brooks01Mel Brooks on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton

Mel Brooks has been responsible for many of the funniest moments of the last 40 years. How is this for some credits?: 'The Two Thousand Year Old Man', 'Get Smart', 'Blazing Saddles', 'Young Frankenstein'. And of course, the hit musical 'The Producers', which has just opened in Australia. He's also responsible for my favourite definition of comedy: 'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.' Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks: Thank you, thank you. Is this free? Andrew Denton: That is free and it’s all yours. Mel Brooks: Okay. Andrew Denton: The glass not the wardrobe I’m afraid. Mel Brooks: Right. Andrew Denton: Mel, it is a delight to have you here, and when 'The Producers' first appeared as a film in 1968, it went okay, but when it was a musical on Broadway it just blew everyone away. Twelve Tonys, the most ever, why is it such a hit this time round? Mel Brooks: Haven’t a clue. Actually, it was kind of outrageous and a bit before its time in 1968 when it was released as a film. Just the phrase, 'Springtime for Hitler', there were a lot of Jews in New York you know what I mean, and they didn’t take to it you know, so it was a strange story about a couple of scoundrels, who are trying to raise a lot more money than they needed, so therefore they needed a flop. If it closed then they could take all their money and go to Rio, but if it was a hit they’ve sold a thousand percent, they could never pay it off. So it was a little complicated plot, and a few smart people liked it. And then there was a thing called video and then there was a thing called DVDs, then it became more successful, and so the time was right for it, ripe for it actually, to go to Broadway. David Geffen, very famous American music mogul, very short, very little guy, wears high heels and David said this could be a musical, this should be a musical on Broadway. I said David forget it, it’s just become a hit movie and they’re selling the DVDs, don’t annoy me. And he says, “no, write songs for it”. I said no, I don’t think it’s going to work, you know it’s a perfectly good little film, let’s leave it alone. But he’s like a terrier you know, he gets the cuff, you can’t shake him off. So I said okay! I’ll write one song, and if you like the song we’ll go forward. So the first song I wrote was a song called 'Where Did We Go Right', and it happens because 'Springtime for Hitler’s' a big success, and instead of the flop that they were expecting they got this big success. So they sing this song, (Mel sings) ‘Oh we could lose, half the audience were Jews, oh where did we go right.’ He liked that song, so I went on to write other little ditties, other little songs, and little by little it became a show. Andrew Denton: The extraordinary thing about 'The Producers', this great comic premise, is it’s actually based to some extent on someone you knew? Mel Brooks: Yes, I worked for a guy, who should be nameless because he has grandchildren. He wore a kind of a charcoal grey Alpaca overcoat and a Homburg, winter and summer, he wore that outfit that was, he was Max Bialystock, that was the guy, and every day there’d be three or four little old ladies, who could just about manage to get up the steps, to get to his office with the little checky, they’d always write out a cheque to his current production which was always named "Cash', that was the name of his current play, 'Cash'. Andrew Denton: 'Cash, The Musical'. Mel Brooks: 'Cash the Musical', 'Cash the Drama', 'Cash the Comedy', always 'Cash'. And he would invariably make love to them on a cracked leather couch, and instead of being angry for being, you know, they made nothing with their investment, but they were grateful for being wante, and treated like young girls again, so they loved Bialystock. And he was the character that was in my mind, and I was the Leo Blum, the little caterpillar who would one day become a butterfly and be on Broadway, and then it took shape and I began to write it as that, after a little while. Andrew Denton: For those who haven’t seen it we have here a clip from the film. Mel Brooks: From the film? Andrew Denton: From the film, which will give you some sense of the magnificence of 'Springtime for Hitler'. (Show film clip; ‘The Producers’ 1968) Andrew Denton: This was 23 years after the end of World War Two, up until that time Hitler had pretty much been portrayed as a genocidal maniac? Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: Perhaps unfairly. Mel Brooks: Yeah. Andrew Denton: And ah. Mel Brooks: Perhaps unfairly, that's very good. Andrew Denton: Here you were putting forward as a comic premise, was that really what it was like, people mouths open? Mel Brooks: Yes. I mean, when they saw the...a lot of people at the first performance, it’s Fine Art Theatre on 58th Street in New York, a lot of people just got up and said boo, and they left, they didn’t think it was funny. They said “this is not a subject for humour”, and I maintain any and everything is a subject for humour, and that humour is the conscience of mankind, and without humour we’d have no unconscious truth to tell. There are some things that may not seem funny, on the surface. Like for instance somebody said to me, could you do something about death? I said, yeah I could, I could have fun with death. They said well what? I said well, let me tell you a true story, this is a true story. I have a friend who was on the Show of Shows, many years ago with Sid Caesar and Karl Reiner, little guy looked like you. Andrew Denton: Mmm. Mel Brooks: He looked just like you, his name was Howard Morris. Howard Morris unfortunately lost his father, and I said to Howard, so you lost your father, he said “no we didn’t lose him, he’s dead. We know where he is”. Funny, so you could see it can happen. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: You can have fun. I mean you can have fun with anything. Andrew Denton: You’ve said that “how can your enemy bludgeon you to death if he’s laughing at you?” Mel Brooks: Right. Andrew Denton: Is ridiculing those you despise, is it effective or just immensely satisfying? Mel Brooks: Both. It’s immensely satisfying and sometimes it’s effective. If you can make a dictator the object of ridicule and laughter, he’s not going to have legs to stand on. But if you try and out rhetoric him, you’re going to lose, because that’s what they’re good at. *(Mel shouts orders in German)* I mean you can’t beat them guys, right? Andrew Denton: *Andrew jumps up and salutes* Sorry you’re just remarkable. Mel Brooks: Very good, let's take this on the road. Andrew Denton: Now we march on Channel Nine. Bringing a production to another country is a scary prospect, because you know what’s expected, and you’re not sure you’re going to find the standards you need, are you happy with the show. Mel Brooks: I’m very happy. I saw the show last night here in Melbourne, and it’s very rare that Australian audiences will give a show a standing ovation, will stand up at the end. They don’t, they’re like the English, they’re rather conservative about it, they’re not demonstrative. Except one girl I met on a street corner, she was pretty demonstrative. For an Australian. But that’s another story. Andrew Denton: As you tour Australia you’re attracting a lot of attention, I guess you’re used to that, do you find the media here, do they treat you well? Mel Brooks: Well you know, here’s the media, the media. Just talk about the guys who take pictures. It’s “Mel, over here! Mel, Mel over here! Mel, Mel, Mel, Mel over here! I’m over here Mel! Mel, Mel!” You know they yell, they yell. Now what you’re trying to do, when they take a snappy, they’re taking all these pictures of you, and you try to be as engaging and as handsome as you can. But all you gotta do is one picture, one picture like this. (Mel pulls funny face) It’s in every paper, it’s the only picture they’ll print. There’s that picture, that’s the Harpo picture, and if I do anything like this (Mel takes out comb and impersonates Hitler), it’s in immediately you know. Andrew Denton: And thank you, you’ve just given us the promo for the show. You’ve said that your comedy comes from rage. That even though you may be better and smarter, that you still don’t belong. Now, here you are, probably the most beloved, if not the most successful comedian, of the last forty years, every award known to man, what part of you doesn’t belong? Mel Brooks: I think, whatever I said, I take back. I rescind. No everything belongs, I’m very happy. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: I’ve never had it so good. There’s not a gorgeous cocktail waitress that won’t have a drink with me, just as long as I pay. But I mean, I’m very happy, everything has worked out. I’m married to the most gorgeous woman that ever lived, she is very talented, her name is Anne Bancroft, she’s beautiful, I’ve gotta tell you. And she’s my beloved wife, she loves me. She couldn’t come here because she’s making a movie with another guy called Brooks, James L Brooks, different guy. But I got it good, I got it good, you know, if I want to order a sirloin steak, I order it, I don’t worry about it. Andrew Denton: You are the master of your sirloin steak? Mel Brooks: Yes I am. But it wasn’t always so. Andrew Denton: No, and you know that saying, ‘the past is another country, things happen differently there’. You grew up in another world which was... Mel Brooks: I grew up in Brooklyn. Andrew Denton: In the Depression. What was... Mel Brooks: During the Depression. Andrew Denton: What was the world like for you as a kid? Mel Brooks: Well, I didn’t know, we were happy. There was my mother, my father died when I was only two, my brother Irving was ten and my mother was only like twenty-nine or thirty. She had to raise these four children, Irving, Lenny, Bernie, Mel, she had to raise four boys, and she did a very good job. We didn’t have much meat or fish or anything, but we had beans and eggs and things, and we were happy, we were. And everybody in the neighbourhood, you had a million foster parents who sat on the stoop, and watched the traffic go by and said, “Mel, you get out of this, Mel I’m going to tell your mother, Mel”, you know. So you had all these other mothers and it was a very good, it was a very happy, there was a lot of love. Andrew Denton: Well you were a...? Mel Brooks: It was very good. I didn’t walk until I was four, because they just threw me from one to another. I mean, it was really great. Andrew Denton: In your gang you were the King of Corner Shtick , what was that? Mel Brooks: Yeah, well I was a street corner comic you know. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: Here’s a sample of my great humour in those days. I met a girl, this girl was so skinny, I mean, I’m talking about a skinny girl, this girl was slender, we’re talking skinny, I took her to a restaurant, the maitre’d said check your umbrella, that’s how skinny this girl. I mean that’s how bad these jokes were you know. I’ve come a long way since then. Andrew Denton: You’d stand around on the corner? Mel Brooks: Yeah, yeah. And then finally I got a job working in the Borschbelt. Do you know what the Borschbelt does? Andrew Denton: No explain. Mel Brooks: Well, it’s where Jews go to the mountains, and they’re supposed to get fresh air and do exercise, and it’s supposed to be healthy, but they just eat, they sit and eat, that’s why they eat a lot of Borsch, it’s called the Borschbelt. What happens to these Jews, they’re remarkable people. They cut up vegetables and they cover them with a ton of sour cream, which you’d think cholesterol, and they cut off the heel of pumpernickel bread, and they slather it with sweet butter that thick, and they eat the bread and butter, and they eat the cut vegetables with all the sour cream, and then they sit on the porch after their lunch, and they rock, and then they die. And then you would think they died because of this incredible infusion of cholesterol. No! They die because they love to sing 'Dancing in the Dark', and it’s a very rangy song, and they never start it in the right key. Now for instance, if Bing Crosby were to do it and he always did it correctly. I’ll do a quick version. (Mel sings) ‘Dancing in the dark til the tune in, we’re waltzing in the dark and the sooner we can face the music together, dancing as we’re dancing in the dark.’ And that’s pretty high, that’s as high as you can get. Andrew Denton: That’s very good. Mel Brooks: Now here’s where the Jews start. You’re supposed to start ‘Dancing in the..’ Here’s where the Jews start. (Mel sings in a higher pitch) ‘Dancing in the dark..’ You know, they’re cute, they’re cute, they’re on.. ‘Dancing in the dark.. til the tune ends, waltzing in the dark and the sooner we can face the music together.’ Boom and they have a stroke and they die. It’s the truth. Andrew Denton: Can I take you back to your first recorded stage performance, which was in a melodrama when you were fourteen, called ‘Uncle Harry’. Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: How did that go? Mel Brooks: It was a melodrama. It was a murder mystery, ‘Uncle Harry’, and I was Harry, and I was accused of killing my sister-in-law, which I didn’t do, and I was very nervous, and the District Attorney said, "Harry, here let me pour you a glass of water, and take your time, drink your water, and tell me about Lettie and Hester and the story", so I reach for the water, and the glass is wet, and boom, it breaks right on stage, and I walk down to the footlights, can you follow me, I walk down the footlights, and I had this wig, big white wig, and I took my wig off and I said, "It’s my first job, I’m only fourteen, I didn’t even..." and the director chased me across three different hotels to kill me. That was my first performance in a melodrama, and I said, maybe I’m made for comedy, perhaps I should do comedy. Andrew Denton: When you were seventeen, you went to war like so many of your generation? Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: What sort of a war did you have, did people actually shoot at you? Mel Brooks: It was called World War Two remember? It was a big war. Andrew Denton: How quickly people forget. Mel Brooks: Yeah, yeah. I remember we were...I was with the 11O4th Engineer Combat Battalion, attached to the, I think, 78th Division of the 7th Army, and we were near the Germans, and they were on the other side of a creek, and we were on one side of the creek, and we could hear them singing. Ya, ya, ya, ya, ya. ya, ya, ya, ya. And I said give me that, give me that blow horn, and I sang, "I’ve been away from you a long time..." I did a Jolson medley, and believe it or not, at the end of the medley I could hear clapping. That was my wartime activity. Andrew Denton: That’s also where you did your first Hitler impersonation? Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: Yes. Mel Brooks: I did my Hitler impersonation in the army. Andrew Denton: To popular acclaim? Mel Brooks: Yeah, well no, they didn’t like it. Andrew Denton: Ohh? Mel Brooks: Nobody, nobody really liked it you know, they didn’t think it was that funny, especially the Germans. Andrew Denton: Skipping forward. Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: After the war your first professional break was when you were working at a resort and the regular comedian fell over, couldn’t do it. Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: Maybe you’d been singing that song, and you were asked to step in? Mel Brooks: I did, yes, I did his poor material, check your umbrella material, and then I began to improvise. I said what’s really funny, I said well what’s really funny is what happened. So that day there was a maid who had just come from Poland, they all came from Poland for some reason, who locked herself in the closet, in the broom closet and somehow she got locked in. She was banging on the door, and everybody was in the pool, or everybody was on the lawn, and you could hear, screaming, she was screaming in Yiddish or Polish. So everybody heard this story eventually. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: So on the stage I did my umbrella joke, I did all my poor jokes, and then for no reason I just shouted. (Mel shouts in Polish) Everyone went crazy because they remembered the maid that was locked, and I said oh that’s it, so when I began writing comedy I said “I won’t write jokes, I’ll write little character pieces, little character studies” and that’s how I began to write for Sid Caesar and 'The Show of Shows'. Andrew Denton: Let’s talk about this, because a lot of people wouldn’t know. In the golden age of television in the fifties in America, perhaps the goldenest show was your 'Show of Shows', Sid Caesar, and in that writer’s room that you were thrown into, as I think the youngest, there were amongst others Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart who created 'Mash'. Mel Brooks: Yes. Andrew Denton: Karl Reiner, Woody Allen, what was it like in that room? Mel Brooks: Well it was, I mean we were all trying to get the King’s attention, Sid Caesar was the king, he was the comic, and we were the writers, and I remember one day I was saying, “I got it, I got the...?” We were trying to write a joke about carrots, Bugs Bunny and carrots and they’re all screaming "me, me, me, listen to this, listen to that", and I said "I got it, I got it, I got it", and Sid said "okay Mel what is it?" I didn’t have it, I didn’t know why, I just wanted his attention. So I said, "Oh this guy, he ate so many carrots that he couldn’t sleep, he closed his eyes at night and he’d see right through his eyeballs." And Sid did it, did it on the air, he got a big laugh. So he said okay, and he kept me. The first thing I ever wrote for Sid Caesar was 'Jungle Boy'. I created a character for him, Jungle Boy, who just stepped off an aeroplane from the jungle, "What do you eat, what keeps you alive, what’s your sustenance Jungle Boy?" "Brrr brrrr brrrr boop ahhhh". "Ah pigeons". "Brrr". "What are you afraid of, what frightens you?" "Buick". "Buick? Buick scares you?" “Big like big eyes. Jungle Boy punch the grille, Buick dies". And he did this character you know, he kept doing this Jungle Boy character, and little by little it caught on, and then I began writing the German professor. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: The mountain climber, and this German professor was an expert on everything, there was nothing that the German professor didn’t know. I mean he was brilliant. So, he would be interviewed by Karl Reiner, and Karl would say, "You’ve climbed all the mountains in the world haven’t you?" He said, "yes, the higher the mountain, I’m right up there". He says, "What do you do if your rope breaks?" "Well, scientifically, if you’re climbing on the top of a mountain, and your rope breaks, start screaming and scream as loud as you can, for as long as you can". And Karl says, "Why is this so?" "They’ll know how to find you". So this guy knew nothing you know. Andrew Denton: Writing in that company for that show, what was the fuel for you, was it anger, that anger that you say informs comedy or was it fear? Mel Brooks: Well it’s competition, it was anger, it was also, we were like puppies, a litter of pups in a cardboard box. I mean we hated each other, we loved each other, it was a wonderful early experience, and it was live. It was an hour and a half of live, no tape, there was no tape in those days, and if you made a mistake… Sid Caesar once came on stage and he was supposed to go in to the boardroom, he was the head of the, CEO of a very important company. And his dresser, looking at the wrong cue sheet, put him in a Roman toga and a helmet, and he rushes on stage, he sees it’s the boardroom, he sits at the head of the table and he says, "Those damn costume parties they last forever". Andrew Denton: That’s good! Did you get a buzz out of other people doing your jokes, or was a part of you thinking… Mel Brooks: No I did, I did. No, no I never wanted to upstage them, and do it myself. I always felt, Gene Wilder was the vehicle for my comedy passion. When we did 'The Producers' he played Leo Bloom, and we did 'Blazing Saddles' and he was the Waco Kid, or when we did 'Young Frankenstein' and he was Doctor Frankenstein, it was the best. And then Gene Wilder, unfortunately for me, went on to write and direct his own films. So I looked around for another Gene Wilder, and I couldn’t find it, and the closest I could find to Gene Wilder was me, because I knew the stuff. So I did my first movie, 'Silent Movie', with Don DeLuise and Marty Feldman, and then after that I did 'High Anxiety'. (Mel sings) ‘High Anxiety!’ I do a little impression of Sinatra there. And after that I used my self for awhile. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: And it was okay, but it was never as good for me honestly, personally, as working with Gene Wilde, because I could step back and see everything more clearly, I could see it, I could see the comedy better. When you’re in it, and you’re doing it, you don’t have a clear vision of it, as well as you do when you’re in it. Andrew Denton: You also left a wonderful television legacy in 'Get Smart'. Now I’m guessing that the shoe phone was actually the world’s first mobile phone, did you patent that? Mel Brooks: I didn’t ever realise that, but we had a shoe phone, and do you know, I met a guy from the CIA, oh about ten years ago, and he said “ I don’t know how you knew it, but we actually have a room in the Pentagon that’s lined with lead, ceiling, floors, walls, everything, no windows and we call it the Cone of Silence”. He says “and I’ll be damned, we can’t hear ourselves in there. Just like you said.” Andrew Denton: Did people from the spy community contact you to say, look we’ve got some great stuff you could use? Mel Brooks: No. Andrew Denton: No, you never got...? Mel Brooks: No, no, they were, you know, they’re all paranoid. They’re all crazy, you know. Andrew Denton: What’s the matter with these people. Mel Brooks: But once in awhile you meet somebody and they would tell you, some shtick like the Cone of Silence. Andrew Denton: Yeah. That’s fantastic. In '75 the film 'Blazing Saddles', your star exploded again and remarkably about this, that famous scene where the sheriff takes himself hostage is also partly based on an incident in your own life? Mel Brooks: What was that? I don’t remember. Andrew Denton: You were a kid and you stole a cap gun from a shop. Mel Brooks: Oh it’s true. Andrew Denton: Thank God because I thought I might be interviewing the wrong person altogether. Mel Brooks: I was then, I was about eight years old, and my friend Benji and I, we used to go to the Woolworths, and we’d cop little things like a sheriff’s badge, or a yoyo, little, little stuff that we could get away with, if we could get away with it, and we often did. One day I saw, and it was too big to cop, really too big to take, there was a cap pistol. Beautiful, looked like a Roy Rogers six shooter, but it was fake, a little fake gun and I thought, oh God I love this so much, so on the way out I just grabbed it, put it under my jacket and I ran and at the door. The manager caught me, pulled me back and said “I’m calling the police”, you know he’s trying to scare me,” I’m calling the police, come into my office, I’ve been watching you, you can’t get away with this”, and I did something crazy and foolish, I reached in, got this toy gun and said, "Get away, I’ll blast you". And he jumped back and I ran out. Just amazing, it was amazing. Andrew Denton: Even though he knew it was a cap gun? Mel Brooks: Well he forgot for the minute, someone’s pointing a gun at you, you think twice. Andrew Denton: Of the many great scenes in 'Blazing Saddles', probably the most famous is the fart scene, the baked beans around the fire. Mel Brooks: Oh we don’t call, we call it wind, wind. Andrew Denton: I do apologise. I was thinking gone with the farts, I’m terribly sorry. Mel Brooks: No, no it’s, yes it’s not de rigueur to call them farts. Andrew Denton: I sit corrected. Mel Brooks: Yeah. Andrew Denton: Why was that... Mel Brooks: I sit corrected is good. I heard you. Andrew Denton: Why was that scene so funny? Mel Brooks: Because everybody loves a fart. Because it’s natural, it’s a great sound. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: But we didn’t make them on the set, we didn’t do them when we actually filmed it, we just had them moving, you know to indicate more or less. And then later we took soap and water, and in the cutting room we made those sounds. Andrew Denton: The other one of course is punching the horse. Now, I’m guessing that caused a bit of a stir, you punching a horse? Mel Brooks: Many, many letters from concerned citizens, from the ASPCA, but these animals are brilliant, they’re trick horses. They use a little bit of fishing line that you can’t see, and when the fishing line is pulled they know that, unconsciously, they know to bend and roll, and they roll, they know how to roll; they’re circus horses. So, he missed the horse by a mile, it’s just when you angle something on a camera, if you put the camera in the right direction, you make the sound effect, and the cowboy, the guy riding it, pulls the horse’s head at the same time, so it looks like he’s actually hit, and then he rolls. But I got a thousand letters you know. There were so many. And also the black problem, I never got a letter from anybody black, it was only from super concerned politically correct citizens, who thought that you should never use the 'N' word. I said, “but you’ve got to tell the truth, and besides our hero is a black guy, he’s a black sheriff”. And in the end, Rockridge, the people of Rockridge, really love him and realise that he has saved them. So, our hearts were in the right direction. But I got a lot of letters. Andrew Denton: That movie which was a huge hit, you made a very interesting comment once where, just almost in brackets, you said, 'fame the enemy'. What does having a huge hit like that do to your work, do to your career? Mel Brooks: First of all two things. One, unconsciously you get lazy, you feel, well, it’s like you’ve climbed somewhere and you’ve hit a plateau. So you say well, I’ll sit down, I’m famous so I don’t have to worry about it, which is very bad for creative people. Creative people should always be striving, they should always be hungry, they should be looking for the next place to go. And secondly, the terrible thing is that the audience, it stops you from experimenting because the audience gets jaded, they want a hit, they want a big success, and so you don’t want to experiment because you say, well, I’ll disappoint the audience, they may not like it, I better do something that I think is more commercial. And nobody knows, no creative writer knows what is commercial and what isn’t. You just write from your heart, you write from the deepest, creative urges in you, and you write from your soul, and you just either get lucky or not, but if you try to create something that you think is commercial, that’s studio thinking, that’s the people who run studios think like that, but the writer should never think like that. So a hit is a bad thing for the writer. Andrew Denton: Do you ever go into your movies, sneak in, watch them anonymously? Mel Brooks: All the time. Andrew Denton: Yeah? Mel Brooks: Sometimes they catch me and I have to pay. Andrew Denton: Thank God you’re the producer. Mel Brooks: Yeah, I’m Mel Brooks, oh Mel Brooks come on, you know, it’s seven fifty you know. Andrew Denton: Is that a great thing, watching people’s faces? Mel Brooks: Oh it’s great. sometimes I sneak in and I go down to the front row .and wear an old cap, and I turn around and I look and I see, sometimes they’re not laughing, but it’s just as good. Their faces are bathed from the silver glow of the screen with smiles and happiness, and you say gee, I made them happy, I made them smile. It’s a great treat, it’s a great treat, it’s worth it all. My contract has always been with the audience, never with the critics. You can’t ever win the critics. The critics are, they’re in trouble, they’re envious people, they can’t do it so they’re angry at you for doing it. So, you never should try to please the critics. But you’ve got to please yourself, and if you please yourself, you’ll please the majority of the audience. Andrew Denton: Everybody has their favourites, I’m going to indulge myself and play a bit from my favourite movie of yours, which is this is from Young Frankenstein. (Show film clip) Andrew Denton: I’m going to ask you probably a horrible question, we just saw Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman. Mel Brooks: Yes, yes. Andrew Denton: Of the many brilliant, funny people you’ve worked with, who is the one that gives you the gut busting laugh, the one that makes you throw your head back? Mel Brooks: Too many. If you say one, if I said Marty Short, then Gene Wilder, who is still with us. would be very upset, so I won’t say. Andrew Denton: Working with this calibre of people do you, have you ever found yourself literally on the floor laughing? Mel Brooks: Yeah sometimes, sometimes I will actually grab my belly and fall on the floor, and scream with laughter. Andrew Denton: And then are there people who are remarkably funny as performers, but who to work with is like pulling your eyes out? Mel Brooks: Yeah, I’ve heard about them, I’ve never worked with them, so if somebody has a bad reputation, if somebody is a prig, and always nasty and always selfish, I just simply won’t work with them, because comedy doesn’t thrive under those conditions. Andrew Denton: None of your productions have female leads, for you, are women as funny as men, or it’s just an irrelevant distinction? Mel Brooks: Madeline Kahn was one of the greatest comedy artists that ever lived, and she killed them. She was the funniest, she was amazing. I mean when she sang "I’m Tired” in ‘Blazing Saddles’. (Mel sings) "I am tired, sick, tired of love, I’ve had my fill of love from below the bar". She was amazing, she did this Marlene Dietrich take-off, she was fabulous. I couldn’t measure man or woman, because Madeline Kahn was the best. She’s as good as any man I ever worked with. Andrew Denton: It’s a great answer. You mentioned... Mel Brooks: And Gilda Radner, Gene’s late wife, was an absolute genius, she’d make me fall on the floor and roll with laughter. Andrew Denton: You mentioned before your wife Anne Bancroft, now you are possibly the most Jewish comedian in the world, and Anne is not Jewish? Mel Brooks: She’s not Jewish. Andrew Denton: How did your mum react to this? Mel Brooks: My mum smiled, and stuck her head in the oven. Turned on the gas, and was ready to die. Andrew Denton: So you were many times blessed? Mel Brooks: Yes. No as a matter of fact, Jews will accept a Gentile if they’re a celebrity. And she, my mother accepted Anne Bancroft because she was a big star. Andrew Denton: You’ve also had four kids, were you a funny dad or did your kids just. Mel Brooks: No, no I had three kids with my first wife, and one with Anne. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: My son with Anne, who’s thirty now, his name is Maximilian, Max Brooks, he wrote a book, the book is called 'The Zombie Survival Guide'. I don’t know whether it’s hit Australia yet, it’s all about zombies, it’s a survival guide, if you run into a zombie you need this book. This book will teach you how to defend yourself, where to go, where to hide, how to avoid them, what they do, what they eat late at night. It’s just the craziest book and it’s going to be a film, they want to make a film of it. Andrew Denton: Because he wrote for awhile for Saturday Night Live? Mel Brooks: He wrote for two years for Saturday Night Live. Andrew Denton: Now how was it for him having a master of comedy for a dad? Mel Brooks: Yeah. Andrew Denton: Tough? Mel Brooks: Well it was tough, it was tough. He had a tough road to hoe, but he did it. He never complained, he was his own man, ever since he was fifteen, and he’s just a great, great kid, and you know, I’m very proud of him. Andrew Denton: That father son thing, did he ever look to you for a critique? Mel Brooks: Oh yeah, he’d send me rough drafts of stuff that he wrote. You’ve got to be smart as a father, you can see a lot of wrong things, but you only pick one or two that can be corrected, you’ve got to be very encouraging, and little by little his work got better and better and better, and now he really doesn’t need me anymore. And I would never write anything about zombies, so he’s gone in a whole other direction. Andrew Denton: As a writer, you have what you call the god given gift of observation, what foible do you have that’s comedy gold? Mel Brooks: Foible? Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: How about anxiety attacks? How about shivering on the bathroom floor at four in the morning shaking and calling for help. Andrew Denton: You get those? Mel Brooks: Never. Andrew Denton: Would you like to? Mel Brooks: I’ve never had that. Andrew Denton: I’m guessing you... Mel Brooks: I said how about that? I never went through that, no, no. Andrew Denton: Never, you never had high anxiety? Mel Brooks: No, no, never. I used to throw up between parked cars once in awhile, just the bout of nerves. So, no, no. I’ve had my, every young person, every young girl and boy going through some rites of passage, will have a lot of emotional shtick. It’s because young people are disassembled at fourteen or fifteen, they’re disassembled, and they’re not reassembled until they’re about nineteen or twenty. And somewhere in between they don’t know where to go, what to do, and they’ve got all these hormones and emotions, and so you’ve just got to be very patient with kids, and give them some room, right? Right, right. Andrew Denton: As the man that made a joke of Adolf Hitler in the face of public outrage, is there any comedy that you ever take offence to? Mel Brooks: No. If it’s funny. I would love to see a very funny sketch about Osama bin Laden, I’d love it. I’d love it because it wouldn’t bother me a bit. If it’s funny, if it isn’t funny it’s in bad taste. I think striving to be funny and failing is in bad taste. But you can be funny about anything. I think 'The Passion' needed a few jokes, that’s my opinion, you know. Mel Gibson could’ve used three or four really big jokes in that movie, but that’s only my opinion. But anything can use comedy, any subject needs comedy. Comedy leavens the bread, the bread rises through comedy. Andrew Denton: I’m just trying to imagine where the comedy would’ve come in 'The Passion' Mel Brooks: Well, I think before he got to the cross. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: Once he’s there forget it. Then you’re fooling around with too much, it’s too big. Andrew Denton: That’s right, yeah. Mel Brooks: But on the way you could have some fun, lose his sandal or something. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Swept up by a Pharisee. Mel Brooks: You could have some fun, you know. Andrew Denton: Have you spoken to Mel? Mel Brooks: Or a Jew could be pulling his beard and it could come off, you could have some fun. Andrew Denton: Just something to lighten it up? Mel Brooks: Right to lighten it up. Andrew Denton: You’re seventy eight now? Mel Brooks: Yes, not yet. Andrew Denton: Almost. Mel Brooks: Give me a break. Andrew Denton: My apologies. Mel Brooks: I’m seventy-seven. Andrew Denton: Seventy-seven. Is any of your childhood still with you? Mel Brooks:It’s all with me I’m still a kid. The kid in me has never succumbed to the adult, to doing the right thing. I’ve never done the right thing, so I’m still feeling like a kid, I’m enjoying it. You say I’m seventy-seven or whatever, I think I’m about twelve. I feel like I’m twelve, or I feel like I’m twenty-two. When I was a little kid, if somebody said they were thirty-five, I’d say “Oooh, they’re going to die soon”. But now as I get older it doesn’t mean a thing. My wife’s mother, Mildred Italiano, that’s her real name, Anna Maria Louisa, Italiano is my wife’s, Anne Bancroft’s name. Mildred Italiano is ninety-six, on her way to ninety seven shortly, she lives above her daughter, Joan. Joan is married to Johnny Perna. They live in a two storey family house, she’s ninety-six, she makes her own bed, she cooks her own meals, she does the floors, she goes down to the market at the bottom of the hill and shops. Sometimes, if she has a lot of bundles, Joan will drive down and help drive her back up, I mean if it’s too heavy. But the woman, it’s because she does these things that she’s still healthy, and vibrant, and very alive. Once you give up and say “oh I’m just an old person, I better sit in this chair and rock and sing 'Dancing in the Dark'.” Andrew Denton: Don't hit that note. Mel Brooks: You musn't ever give in. Never give in to thinking you’re old, because you’re never old. Your mind, and I tell you this and listen to me carefully, your mind is never ever old, it’s eternally young. Your mind is eternally young, that’s if you keep alert and alive, and aware of what’s happening in the world, and you read, and you see things, you’ll never grow old, especially in your mind. Andrew Denton: You said a lovely thing once, that comedy is opposite of death, what did you mean by that? Mel Brooks: Well, when you’re dead, you’re very, it’s very quiet. You can hardly, you never go anywhere. Andrew Denton: No, no one can. Mel Brooks: You never see anything. Andrew Denton: Yeah. Mel Brooks: But comedy is lively, comedy is joy, and that’s what keeps us going, We’ve got to look forward to little, little happinesses. Little, little joys, and comedy is very, very important, it’s a vital. We underestimate its value, but we should see more comedies, I’ll be richer if you do. But we should all really see more comedies, and the comedy shows are wonderful. Comedy is life giving, it’s invigorating. I really believe it. Andrew Denton: Your comedy, your very presence, is a great affirmation of life, I thank you . Mel Brooks: Andrew Denton. Andrew Denton: Mel Brooks, thank you.


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