in the elevator and thank God. In those days, they didn’t have cameras and recording devices in the elevator, so you could talk to God. So I thanked God every day for giving me this job. And I knew every day I would get fired for being a fake, because that wasn’t my true profession; I should be a clerk. But anyway, okay: So little Mike Stewart – just our typist! – he went on to write “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Hello Dolly.” Joe Stein, another of our writers, wrote “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway. Neil Simon just like Shakespeare – maybe not quite as good, but pretty damn good. What a staff! Larry Gelbart. I don’t know how I kept up with them. I really don’t. I obviously work well in panic.
Are you ready for the story?
Here’s the story. Here’s the real story. I had just seen a movie called “Up in Arms” with Danny Kaye. I thought, “Danny Kaye is really good. He’s funny and delicious, but my guy is better. Sid is better.” I saw a movie with Red Skelton, and I thought, “Sid is better.” Then I saw a movie with Bob Hope and I thought, “He’s great, but Sid has physical comedy too. Sid is better.” I opened my eyes to the fact that movies last forever, and comedy – I’ll give you an example right now, the great “Red Buttons Show,” you can’t remember one great sketch from one “Red Buttons Show,” you can’t remember even the Bilko show, with Phil Silvers. I challenge you to remember one scene, one sketch, one joke. I knew it. I was blessed with this knowledge that black and white TV is going, it’s captured only on kinescopes. Sometimes, if it’s on tape, it’s erased. The first guest on the first Johnny Carson show, you can’t find it – it’s erased! I said, “A movie, it’s in technicolor, it has value. They respect it, they put it in a vault, they play it later.”
And I told Sid my thoughts. I said, “You’ve done two years of ‘Your Show of Shows,’ they want you to sign for another three. Don’t.” He said, “Are you crazy?” They wanted to give him $5000 a week. In 1952, you know what that was? That was the biggest salary in show business. But I said, “Sid, if something is really good, it’s artistic. You know, you go to the Met on Sunday. You like Matisse. You know good, you know art. You’re an artist. They live forever. You’ll be gone after two or three seasons.” And I knew that would appeal to him, because he was an artist in every way, and loved art. He said, “Okay, okay, alright. I’ll do it.” I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I’m going to give them my walking papers. I’ll leave at the end of the season.” I hugged and kissed him, I said, “Sid, we’ll go to Hollywood. If we need other writers, we’ll get other writers. ‘ll write movies, I’ll direct them. I tell you, I’m going to be a great comedy director.” And he believed in me. I said, “We’re going to do this Sid. We’re going to be around forever.” So okay, that was the deal.
A week later, he calls me, about 1 in the morning, and wakes me up, I say, “Sid, are you alright?” “I can’t sleep. I had a meeting today with Pat Weaver and Max Liebman, and my manager, and I couldn’t refuse the deal. I signed for three years, for $25,000 a show.” That was stupendous. I said, “Wow, that’s a lot of money. More than I ever heard of in show business.” There were 39 shows a year in those days. So he said, “Let me wait the three years for that contract, and I promise we will,” and that’s what happened. I stayed with him for the three years. And we did magnificent stuff, magnificent comedy – not just me, everybody did – but at the end of five years of television, Hollywood wasn’t that interested. They had more or less had him. He was used up. There wasn’t an easy segue after doing so many shows to go to the big screen. But I went. When “Your Show of Shows” was over, I shot myself like a missile right out to Hollywood. And I did it. First I made “The Producers” in New York, and then I went all the way to Yugoslavia to make “The Twelve Chairs,” I went to Warner Bros. to make “Blazing Saddles.” I never stopped. And I was very lucky, because I had refused to be on the show as a performer, or I would have been used up, too. But as it was, my name was fresh.
What else do you want to know? I’m giving you a lot, Alan!
One of the great things about “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” is that they weren’t all taped over. You can get a lot of them on DVD now, and that stuff holds up. And one of the things that was special about that show was that you were doing parody even back then – you were making fun of “From Here to Eternity” or “This Is Your Life” – and doing the things that so much of your movie career would be about.
That was always my thrust, to have fun with various genres.
So what’s the secret to doing a great parody? To looking at James Bond, Robin Hood or “Star Wars” and saying, “This is my hook. This is how I can have fun with this.”
I can’t even explain it. It started with “Get Smart.” Buck Henry and I knew, Buck said, “They take themselves too goddamn seriously. All we gotta do is point out how intense and foolish they are.” I said, “Okay.” So Buck and I went to work and created the pilot with Don Adams called “Get Smart,” and I said, “Well, that’s the way to go.”
Okay. Stay with me now. The first movie I made had nothing to do with parody. It had to do with humanity, with dreams, with visions, with hopes and with glory. And that was “The Producers.” And I worked for a guy who screwed little old ladies on a cracked leather couch, and they would give him checks made out to cash, and they would actually say, ‘That’s a funny name for a play: Cash.’ And he would actually say, “Well, ‘The Iceman Cometh’ is a funny name for a play, too.” That was all real. And I was very brave, and I did “Springtime for Hitler,” and when I did it as a musical on Broadway, a guy came storming up the aisle in the middle of the number, on opening night – big guy! – I caught up with him and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I am a soldier in World War II. This is insulting, this is denigrating, you are making fun of something that is too important to be frivolous about this.” I said, ‘I was in World War II, I didn’t see you there!” Finally, I got him into the lobby and calmed him down and tried to explain that I was having fun, and you can’t get on a soap box with Hitler, you have to ridicule him. He was a little drunk.
So I did “The Producers” with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. The next thing I did was a book by Ilf and Petrov called “The Twelve Chairs,” also a big, massive canvas, a big human explaining what the Russian revolution had done to the peasants, and what money still meant in the heart of each peasant. It’s a great book. I got Ron Moody, I got Frank Langella, I got the late, great Dom DeLuise. It’s probably the best movie I ever made.
And then, when both movies didn’t make a nickel, or a penny of profit – and they cost nothing, but they just about broke even – (agent) David Begelman called me on the street with this idea, and I said, “I don’t do anything that’s not my own,” and he said to read the outline, and Andy Bergman had written a treatment called “Tex-X,” and I said, “David, this is really a good idea.” And he could get me 50 grand to write it and another 50 grand to direct it, and I said, “Okay, my principles are gone.” I called Andy, I said, “I don’t know who you are, but I love this idea, and I love that you have dialogue set in 1974 that plays in 1874.” And so the late Richard Zanuck commissioned me to do it, and the first guy I called beside Andy was Richard Pryor. I said, “Richard, I gotta say the N-word, and I gotta say it a lot, if I’m going to make any points here, and I can’t do it if I don’t have you by my side.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll write Mongo and I’ll hang out with you for a while.” What an incredibly talented writer, but just completely undisciplined. Sometimes, he turned in for work, and sometimes he didn’t. He was part of a staff. And we made this movie, and it was a big success, and hence, satire! I said, “If I’m gonna eat… ‘Get Smart’ paid and this one’s a big hit. Ergo, satire pays the rent.” I just looked for the next genre I can have fun with. And that’s the way it went.
And let me tell you something. I love HBO. It’s all about HBO with this thing. I love HBO, because if you do Letterman or Leno, or these new guys, Kimmel or Fallon, they’re all good, but they give you a really tense eight minutes to make a point. We’ve been on the phone a half hour, and we haven’t made a point. The great thing about HBO is you can talk for an hour, an hour and a half, and they’ll cut it down to make it tigether, but your rhythms and your thoughts are there, wonderful, and true. Late night television – in order to sell a box set, that’s what I’ve been doing, I’m peddling it like my grandfather used to pedal herring, this box set, and it’s wonderful – you sit back. You’ve got an audience. They laugh or don’t laugh. I was very lucky with this particular show, with this Alan Yentob, it was good, my memory was working, he’s interviewed me before. One of the pieces he did on me was in the box set, and it’s called, “I Thought I Was Taller.” He interviews me in this HBO show, and he’s all over the place. He just asks questions about my childhood. It turns out to be once in a while really funny, but it’s like smelling something – the aroma of apple pie, and I go back to my grandma in the kitchen. It’s Proustian. It’s all memory evoking.”
You were one of the producers on “My Favorite Year.” Carl Reiner did “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Neil Simon wrote “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” Of those three fictional takes on the “Your Show of Shows” writing staff, which one came the closest to getting it right?
None of us. We’re all near misses. No one could have realized the exact feelings, the rhythms. You can only approximate. We did the best job, “My Favorite Year,” with the guest star, which was always some famous guest star, David Niven or Errol Flynn or something, with the way we used Peter O’Toole, and with Joe Bologna playing Sid Caesar, Lanie Kazan playing my mother. They did the best job on that level. In the writers room, I say Neil Simon did the best job in terms of getting the real stuff. The funniest writers room, I thought, was on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but they were very honest: they didn’t try to exactly approximate the composition of the room. They went with the talent of Morey Amsterdam and Baby Rose Marie, and those people. Everybody was good at something. I think we were the best at Sid Caesar. Joe Bologna would come in and say things that were exactly what Sid had said, like, “Get him a set of tires. White walls.”
I’m glad you asked about that, because I feel a little like Dracula, going back and sucking the blood out of what we did before. But it’s a good story to tell.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com