NPR Morning Edition Aug 18 2004
hosted by Susan Stamberg
Recently transcribed by the Brookslyn webmaster!
Original audio available at NPR
Morning Edition, August 18, 2004 · Mel Brooks has spent decades making people laugh. A big hit on television in the 1950s, he found silver screen success in the 1970s with such films as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Currently, Brooks' musical The Producers enjoys huge success on Broadway and in traveling productions. The comedy legend speaks with NPR's Susan Stamberg.
After decades in the comedy business, Brooks says he's not still in it just to get richer. "Nothing good comes out of going for the money," he says. "You've got to do it because you love it."
Susan: He was in Washington for a very simple reason.
Mel: I'm plugging "The Producers," it's in town. It's here.
Susan: I know it is.
[Plays Springtime for Hitler Clip]
Susan: "The Producers," at the Kennedy Center 'til the end of this week is a send-up of musicals, broadway producers and Adolph Hitler. Minus music, "The Producers" was a 1968 Mel Brooks movie. A cult favorite, but, mostly it sat like Lox on a plate. Thirty three years later the musical version struck gold on Broadway. Now it will be a movie again, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, of course, and Nicole Kidman. Mel Brooks is a busy man.
Mel: I'm having fun. I'm having fun.
Susan: Yeah, because at the age of... mm, seventy, mm
Mel: Yeah, I'm in my seventies, I am.
Susan: And no one would believe that if they could look at the way you're [seated?]
Mel: Because I'm so short. You couldn't believe a person so short could be in their seventies.
Susan: [Chuckling] Exactly, correct.
Mel: But my mother was short. My mother was much shorter than I was. My mother could run under the coffee table with a high hat on. I mean, that's how short... Stamberg, ask away!
Susan: [Chuckling] I'm trying!
Susan: If there hadn't been a Borscht Belt, Mel Brooks would have invented it. He worked in the Catskills when he was a kid. He was a tummler.
Mel: Like "tumult," the English word "tumult," take the "t" out of it and you get the word "tummler," or "fun maker." And I used to... my job was to amuse all these people around the pool who were sunbathing. So, I'd put on an old alpacka coat and a derby and I'd take two suitcases, laden with bricks, to hold me down. And I'd say, "business is bad, I don't want to live." And I'd jump of the diving board and sink to the bottom of the pool. Now, there was always this good looking, blonde, gentile kid who would dive down and rescue me. But one day he laughes so much that I was stuck down there with my suitcases. And I saw him there, through the water, laughing. And I couldn't express my need for him to come down and get me into fresh air.
Susan: Please, will you tell us, how you got the televsion job writing for Sid Caesar in 1950? What did you do to get that job?
Mel: Sid Caesar played the saxaphone. I played the drums. We used to jam together. And we would make, we would make funnies at each other. And then one day Sid called me and said, "Mel, they want me to do this thing called television." I said, "tele, what is it?" And he said, "Well, they take a picture of you and the picture itself is broadcast into many homes." I said, "I don't think the Jews allow that. I think it's something to do with graven images. I'm not sure." And he said to me, "I need some material." So I said, "You need material? I got material." Like, I would create things like ascot. What is ascot? Three or four Englishmen would stand at a rail, you'd hear the horses. They'd get louder and louder and louder. And then when they'd get really loud they'd throw buckets of mud on the English people. But they wouldn't do a thing. They would just be stoic. Until they were just mud cakes... to be one of the writers on the show!
Susan: That's perfect television. Not a lot of words said, but totally visual. It's great. Please tell us that you and Carl Reiner... I know your dear friends... I'm assuming you're still talking...
Mel: Yeah, I love Carl Reiner. We've known each other for thirty five years.
Susan: But, I thought you knew each other for 2000 years because...
Mel: Ya know, he came over to me, and I was at a party. Ya know, he had like, the first tape recorder. Ya know, it was many years ago. And he stuck the tape recorder in my face and said "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are priviliged to be in the presence of a man, who purports to be 2000 years of age. Sir, are you really 2000 years old?" And I was stuck, so I said, "yeah, well, ah, yeah." And he said, "Well, were you around during the crucifixtion? Did you know Jesus?" I said, "Sure, thin lad, thin. Had a bunch of guys, twelve guys, always hanging around with him. Came into my store, I had a little candy store. They never bought anything, nice guys, ya know." He would just attack me with questions and I would have to come up with these ridiculous answers, ya know.
Susan: So, and then you have the nerve to make fun of Hitler and peripherally, The Holocaust and all of that in The Producers.
Mel: Well, I'm just taking on Hitler, nothing else.
Susan: Okay, but the question is: Is nothing sacred? Are there taboos, are there things you won't simply... well, The Holocaust is something I'm assuming...
Mel: Well, I wouldn't do The Holocaust. And I wouldn't do Osama Bin-Laden, I think it's... that is too recent, too fresh, too hurtful. But it could be grist for a young writers comic talents in ten or twenty years from now, yeah.
Susan: We're talking so seriously now, I'm begining to get uncomfortable.
Mel: Yes, well, we are, allowed to talk seriously.
Susan: Yes, you've said, "laughter is a protest scream against death."
Mel: Well, I think it is. I mean, when you find out there is such a thing around called death you get very upset. You say "who needs that, I don't need that." So you eat a lot of chocolate pudding. And you see a lot of, uh, funny movies. And maybe you engage in comedy which is a great defense against, uh, hurt and fear and anxiety, ya know. So... "High Anxiety, whenever you're near."
Susan: But also, if you hear somebody laughing you know they're alive and maybe you are too.
Mel: Yeah, that's good.
Susan: You said it. I read that you you said that.
Mel: Well, a tree just fell in the forest, because there's a little old Jew that heard it. And he said, "what the hell was that? Anybody going to pick it up and do something with it?"
Susan: That's a wonderful accent.
Susan: It reminds me of Billy Crystal, whose definition of Yiddish is a combination of German and phlegm.
Mel: [Mel laughing] He said? That's great.
Susan: So now...
Susan: Never letting a success just lie there, you're taking yet another old movie of yours, 1974 Young Frankenstein, you're making it into a musical. Do you not have enough money by now Mel Brooks then you can let this alone?
Mel: No it's... you never... Stamberg, here's Ich Zu which is Yiddish for Ecoute-Moi. Ecoute-Moi Stamberg. None, none of, nothing good comes out of going for the money. If you do something lovely from your heart, you might get lucky and make some money. But, if it doesn't come from your heart and soul. And you don't believe in it from your finger tips to the tips of your toes, it's not going to be good. You gotta do it because you love it.
Susan: You've been married to Anne Bancroft since 1964. Does she laugh all the time?
Mel: Yes, when she isn't crying. Yeah, we have a good, happy life together. We raised a boy called Max Brooks. Max Brooks wrote a book. He wrote a book called, "The Zombie Survival Guide." Just in case you run into a zombie, you have a manual to tell you what to do with the zombie. So we made a crazy child together. And we have a pretty happy life. We like each other. We like Chinese food. We like foreign films. We like the beach.
Susan: New York in June?
Mel: Yeah, we really appreciate each other. So yeah, I mean, it's been a great, great thing being married to Anne Bancroft for over forty years.
Susan: Giver her our regards and save some for yourself. Thank you Mr. Brooks.
Mel: Thank you Ms. Stamberg.
Susan: Mel Brooks. Whoever called him a comedic force of nature was a massive understatement. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR news, Washington.
Please click here for corrections.