JewishJournal.com exclusive audio:
Interview with Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks sings
Mel Brooks is on a hot streak: He was just a Kennedy Center Honoree (along with Dave Brubeck, Robert De Niro, Grace Bumbry and Bruce Springsteen); 20th Century Fox just released “The Mel Brooks Collection” in Blu-ray — a nine-DVD set that includes “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Spaceballs,” among other classics; and Shout! Factory has released “The 2000 Year Old Man: The Complete History,” a three-CD, one-DVD set that collects the various incarnations in which Carl Reiner, the world’s greatest straight man, interviews a visitor who’s survived since ancient times and who speaks in a thick Jewish accent to hilarious effect.
Brooks discussed all this, and a bit more, recently in a phone interview from the offices of his production company. I am glad that I taped our conversation, because I was so excited to talk to him that I stopped taking notes after the first few questions. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Tom Teicholz: You were honored recently at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and on TV it looked like you and Bruce Springsteen were kibitzing during the whole show —
Mel Brooks: Oh yeah, well, you know I’m a big fan, and I’ve got all his — we used to call them records — [and] we were talking about how wonderful the evening was and how honored we felt sitting next to the president.
TT: When the President originally announced your award you sort of interrupted him, too.
MB: I kind of did. ... You know, I’m Jewish and irrepressible.
TT: Were you always interrupting people, even as a child?
MB:The minute I could talk, I interrupted people. Because I needed things.
TT: You needed things?
MB: I always needed things. I needed a bagel with cream cheese. I needed things, and I kept asking for them from the minute I could speak.
TT: Carl Reiner, in an interview that’s included in ‘The 2000 Year Old Man’ box set, says you were the same way in the room on ‘Your Show of Shows,’ you were the tummler.
MB: Yes, I used to do that in the Borscht Belt in the mountains. I kept the Jewish guests happy around the pool. I amused them with bad jokes, like, ‘You can’t keep Jews in jail. They eat lox.’ Or ‘[I was dating] a girl who was so thin the waiter said, “Can I check your umbrella?”’ Just bad, bad Borscht Belt humor, but, you know, it was a pleasure.
TT: There were a lot of funny guys in that famous writers’ room on ‘Your Show of Shows.’ Who, in your opinion, was funniest? Who made you laugh?
MB: They were some of the funniest guys in the world. There was Mel Tolkin, our head writer, [who] had a slight Russian Jewish comedian accent — he was very funny.
TT: I’ve heard that Mel Tolkin is the underrated comedy genius of that group.
MB: He used to break me up a lot. He was kind of my mentor, too. He helped me, showed me the ropes in comedy writing.
TT: There’s also that story about how he recommended a psychiatrist for you.
MB: I went to a psychiatrist, and the guy wouldn’t take me. He said, ‘I’ll find someone else for you, you’re too nervous for me.’
TT: Who were some of the other writers who made you laugh?
MB: In the room there were people besides Mel, like Larry Gelbart, very funny and very quick; and Carl Reiner, himself — he used to hang around the writers’ room, he was really funny. For a short while, there was Woody Allen. Woody was brilliant: dry wit, you had to listen closely. And then there was Neil Simon, who you never heard. ‘Doc’ Simon used to whisper in Carl’s ear, and Carl would say, ‘Neil has the joke,’ and then he would say the joke because Neil was too shy to say the joke.
TT: One of the other comments Reiner makes about ‘The 2000 Year Old Man’ that I found fascinating was that after World War II, after the Holocaust, Jewish humor — sounding like an old Jew — was off limits.
MB: Yes, it was not politically correct. It was not in any way correct. We only did the [‘2,000 Year Old Man’ routine] for friends, mostly Jews. So we thought we were on safe ground with the Jewish accent. It was the nature of the questions and answers — Steve Allen said, ‘You’ve got to put it on record.’
TT: It’s interesting that a lot of your humor is at the same time outrageous and in some ways old-fashioned.
MB:Yes. Old-fashioned, I always felt, is good. We can go back to Maimonides. Old-fashioned is good. The New Testament, to my mind, is OK, but not quite as hip and brilliant as the Old Testament. So, old-fashioned ... is good.
TT: There was a period when your movie work seemed to taper off, before the Broadway version of ‘The Producers.’ Did you think, ‘That’s it, it’s over?’
MB: It’s true. When you’re first discovered, they make a fuss over you. Four, five movies later, instead of ‘It’s a Mel Brooks movie!’ [you get] ‘It’s another Mel Brooks movie.’ You’ve got to live with that. But then 10 years go by, and it becomes a classic ... 20th Century Fox is issuing nine Mel Brooks movies with a whole book about my life and pictures from each movie. It’s quite good. It’s the Blu-ray edition, it’s not the hologram edition; you’ll have to wait for the hologram edition — that hasn’t come out yet. I’m kidding. ... It’s amazing that there’s an ebb and flow, and there [are] tides in your life. Suddenly, I’m very hot, with the Kennedy Honors, ‘The 2000 Year Old Man’ and now the Blu-ray edition.
TT: You had this amazing second wind with ‘The Producers.’
MB: That got the most Tonys ever given to a Broadway show. It’s amazing: I just wanted to open the door; I didn’t want to break it down.
TT: Seeing the Kennedy Center Honors honoring your work, it turns out you are a song-and-dance man, as much as a comedian.
MB: Turns out that there’s a lot of George M. Cohan [in me]. In my neighborhood, we called him Cohen. When I was a kid, we took him as our own. George M. Cohan wrote a lot of Broadway musicals and did what I later followed in his footsteps [doing]. I did the book [for ‘The Producers’] together with Tom Meehan. I would write the music and the lyrics.
TT: You could probably put on a revue, ‘The Songs of Mel Brooks.’
MB: I probably couldn’t. I could get on a stage, get a moderate-sized audience and [sing] songs. ... Like [breaks into song] :
‘Here I am…
I’m Melvin Brooks
I’ve come to stop the show
Just a ham who’s minus looks
But in your hearts I’ll grow!
I tell you gags, I’ll sing you songs
Happy little snappy tunes that roll along
I’m out of my mind
Won’t you be kind?
And, please love
That’s my first song that I did in the mountains. It would be greeted with a little applause, a little of [he groans], a lot of you’d hear ‘English! English!’ ... because a lot of Jews, when they found out they were in for a night of English, they were very unhappy. I had only a few Yiddish jokes, and my Yiddish to this day is rather limited.
My grandmother spoke Yiddish. Her English wasn’t so terrific. She knew a few English words, like ‘subway.’ She didn’t even know fenster for window. She knew ‘vindow.’ But my mother, who came here when she was 3, her name was Brookman, she actually had an Irish accent. You say, ‘Why? Why did Mel Brooks’ mother have an Irish accent? That’s crazy! Why?’
MB: She was 3 years old, and when she went to school all the teachers were Irish, and she thought that’s the way you speak English. You know [how] we say in the Brooklyn accent ‘Thirty-third and Third’? That’s all from Ireland.
TT: That’s funny.
MB: It’s true. I’m half-Irish, without knowing it.
TT: When you originally did ‘The 2000 Year Old Man,’ you were in fact quite young — now you are closer, at least in comedy years, to being 2,000.
MB: That’s very funny .... [laughs] I’m approaching that 2,000-year-old guy for real!
TT: Does the advice [from] ‘The 2000 Year Old Man’ still work?
MB: The good jokes still work, even if they are [outdated]. Even if the things are not there anymore. I don’t know if the products that I mentioned are still [there].
TT: Nectarines are still a good fruit.
MB: Nectarines are still good.
TT: No fried foods is still good advice.
TT: But there are a few better products since then than wax paper.
MB: We mention that! Carl says, ‘What about the heart-lung machine?’ I said, I believe, on the record: ‘That was good. That was good. Hard to get into the medicine cabinet, but that was good.’
Some things are really dated, but we never did anything political. We always did [material about] the human condition. Human behavior. [Carl would say:] ‘What were the means of transportation a thousand years ago?’ I’d say: ‘Fear. A lion would come behind you, you’d move.’
A lot of the jokes from the early record still work. On the first album there are four or five characters ... that people don’t know about. [The German Psychiatrist, The Third Best Poet, The Astronaut, etc.]
TT: At the Kennedy Center Honors, Carl Reiner said he wanted to get you back in the studio to record again.
MB: We might. But I said to Carl, ‘If we do it, let’s do it like the first record: Don’t tell me what you’re going to ask, I don’t even want to know the subject. We’ll just ad-lib it like we did the first two records.’
TT: Carl Reiner has written several books and several volumes of autobiography. When are you going to write your book, your story?
MB: I’m not old enough yet. I’m only 83. When I get to be 93, I’ll start thinking about, ‘Maybe I should write an autobiography?’
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com/tommywoodtheblog.