February 23, 2010
Q&A With Mel Brooks
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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MB: The good jokes still work, even if they are [outdated].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.
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