Playboy February 1975 (Part 1)
by Brad Darrach
Originally published in Playboy February 1975
"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
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
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
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
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,
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.
PLAYBOY: And of being undisciplined in the comedy you write and
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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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