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Adelina Magazine Feb 1980

by Jerry Bauer

Thanks to Stephen King fan Scott M for the scans of the interview!

Mel Brooks : Adelina Feb 1980
Originally published in Adelina Magazine* Feb 1980
Interview conducted in Rome by Jerry Bauer

Of all the contemporary movie writer-director-comics, Mel Brooks is not only the funniest but the purest. He is concerned solely with giving the public a good time, and the tools he employs to this end are devastating satire, parody and irony.

Whereas Woody Allen and Brooks' protege, Gene Wilder, are slow, introspective comics using themselves as objects of satire, Brooks ignores the microscopic truths of life to concentrate on an inexhaustible supply of basic human foibles.

Brooks feels that his contribution to the arts will be based on having made people laugh. He has more than admirably accomplished this in a half-dozen comic gems: The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie and High Anxiety.

Like Allen, Wilder, Feldman and Neil Simon, Brooks grew up in a humble middle-class Jewish environment, in Brooks' case the Williamsburg section of Brookslyn. he served an apprenticeship as gagman in the "Borscht Belt" hotels near New York City before devoting himself for many years to television script writing. It was his comic sense that convinced producer Sidnet Glazier to take a chance on his directing The Producers. The rest is film history.

We chatted in his hotel suite in Rome, where he had come to present High Anxiety.

PLAYMEN: With your sixth movie, High Anxiety, you have really chosen a subject close to your hear -- or shall we say, mind....
BROOKS: The axe I'm griding this time is the misuse of psychiatry. It's become such a popular life style in America that people hop on the couch the way they regularly drop into their local supermarket. They only difference I can see is they're getting less value for their money from the neighborhood shrink. A bottle of Dom Perignon from Piffily Wiggily would do more to lift up their dejected spirits. Seriously, however, a few months of kinotherapy has wrought greater wonders than years of anaylsis. But why should a psychiatrist wise up a patient when the patient is helping send the psychiatrist's kids through college and paying for his wife's latest mink coat?
PLAYMEN: I gather you are speaking from experience.
BROOKS: I always speak from experience, mine or someone else's. I was in psychoanalysis for six years. It was the most exciting, the most incandescent and the most traumatic period of my life. Why? Because I was discovering at last who the real Mel Brooks was. Of course, it may surprise you to learn I stil don't know. It surprises me -- psychiatry is like taking a ride on a rolercoaster, you have to come down sometime. After the initial thrills, the rest of the ride may seem rocky and unrewarding, but you're stuck in the car!
PLAYMEN: Why did you feel a need for psychoanalysis?
BROOKS: I was vomiting all over people. You can lose some of your best friends that way!
PLAYMEN: And also get rid of your enemies. What was the matter?
BROOKS: I was exhibiting physical symptoms of extreme anxiety-hysteria. Not only could I not keep my food down, but I couldn't get it in. I couldn't sleep. I lost interest in everything, including - ye gads - sex! When that happens, you know something is damn wrong and you better get the old machine put back in order. It's all right to lose friends, but your wife is another matter!
PLAYMEN: What did the psychiatrist tell you?
BROOKS: Nothing. I had to find it all out for myself. And at fifty bucks an hour, with no discount! I did all the talking. He just sat back, nodded an occasionally picked his nose. I should have gotten the camera crew in to film it, Cinema verite. Who knows, we might have won an Oscar for best documentary. I could have called it High Anxiety of Mel Brooks on Blazing Saddles. Now when I talk, I get paid for it!
Anyway, I got cured of the physical symptoms within a few months and was soon back in working order. But, the underlying problems took years to resolve. When you're a paying customer at fifty dollars a throw, you can't expect to get away that easily. No sir! The next few years my psychiatrist and I became like Stanley and Livingston, Nureyev and Fonteyn, Agnelli and Fiat. I couldn't live without him, certainly he couldn't live without me!
PLAYMEN: The problem begain in childhood, right?
BROOKS: Glad to see we've both read Freud. Saves time. Maybe you and my psychiatrist should have gotten together, bu he never would have split the fee. I didn't have a father image - that was a real problem. He died when I was just two-and-a-half, of a disease of the kidneys. He was only thirty-four years old, Max Kaminsky was his name. The Brooks comes from my mother, Kate Brookman. They had four sons, of which I was the youngest. Being the runt of the family meant I was the most protected. Somebody was always doing everything for me. If it wasn't my mother, then it was my brothers. It was sort of like being a film director. Consequently I developed a lack of aggressivity and a inability to deal with the realities of the world. But there I was, little Mel Kaminsky in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, dressed in knickers and long socks with braces on his teeth. When some bully took my lollipop away, all I could say was: "You're welcome." Instead, I should have said: "Choke, you ratfink!" and punched him in the nose.
PLAYMEN: You sound like Woody Allen.
BROOKS: Who's he? Actually Woody and I used to write scripts together for Sid Caesar. He's a great little guy with a few idiosyncrasies, like we all have. For instance, he will only walk on the left side of the street and has a penchant for ketchup over vanilla ice cream. But what's wrong with that? America was built upon individuality and a difference of taste.
PLAYMEN: Getting back to Mel Brooks...
BROOKS: Oh yes, where did we leave him? Now I remember - he's arrived at puberty. That's a great age. You discover boys aren't everything in life and get a gift set of pimplesa long with it. And worse yet, when you see a pretty girl on the bus, you don't know what to do with the bulge. A good Jewish boy like myself, just recently Bar Mitzvahed, could only grin and bear down on it. That term might also be applied to my neurotic lack of aggressivity. I bore down on it so hard I repressed it. It was a reaction formation. Gosh, I feel like I'm talking to my psychiatrist again.
I had to learn when I didn't win at stickball not to say: "Thank you, old sport, it's the game that counted, not the winning." We damn well know nobody loves a loser. And if you have a sour grape to pick, pick it. I needed this aggressivity to give me a sprint in showbiz. I'd chosen the tough road of the Borscht Belt, those hotels and vacation caps in the Adirondack and Pocono Mountains near New York City where the affluent Jewish set goes. I started out as social director of Grossinger's Hotel, then figured that instead of hiring entertainers I could do better myself. My mentor was old bulgy-eyes, the great Eddie Cantor. At first, he used to get all the laughs until I did him one better and fell into the swimming pool accidentally-on-purpose. I've been in the mainstream ever since!
Unbeknownst to me, within the depths of my inner core, a battle was taking place, every bit as decisive as Agincourt. It was a conflict between aggression and non-aggression. And that's how I started vomiting over those nearest and dearest to me. But after six years I did become cured. I left my psychiatrist holding the couch - paid for no doubt with my money!
PLAYMEN: How did you know when to leave your psychiatrist?
BROOKS: He became too expensive. I hadn't yet become a highly paid movie director, and I couldn't write him into the budget as technical adviser. I'd arrived at a point where I felt I could take full responsibility for functioning on my own. Little Mel had finally grown up inside. I realized it would be disadvantageuous for me in the long run to cling to the safety of the neuroticism. You see people every day in America who try to rationalize their behavior by blaming it on a neurosis, everybody from the semi-alcoholic to comedians who think it stimulates them to work. For me the opposite is true. But for years I believed my geniality and quick wit would vanish if I cured my neurotic compulsions. Then I saw the light at night. I saw I could function even better with the disturbing elements eliminated. We all need to be more courageous than circumstances or our characters will permit us to be, even if it involves a little suffering to achieve this. I'm doomed anyway, so what have I got to lose?
PLAYMEN: That doesn't sound very normal....
BROOKS: Who says I'm normal? Courageous people can't be normal because they would think twice about the irrationality of their acts and not rush in where those angels feared to tread. Courage is a touch of foolishness with geniality and luck. I saw a lot of it when I fought in the Ardennes in 1944. A fool's delight that was! Metro made the movie but ketchup couldn't substitute for the real thing! It's a subject I can tackle better one day. But I wouldn't cast Marty Feldman as a rifleman. With his sight, he might shoot the director!
PLAYMEN: How do you compare yourself to your friends, like Feldman, Gene Wilder and Dom De Luise?
BROOKS: I'm the best. It's logical since I'm older -- fifty-two -- and have had a wider range of experience. I have such a great talent they may even discover one day that I was touched by God. My movies have already shown that I have a unique mandate to take laughter beyond the limits of safety. However, I feel that I have a yet only scratche the outer surfaces. I have only mirrored the behavioral vulgarities of the creature known as homo sapiens. But none of my disciplines have come close. Marty Feldman is a unique comic talent. Due to those extraordinary outward-bound eyes, his comedy must depend upon sight gags such as did Buster Keaton's. Keaton had limpid, bulging eyes. From what I saw of The Last Remake of Beau Geste, which Marty directed, I feel he has to learn that he is making movies and not films. He should leave the films to Ingmar Bergman and stick to mirroring the foibles of common people. Marty takes himself too seriously. He wants profundity and deep wit where slapstick and a visual gag would be more suited to the proceedings and speed up the action. Marty has to realize that he is not a Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, though he may bear a vague physical resemblance to them. Movies are so much better when they are nice dirty fun!
Gene Wilder has other problems. He is so meticulous and inhibited that it is amazing he has gotten as far as he has. Actually he can thank me for that! Gene's hang-up is that he is too much of a humanist with an over-attention to detail. That's a very bad combination. Gene likes to record on film the smallest emotional details which go to make up the mosaic. But in the final analysis, the public is only concerned with the overall effect of the final mosaic. This spoiled The World's Greatest Lover. He got too introspective and soggy when he should have been lighter and sillier. Directing Gene, I've discovered that it's only when he goes crazy that he is capable of giving everything. So I drive him crazy. For what he is getting paid, it's within my right! On the average, I have to go through eleven takes with him.
Dom De Luise usually requires about three. It's all based on an actor's ability to give the utmost of his energy. Some actors give it sooner than others. Better late than never!
PLAYMEN: Doesn't the number of takes also have a lot to do with the director?
BROOKS: Every director has a level of perfection which he sets for himself. Antonioni, I understand, averages twenty takes per scene, but Bob Aldrich never does more than five or six. It depends, too, upon what is being shot. A carpenter needs more time to build an elaborate cupboard than he does for an ordinary box--and if he's not careful it may be his coffin!
PLAYMEN: Are you happy with what you've done?
BROOKS: "Happy" is a five-letter word. Remotely satisfied would be the term. The image you have starts out pure in your mind, but it get tattered and more than a bit soiled by the time you see it on screen. When you first put it down on paper, it's only a little soiled by those proverbial dirty hands. Acting it out, even by the greatest bunch of professionals -- which my band certainly are -- it becomes murky and slightly confused because they are adding their thoughts and impressions. In directing, it starts to get cleaned up again, especially if it was the director who wrote the script. And then in editing there can be traces of impeccability. But it never--absolutely never--attains the purity and virginity of the original image you had in mind. Too many workers can really finish up the movie for you!
PLAYMEN: What is it like for a creative person like yourself working Hollywood?
BROOKS: A film set there is like a Mad Hatter tea party, with everbody's ego showing. The people you have to work with in Hollywood--script girls, make-up men, electricians and carpenters -- couldn't give a damn about what finally shows up on screen. They don't care if a Mel Brooks movie turns into a Gone with the Wind or a Deep Throat. All they care about is whether they've had their morning coffee, their afternoon tea and if there are latkas for lunch. The first assistant wants you to fire the second assistant, the cinematographer can't decide between two zooms, and the make-up lady forgot the eye-liner because she passed a bad night with her boy friend, who may turn out to be the second assistant director! And all this is costing thirty-five thousand dollars a day!
Even when I rehearse for six weeks before-hand with my actors, there is no assurance anything will run smoothly. You have to be crazy to make movies. Welcome to Bedlam on the Pacific! The real worry is, this private party is going to wind up as a public display, and it is you, the director, who may get the gory and not the glory!
PLAYMEN: Does that adage about there being nothing new under the sun also apply to your own work?
BROOKS: Very definitely. Every contemporary movie has its antecedent in films of the twenties and thirties. Many romantic pictures can be correlated with Gone with the Wind and its romantic triangle. Star Wars was pure Flash Gordon a la Buster Crabbe. My movies relate to the Marx Brothers' comedies. More than any other comics, more than Chaplin or Keaton or Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers blend of wit and zany physical comedy inspired me. Especially their film, A Night at the Opera. The stateroom sequence in which Harpo person by person fills up a minute stateroom, is the great all-time comedy gem. I've borrowed the spirit, not the physical idea. I don't pile up people, but I do pile up vocal jokes. For instance, in The Producers , there is a scene between Gene Wilder, as a timid accountant, and Zero Mostel as a bombastic impresario, in which a crescendo of jokes follows in succession. Mostel completely bullies Wilder until Wilder finally explodes, just as the people in A Night at the Opera are finally propelled from that stateroom.
I also inherited from the Marx Brothers a sense of warmth and feeling. Essentially they were pictured in their films as good-doers. In A Night at the Opera they want to help Allen Jones sing at the Metropolitan. That's what catalyses their actions and leads them into misadventures.
In my movies, I tend to identify with Groucho. I'm the troublemaker, in complete control of the situation and picking on people. Gene, with his curly hair and angelic face is Harp, a man of few words, easily stirred by simple emotions and momentarily swayed by beautiful women.
PLAYMEN: Men play a much more important role in your movies than women ....
BROOKS: I would go further than that. I would say that all my movies are stories of love between men, in the sense of camraderie. In The Producers, Wilder and Mostel represented id and ego respectively. Wilder as the very shy accountant was a symbol of everything esthete and primitive in life, whereas the boorish animal Mostel was all ego. Opposites attract. The Waco Kid and Bart, the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles, had greater rapport than The Kid had with ther heroine Lili von Shtupp, despite her name, which means "get stuffed." In the extreme sense, Frankenstein's relationship with his monster in Young Frankenstein represented, as it did in the original story, an example of the love-hate sentiment. In Silent Movie, myself, Marty and Dom have a much stronger bond than I have with the Vilma-Bernadette Peters.
PLAYMEN: Why?
BROOKS: Listen, if you grew up with three older brothers, you would relate more to men, too. That's why I immediately identified them with the Marx Brothers -- I grew up with their doubles! Irving, the oldest, is ten years my senior. He's a partner in a firm that manufactures paramedical supplies. Next is Leonard. He was a war hero, captured in the last world war by the Germans. Until recently he worked for the Veteran's Administration. And the youngest, Kermit, is the proprietor of two pizza franchises in Encino, California. If I ever get tired of throwing pies in my movies, I can get a discount on fresh pizza to push in their faces. It's a comforting thought when you're lying there in bed at night! Our mother is still alive, although at this point she would rather I forgot about her age. She's living in Miami. Of the four brothers, only I got into show business. They were smart!
PLAYMEN: You've been accused of treating women as silly and obnoxious in your films...
BROOKS: I treat everyone that way! Why should women be the exception? They're no better than men. Everybody gets the same dirty deal in my movies - satirized to death! Madeline Kahn is the pastiche of the vamp, as she was in Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety. She is almost invariably at that point where most women in real life would like to be - of letting go of the id. Cloris Leachman, on the other hand is the grasping mother-image. She is Dr. Frankenstein's right hand or the companion of the evil doctor in High Anxiety. She does everything right, she believes. Don't most women think that way?
PLAYMEN: How do you feel about marriage?
BROOKS: You either do, or you don't. For me, the only adult relationship is being a husband and father. I have no interest in living alone or with other men. I did it in summer camp and in the Army. Let me tell you, a lot of guys don't wash their feet!
My first marriage was to a Broadway dancer named Florence Baum. We had three children. Eddie, who is nineteen, is studying for a film career at the University of California in Los Angeles. Stefanie, twenty, and Nicholas, almost twenty-two, are at New York University, and may also follow in their father's footstepps. Why didn't our marriage work out? Florence was too tall for me and I kept running into her tits! No, the real reason was we married too young. We didn't know what we wanted of each other. She expected me to be lover, husband and partner, I expected her to be wife, muse and mistress. Our kids are so normal and un-neurotic, I'd recommend divorce as a requisite to a healthy childhood!
PLAYMEN: Why did you marry Anne Bancroft?
BROOKS: I wonder why she married me. She could have married a man who would have given her a home with a swimming pool and a tennis court. We don't have them in our Los Angeles house. We don't have them in our New York Apartment either.
Annie tells me that I am a normal funny man with more moments of humor than any man she knows. She's never lied to me once, so I believe her. I have my angry periods, especially when the spaghetti isn't al dente. Annie is Italian, you knnow. Her real name is Annamaria Luisa Italiano, and her grandparents were from Calabria. Every Jewish man should have an Italian wife. That way you get kosher pizza.
We've been married so many years we should be getting tired of one another. But we're not because we're having too much fun together. We're the best comedy team I know. We just came from Sweden where I presented High Anxiety. We had at our disposition a limousine witha very regal, elegantly dressed chauffer. Elegant except for one thing. he was always belching--a belch here, a belch there. I suppose he never realized we heard him. Even your best friend won't tell you. It struck us as absolutely hilarious. He couldn't understand why we were rolling on the floor in the back of the car. He must have though we were a couple of nuts! I wonder if he't seen my movies ....
PLAYMEN: In addition to belching, you seem to be captivated by farting, if I recall Blazing Saddles correctly....
BROOKS: It's probably the most famous farting scene in contemporary pictures. I'm very proud of it. Bart and the Waco Kid are eating beans, so it's only natural they should fart. If you ate so many beans, you'd fart too! In the army, as I recall, our diet caused us to fart. We all farted so much, we were afraid we might give our position away to the Germans.
The farting scene is indicative of what I am trying to do in my movies. I want to arrive at the outer limits of normal behavior and stretch them even further. That's where a lot of people are today. Normality no longer has any meaning. Everything goes. For example, take the scene in High Anxiety where Madeline Kahn gets a dirty phone call. Normally a lady would be shocked upon receiving an obscene telephone call, but in the movie Madeline becomes fascinated and excited by the gurgles and heavy breathing. She misinterprets the message, not realizing that it is her boy friend being strangled at the other end of the line. Her acceptance of this erotic gesture is to me symbolic of the chaning mores in our society.
PLAYMEN: There is more depth to your movies than a first glance would indicate.
BROOKS: Perfectly true. Blazing Saddles. With its black sheriff and racial jokes, is really a long sugar-coated tirade against bigotry. The Producers satirizes the horros of Nazism. In Young Frankenstein, I'm saying that science has no morality in its quest for the truth. Insofar as I'm concerned, morality takes precedence over every form of progress. If you don't have it, what's the sense in living?
High Anxiety, of course, is about the misuse of the public trust in psychiatry. My gripe in Silent Movie is the capitalist corporations which engulf smaller artistic ogranizations. I suppose one day we may have to succumb to the fact that Renault will own the Louvre.
Often I will step out of the proscenium of the movie frame to talk directly to the audience because I like to surprise people. It wakes daddy up and stops kids from crunching the popcorn for ten seconds. It's an old trick from my favorite playwright, Bertholt Brecht.
PLAYMEN: Why choose familiar tales to satirize?
BROOKS: Why not? They're in public domain, so the first amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees that you won't get sued. That's one reason. Another is, subjects like Frankenstein and Alfred Hitchcock movies are so eccentric they can be satirized. They also offer a wonderful gallery of stock characters for my company of comedians. Hitchcock, for instance, always has a blonde, a man on the run, an inspector and so forth. He said he was so delighted with my spoof of his pictures in High Anxiety that he lost nearly a pund laughing!
PLAYMEN: Don't you have any hang-ups?
BROOKS: I have on terrible compulsion! You mustn't tell anyone, but I refuse to eat left-overs. It gives me Low Anxiety!

*American version of the Italian magazine PLAYMEN

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