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Playboy February 1975 (Part 1)

by Brad Darrach
Originally published in Playboy February 1975

Part 1|2|3|4

"The rich," according to a Spanish proverb, "laugh carefully." They have a lot to lose. The poor, on the other hand, need to laugh in order to forget how little they have to laugh about - which may be why the Depression was the last golden age of comedy in American movies. Will the current economic recession bring on another comedy boom? Movie producers think so; the 1975 production docket is packed with laugh-it-up scripts. Film producers also acknowledge that the strongest creative impulse behind the boom is the maniacal imagination and energy of one of the very few moviemakers since Charlie Chaplin who is unarguably a comic genius - Mel Brooks.

Brooks is an American Rabelais. Short and blocky, he has a nose once described as "a small mudslide," a grin that loops almost from ear to ear like a tenement laundry line and the flat-out energy of a buffalo stampede. His imagination is violent and boundless; and in the opinion of other comedy writers, no brain on the planet contains such a churning profusion of wildly funny ideas.

Brooks can trade "Jewish vun-liners" with any man, but his natural metier is the skit. He sees the absurd in characters, situations and themes and over the past ten years has learned the braid them all into dramatic narratives. In "The Producers" (1967), his theme was the myth of success; to expose its absurdities, Brooks told a gloriously sleazy story about a couple of born losers who couldn't even succeed in failing. "The Twelve Chairs"(1971) was a large horselaugh at the political left - a picaresque tale in which one man's basic greed cheerfully kicked the stuffing out of his social ideals. In "Blazing Saddles" (1974), a wild and wacky antiracist burlesque, Brooks set up middle America as the citizenry of a movie Western town and watched what happened when they were presented with a very black sheriff. And now in "Young Frankenstein," a grand-operatic travesty on the great old horror movies of the Thirties, he has undertaken the most ambitious theme he has ever explored: man's mad but magnificent attempt to take over from God as the creator of life.

"Young Frankenstein" displays new aspects of Brooks's talents. "Blazing Saddles," a farce so low it almost made bad taste respectable, turned Brooks into a millionaire and established him, one critic said, as "the farter of his country." "Young Frankenstein" mingles subtle jokes with broad strokes and discloses a talent for sustained high comedy at least as rich as Woody Allen's - with an even wider appeal.

Now 48, Brooks relishes his success in movies all the more because it came so late. Born in the poorest Brooklyn neighborhood, he lost his father early, was raised by his hard-working mother, at 14 became a Borscht Belt tumeler, at 21 broke into television as a gag man for Sid Caesar. After bulling his way up to head writer, he went broker when Caesar was taken off the air, later recouped with a classic comedy record ("The 2000-Year Old Man") and a spy-spoof TV series ("Get Smart"), then hit the bottom again when his first two movies thudded at the box office. Saved by the surprise success of "Blazing Saddles" (Warner Bros. Figured the film was a hopeless mess and would have to be remaindered for the drive-ins), Brooks is still superstitious about his good luck. "I'll believe it when I'm dead," he says with a worried grin. "Five years from now, I could be back in the shit."

Anxiety dogs Brooks like a tin can on a string. Says a friend: "Mel scares easy. Losing anything feels like losing everything. He's a tremendously warm and loving guy, but he has to have his way. He has to be sure." Mel makes sure by instituting what the same friend calls "a tyranny of kindness." He controls the world around him by playing Jewish mother to everyone in sight. In the friendliest, funniest ways, he tells his producer, his cameraman, his actors and his friends what to eat, what to wear, when to cross the street, when to go to a doctor, what kind of car is best for them, how to deal with their personal and business problems. "And Mel's advice is always good," says one of his producers. "He's the sanest maniac I've ever met."

Brooks maintains his sanity with a careful balance of hard work and home cooking. Up at six when a film is shooting, he grabs a fast cup of coffee, pops a wad of Trident gum into his mouth and then goes at it like a buzz saw. "Mel breathes pure oxygen," says one of his assistants. "When our chins hit the table, he's still walking on the ceiling." After "Young Frankenstein" was in the can, he edited the picture frame by frame at least 12 times and in the last week of production spent several hours in a recording room, gleefully snorting, grunting, snarling, groaning, sighing and guffawing to fill tiny gaps in the talk track. "The man is a demon," says one of his editors. "Nothing less than greatness will satisfy him. He has the lonely passion for perfection."

Brooks also has a passion for family life and he lives it out in a remarkable menage. Brooks is married to Anne Bancroft, considered by many critics the most talented American actress now at work. "Anne is 1000 percent actress," says a family friend, "and 1000 percent wife. She is Mel's woman to the marrow of her bones. Once when were shooting in Yugoslavia, his feet got badly frostbitten. I can still see her there on the floor, her face white in shock and her big dark eyes full of horror, rubbing his feet and sobbing as if her heart would break."

Anne's devotion is returned. Except when the shooting schedule requires longer hours, Brooks breaks off work at six p.m. sharp and heads home for the evening. Only close friends are invited to visit the Brookses' house. "Where you eat," he says simply, "is sacred." This insistence on privacy made difficulties for Brad Darrach, the free-lance journalist and author of "The Day Bobby Blew It" (PLAYBOY, July 1973) and of the current best seller "Bobby Fischer Versus the Rest of the World," who was assigned by PLAYBOY to interview Brooks. Brooks was flattered by our request. As the subject of a previous "Playboy Interview" (October 1966), he was about to become the first person ever interviewed twice by the magazine. Nevertheless, though always friendly and charming, Brooks flatly refused at first to discuss any aspect of his private life and, for more than a month after Darrach arrived in Hollywood, said he was too busy editing "Young Frankenstein" to take any time out for formal interviews. He allowed Darrach to watch the editing process, however, and gradually admitted him to this working family. Here is Darrach's report:

"After five weeks, the interviews began. They were held at Brooks's office, a large smog-soiled rectangle in 20th Century Fox's main office building. We had 12 sessions in all, over a period of three weeks, beginning every day at about 11:45 and lasting until about one. For the first session, Brooks's secretary, Sherry Falk, and I assembled an audience of writers, directors, producers and their secretaries. After that, there was no need to stimulate attendance. Swiveling and grinning behind his big curved paper-cluttered desk, leaping up and shouting and mugging and scrambling around the room as he spouted sense and nonsense, Brooks had his listeners literally falling out of their chairs almost from the first word of the interview. Hearing the ruckus, people came running from all over the building. During every session, 15 or 30 people would wonder in and out, while a half dozen stood grinning at the door. To preserve the frenetic flavor of the scene, I have left in the interview a few of these interruptions. In the last two recording sessions, which were conducted in private, Brooks finally revealed details of his personal life and made the powerful statements about himself and his philosophy that conclude the interview. 'I hope you got enough,' he said when the last session was over. 'My tongue just died. PLAYBOY's gonna have to pay for the funeral and put up a statue of Mel Brooks's tongue in Central Park.'"

BROOKS: (sucking on a fistful of chocolate covered Raisinets and chomping them behind a Brooklyn-street-kid grin.): All right, ask away, Jew boy, or whatever you pretend you are.

PLAYBOY: As one Episcopalian to another, how about giving our readers some idea of what you really look like? There will be three pictures of you on the first page of the interview, but they won't do you justice.

BROOKS: I don’t want to be vain, but I might was well be honest. I'm crowding six one. Get a mass of straight blond hair coming into a widow's peak close to the eyes. Sensational steel-blue eyes, bluer than Newman's. Muscular but whippy, like Redford. The only trouble is I have no ass.

PLAYBOY: What happened to it?

BROOKS: It fell off during the war. Now I have a United Fruit box in the back and I shit pears.

PLAYBOY: Tell us about your ears.

BROOKS: My ears are very much like Leonard Nimoy's - you know, Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the guy whose ears come to a point. It happened like this: One night Leonard and I went out and before dinner we had 35 margaritas. We woke up in a kennel. There were four great Danes, two on each side of us. Their ears had already been clipped. And so had Leonard's. I reached up, felt my ears and, alas, mine had, too.

PLAYBOY: What about your nose?

BROOKS: What about yours? Mine is aquiline, lacking only a little bulb at the end.

PLAYBOY: You wish you had a bulb?

BROOKS: I do: I do - one that said 60 watts on it and lit up. It would attract moths. And it would help me read at night under the blankets at summer camp. Care for a Raisinet? We mentioned Raisinets in Blazing Saddles and now the company sends me a gross of them every month. A gross of Raisinets! Take 50 boxes. My friends are avoiding me. I'm the leading cause of diabetes in California. Seriously, they make great earplugs. Or you could start a new school of Raisinet sculpture. No? Did you know that PLAYBOY in Yiddish is Spielboychick? Is it true that I am the only person who has ever been interviewed twice (ear-piercing whistle) by PLAYBOY?

PLAYBOY: Yes, and we're beginning to think we've made a terrible mistake. To what, by the way, do you attribute this distinction?

BROOKS: To my height. And the lack of it.

PLAYBOY: Since you've brought it up, why are you so short?

BROOKS: You mean all of me or parts of me? OK, you want me to admit I'm a four-foot, six-inch freckle-faced person of Jewish extraction? I admit it. All but the extraction. But being short never bothered me for three seconds. The rest of the time I wanted to commit suicide.

PLAYBOY: Now we know what you look like. What do you do for a living?

BROOKS: I make people laugh for a living I believe I can say objectively that what I do I do as well as anybody. Just say I'm one of the best broken-field runners that ever lived. I started in '38 and I'm hot in '75. For 35 years I was a comedy writer's comedy writer. When I'd go to where they were working, famous comedians would turn white. "My God, he's here! The Master!" But I was never a big name to the public. And then suddenly I surfaced. Blazing Saddles made me famous. Madman Brooks. More laughs per minute than any other movie ever made - until Young Frankenstein, that is.

PLAYBOY: What's so special about your comedy?

BROOKS: (snatching up the receiver as the phone rings): This is Mel Brooks. We want 73 party hats, 400 balloons, a cake for 125 and any of the girls that are available in those costumes you sent up before. Thank you! (Slams the receiver down) You were saying?

PLAYBOY: What's so special about -

BROOKS: My comedy is midnight blue. Not black comedy - I like people too much. Midnight blue, and you can make it into a peacoat if you’re on the watch on the bow of a ship plowing through the North Atlantic. The buttons are very black and very shiny and very large.

PLAYBOY: Speaking of blue, you've bee accused of vulgarity.

BROOKS: Bullshit!

PLAYBOY: And of being undisciplined in the comedy you write and direct.

BROOKS: Anarchic, the crickets call it. My mother says, "An archic?" She thinks I'm an architect. My comedy is big-city, Jewish, whatever I am. Energetic. Nervous. Crazy. Anyway, what do PLAYBOY readers care about comedy? They're not reading this interview. They're all sitting on the toilet with the centerfold open, doing God knows what.

PLAYBOY: How did you come by your sense of humor?

BROOKS: Found it at South Third and Hooper. It was in a tiny package wrapped in electrical tape and labeled GOOD HUMOR. When I opened it up, out jumped a big Jewish genie. "I'll give you three wishes," he said. "Uh, make it two."

PLAYBOY: Where was South Third and Hooper?

BROOKS: Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn on June 28, 1926, the 12th anniversary of the blowing up of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. We lived at 515 Powell Street, in a tenement. I was born on the kitchen table. We were so poor my mother couldn't afford to have me; the lady next door gave birth to me. My real name was Melvin Kaminsky. I changed it to Brooks because Kaminsky wouldn't fit on a drum. My mother's maiden name was Kate Brookman. She was born in Kiev. My father was born in Danzig. Maximillian Kaminsky. He was a process server and the died when I was two and a half - tuberculosis of the kidney. They didn't know how to knock it out, no antibiotics then. To this day, my mother feels guilty about us being orphans at such an early age.

PLAYBOY: What's your mother like?

BROOKS: My mother is ver short - four, eleven. She could walk under tables and never hit her head. She was a true heroine. She was left with four boys and no income, so she got a job in the Garment District. Worked the normal ten-hour day and then brought work home. Turned out bathing-suit sashes until daylight, grabbed a few hours of sleep, got us up and off to school and the went to work again. My aunt Sadie, God bless her, gave us some kind of a stipend that kept us alive. And then my brothers worked. Irving was the oldest, then Leonard, Bernie and me. Irving and Lenny went to work at 12 and put themselves through school and brought the family out of ruin into food and clothing.

PETER HYAMS (a trim young man with black hair, poking his head in the door and looking confused): Excuse me, is this the sex-education class?

BROOKS: Here comes Peter, folks, the well-known director of Busting and Fat Chance, hopping down the bunny trail. You know everybody here, I think, Peter, and everybody knows and despises you (rising and screaming) AS A FILTHY, DEGENERATE CHILD MOLESTER! No offense. (Sits down, smiling sweetly)

HYAMS: Mel, why are you so wishy-washy?

BROOKS: I can't stand hurting anybody's feelings.

PLAYBOY: You were talking about Irving and Lenny.

BROOKS: Right. Irving worked all the time; that's how he put himself through Brooklyn College night school. Close to ten years to get his degree. He's a chemist and doing very well now. Has his own company; makes paramedical equipment. Irving was like a father, very strict. No cursing in my family. If I even said "bum," Irving would hit me. Bernie was short - he's five foot, five now, tops - but he was a great softball pitcher. A great hitting pitcher, too. My brother Lenny used to catch for him. Lenny has a joyous, charming personality. Good singer. Should have been in show business. Bernie owns a bookstore now in Riverside, California. Lenny worked for the Veterans Administration - retired now and living in Fort Lauderdale.

PLAYBOY: Did your mother have time to look after you?

BROOOKS: I was adored. I was always in the air, hurled up and kissed and thrown in the air again. Until I was six, my feet didn't touch the ground. "Look at those eyes! That nose! Those lips! That tooth! Get that child away from me, quick! I'll eat him!" Giving that up was very difficult later on in life. My mother was the best cook in the world. "I made a matzoh ball," she used to say, "that will sweep you off your feet!" And she did her piecework in the kitchen, too. All night she would stay up sewing, pressing rhinestones, going blind. Wonderful woman! She's 78 now and still running to catch planes. I took her to Las Vegas not long ago. She loved the lobbies, to hell with the big stars and the gambling. She liked the lobbies. Jews like lobbies.

PLAYBOY: Did you get your sense of humor from your mother?

BROOKS: More from my grandmother. She could hardly speak English, but she made up bilingual jokes. "Melbn? Es var a yenge mann gegange for a physical, OK?" A young man went for his Army physical. "Geht zurick und sagt, 'Momma, ich bin Vun-A!' " Tells his mother he's a One-A. "Momma hat gejumped in the air mit joy. 'Vunderbar! You vouldn't go!' " "But Momma! One-A mean perfect! I go! Bubele! Vat you talking? How dey can teck you mit Vun-A?" Well, the joke was, I discovered finally, that A sounds like ei in Yiddish. Ei means egg and egg means testicle. How 'bout that for Grandma?

PLAYBOY: Not bad. Do you have any other -

BROOKS: Freeze! Don't move! Time for a well-known Quotation from Chairman Mel's 2013-Year-Old Man record. Tadaaaa! "IF PRESIDENTS DON'T DO IT TO THEIR WIVES - THEY'LL DO IT TO THE COUNTRY!" You were saying?

PLAYBOY: Any other memorable relatives?

BROOKS: Yes, Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe was a philosopher, very deep, very serious. "Never eat chocolate after chick'n,"he'd tell us, wagging his finger. "Don't buy a cardboard belt," he'd say. Or he's warn us - we're five years old - "Don't invest. Put da money inna bank. Even the land could sink." He'd come up and tap you on the arm while you were playing stickball. "Marry a far goil," he'd whisper. "They strong. Woik f'ra. Don't marry a face. Put ya under." He had great similies. "Clever as a chick'n" was one of them. "That guy's got da eyes of a bat. Never misses!" Later, we're in our teens, we're horsing around outside the candy store, he'd come up to us. "What you talk 'bout boys?" "New cars." "Hmmmm." He'd stroke his chin. "As far as I'm consoined," he'd say finally, "dey all good!"

PLAYBOY: How did you and your friends pass the time?

BROOKS: Played stickball, chased cats. I was always running. Skinny, stringy little Jew with endless energy. One day we were playing punchball - like stickball, only you used your fist to hit a Spaldeen or a bald tennis ball. There was a '36 Chevy parked on our street and I took off my new camel's-hair-looking Yom Kippur sweater and put it very carefully in that nice dip in the front of the fender where the headlight was. Then I got a scratch single and a bad throw sent me to second. Suddenly, I see this beautiful black "36 Chevy pull away from the curb and take off. Whoosh! I went after it. "Foul!" they were yelling. "Balk!" But I was gone, the hell with the game. What was that compared with a Yom Kippur sweater? For 20 minutes I chased that car - way into Flatbush. Finally, I flagged it down around Avenue U. Jesse Owens could not have made that run. Only a ten-year-old Jewish boy built like a wire hanger. But when I got my sweater, I was lost. No idea how to get home. I took the Nostrand Avenue trolley. Got off in a tough Irish neighborhood. "Hell-OOOOO, Yussel!" I didn't wait around the hear anymore. Like in The 400 Blows, I ran till I hit the sea. Coney Island. Ten miles I ran. It took me an hour and a half to get home on the trolley. But I had my camel's-hair-looking Yom Kippur sweater.

PLAYBOY: Did you ever run away from home?

BROOKS: I don't think Jewish boys did that. Run away to what? But we hitchhiked a lot across the Williamsburg Bridge in search of jobs. We're 11 and we're going to get jobs in New York. So we’d walk around the Lower East Side and for four cents we'd buy a ton of sauerkraut and gorge ourselves and be very sick. Then we'd walk back; nobody would give you a ride at night. It was a 20 minute walk over the bridge. Somewhere over the middle, we'd get scared and begin running. Six hundred feet below is water - right - and Jews on both sides. If you fell in, who would rescue you? Jews in those days couldn't swim.

PLAYBOY: Why not?

BROOKS: Only place to swim was McCarren Park, which was in a gentile region of Brooklyn. We could only go there if there were six to twelve of us. Otherwise, we'd be attacked. Like, we'd be in the locker room and a gang of Irish or Polish or Italian kids would be there and they'd inspect you. They'd see you were circumcised, so they knew who was what. In those days, gentile kids were not circumcised. Then they'd follow you out and pick on you.

PLAYBOY: Did you ever carry weapons?

BROOKS: Never. Because then they'd panic and get a hundred people. No weapons in those days.

PLAYBOY: You were a wild kid.

BROOKS: Not only that, there were Penny Picks - chocolate-covered candy, white inside. If you got one that was pink inside, you got a nickel's worth of candy free. We would scratch the bottom of the chocolate with our thumbnails until we found a pinkie. Poor Mr. Feingold. He could never figure out how we found so many pink ones. Which reminds me - Raisinet? Take two.

PLAYBOY: No, thanks. No juvenile offenders in your neighborhood?

BROOKS: Sure, me! There were these Japanese yo-yo experts who used to do exhibitions at the Woolworth. They were great and even the managers would take their eyes off the counters to watch them "walk the dog" and "shinny up a pole" and all that. "OK," we'd say, "the coast is clear." Then we'd seal something. One time I was with Muscles Mandel and I was caught lifting a 20-cent cap pistol. The manager grabbed me and said, "Gotcha!" I ripped the gun around and said, "Stand back or I'll blow your head off!" He jumped back. Everybody jumped back, and with this toy gun I made my getaway - stealing the gun at the same time! Those idiots! They knew it was a cap gun and still they backed up! I used that gag later in Blazing Saddles. What the - (Brooks looks up startled. An actor wearing a "Planet of The Apes" mask is strolling down the corridor outside Brooks's office, as though they were nothing in the least unusual about his appearance. He glances casually into Brooks's office. Just as casually, Brooks gives him a nod.) Hiya, kid. Workin'? (The actor does a startled take, then moves on)

PLAYBOY: How did you do in school?

BROOKS: I got hit a lot by teachers. Mr. Ziff carried a stop watch on a leather lanyard, like Captain Quegg. If he saw you cribbing or even looking at somebody else, you’d get a sharp whack across the eye with that lanyard. Mrs. Hoyt would give you the base of her palm against your forehead very hard, snapping a few small bones in your neck. Mrs. Adela Williamson would twist your ear until you had to go with it or lose the ear. Everybody in her class was either a potential Van Gogh or an acrobat. I learned how to do back flips because of her. I was a bright kid and I was bored, so I'd try to yok it up. They'd ask me about Columbus, I'd say, "Columbus Cleaning and Pressing, Fifth and Hooper." The class would laugh and I'd get hit. But by then I'd be laughing so hard I couldn't stop. Slapped, grabbed by the hair, dragged to the principles office, couldn't stop laughing. Hit by the principal, kicked down the stairs, bleeding in the gutter, couldn't stop laughing.

PLAYBOY: What were you good at in school?

BROOKS: Emoting, When I had to read a composition, I would turn into a wild-eyed maniac, fling out my arms and announce in a ringing soprano: "MY DAY AT CAMP!"

PLAYBOY: What were your favorite books?

BROOKS: Dirty comics. Eight pagers. Short attention span. No. Actually, I liked Robinson Crusoe, Black Beauty, the usual things. But I wasn't a big reader. Couldn't sit still long enough.

PLAYBOY: How about Hebrew school?

BROOKS: Shul, we called it. I went for a little while. About 45 minutes. We were the children of immigrants. They told us religious life was important, so we bought what they told us. We faked it, nodded like we were praying. Learned enough Hebrew to get through a bar mitzvah. Hebrew is a very hard language for Jews. And we suffered the incredible breath of those old rabbis. They'd turn to you and they'd say, "Melbn, make me a bruche. A bruuuuuuche!" You never knew what they said. Three words and you were on the floor because their breath would wither your face. There was no surviving rabbi breath. God knows what they ate - garlic and young Jewish boys. Terrible!

PLAYBOY: Did you go to the movies much?

BROOKS: Are you kidding? The dumps would open up at ten o'clock Saturday morning and I'd be there. We'd get in for 11 cents, loaded down with Baby Ruths and O'Henrys and Mars bars. No Raisinets in those days. Sheeree! Bring raisinets! PLAYBOY is looking a little peaked! No? Goy bastard! No offense. So, anyway, in the movies, even before the lights went out, paper clips would start to slingshot all over the place. You'd get shot in the back of your head - it would lodge in your brain - and you'd hear them hitting the screen like rain through the whole movie. Then about 11 o'clock at night, there'd be a light in my eye. An usher would be slapping me awake and a Jewish woman screaming behind him, "Melvin! You have to eat!"

PLAYBOY: What was your favorite movie?

BROOKS: Horror movies. Frankenstein gave me nightmares. I'd be sleeping on the fire escape in the summer and the monster would climb up to get me. And just when he'd put his hand on my face and I couldn't breathe, I'd see the gleam of that metal rod in his neck and I'd wake up screaming. "Frankensteiiiiiiiin!" I'd yell. Scare everybody in the house. I am still yelling. Don't tell anybody, but I watch Young Frankenstein from behind my fingers. (phone rings) I've got it, Sherry. Hello? Cleavon Little! The talented black star of Blazing Saddles! I love your face! Your obedient Jew here. How are you? What can I do for you? … You're looking for a part that will make you a millionaire? I've got it! Play Blanche du Bois. Right, in A Streetcar Named Desire. You'd be the first black guy ever to play Blanche. Tennessee would love it. But do it right. Go to the Denmark, have an operation. You could open in Mobile, Alabama, to sensational reviews. Police dogs. Sirens. With a little luck, you could become the first trans-sexual martyr! … Yes, Cleavon, yes! Don't be a stranger! I love your feet! (Hangs up) Speak, PLAYBOY.

PLAYBOY: You were talking about growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression. Somehow you make it sound almost a happy place.

BROOKS: Are you kidding? Terrible things happened. Poor people died like flies. The worst thing was when a woman killed herself by leaping from the end of a roof building at South Fifth Street and Hooper. It was a mess, terrible, they had a sheet over her, police cars all around. We all ran to see; it was like a neighborhood panic. Tragedy, everybody! Anyway, that night my mother had decided to work late, but I didn't know that. So when I got to the body, I saw these shoes sticking out from under the sheet and they looked awfully like my mother's shoes. God, that was the worst moment I ever experienced. I just stood there and the whole bottom fell out of my life. Then my friend Izzie made a tasteless joke: He said it couldn't be my mother, because my mother was so heavy she would have broken the sidewalk. But you know, it helped a little bit, it really did. I said, "Yeah, that's right. The legs are skinny." It gave me a little hope, just a little. But oh, God, those hours while I sweated it out until I saw my mother! I ran up to her and threw myself upon her. "Why are you hugging my leg? Let me up the stairs!" Such relief! Incredible! It was a magic moment.

PLAYBOY: When did you find out that you could be funny?

BROOKS: I was always funny. But the first time I remember was at Sussex Camp for Underprivileged Jewish Children. I was seven years old and whatever the counselors said, I would turn it around. "Put your plates in the garbage and stack the scarps, boys!" "Stay at the shallow end of the pool until you learn to drown!" "Who said that? Kaminsky! Grab him! Hold him!" Slap! But the other kids liked it and I was a success. I needed a success. I was short, I was scrawny. I was the last one they picked to be on the team. "Oh, all right, we'll take him. Put him in the outfield." Now, I wasn't a bad athlete, but the other kids were champs. In poor Jewish neighborhoods, every kid could hit a mile. They could be on their back and throw a guy out on first. They were great and I was just good. But I was brighter than most kids my age, so I hung around with guys two years older. Why should they let this puny kid hang out with them? I gave them a reason. I became their jester. Also, they were afraid of my tongue. I had it sharpened and I'd stick it in their eye. I read a little more than they did, so I could say, "Touch me not, leper!" "Hey! Mel called me a leopard!" "Schmuck! Leper!" Words were my equalizer.

PLAYBOY: Where did you hang around? In the schoolyard?

BROOKS: Are you kidding? We couldn't wait to get away from school. We hung out in the street - and on the corner. I mean, we didn't hang out there just because the street came to a corner. We weren't driven sexually crazy by a building coming to a point. We met there because there was a drugstore or a candy store on the corner. We'd all stand out on the sidewalk in warm weather and duel verbally, tell jokes, laugh it up. Girl watching was part of it, and so was having an egg cream. But the main thing was corner shtick, we called it, and in our gang. I was the undisputed champ at corner shtick.

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