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Mel Brooks: The TV Worth Watching Interview, Take 3
December 12, 2012  | By David Bianculli  | 3 comments

Here’s the rest of my recent conversation with Mel Brooks, whose HBO special, Mel Brooks Strikes Back, is repeated Thursday at 8 p.m. ET — and whose boxed set is out now…

I spoke to him last year, when his HBO special Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again was about to premiere — and again last week, for a two-part interview, the first part of which was devoted to Mel Brooks Strikes Back, in which Brooks is interviewed on stage by old friend Alan Yentob.

The remainder of the interview, excerpts of which follow, concern the new Shout! Factory boxed set The Incredible Mel Brooks — a five-DVD, one-CD bonanza of all things Brooksian — and, as our conversation resumes with a leftover digression from the previous interview segment, about a friend of Yentob’s who ended up representing Brooks’ son.

Brooks:  Ed Victor is Alan Yentob’s dearest friend, one of his best friends. He’s a literary agent… At one time, he was recovering from a cold, he was in the Hamptons, and I was in the Hamptons, and my son, Max Brooks, had written a thing called The Zombie Survival Guide. And Ed Victor was a literary agent, so —

Bianculli:  I didn’t know that was your son who wrote that!

Brooks:  Yeah. Max Brooks.

Bianculli:  Oh, wow. [Laughs] I never knew Max Brooks was your son. That’s a wonderful book.

Brooks:  He’s my son…  [Laughs.] He wrote for Saturday Night Live for two years, before he went on to his own career. So anyway, Victor read it, and said, “This is so bizarre, it’s so crazy and earnest about surviving zombies,” he said, “it might work!” So he got it published. And the only mistake they made, in Barnes & Noble and all these stores, was because Max had had some credits on Saturday Night Live, they thought it was all tongue-in-cheek, which it wasn’t. Max was very serious about how to avoid zombies. [Laughs] He was very serious about it.

And he wrote another book about it, called World War Z, in which there’s a zombie overrun, and the world is overtaken by zombies, and it’s how the world is reclaimed from the zombies that makes the book.

Bianculli:  That one I’m not familiar with…

Brooks: And let me say that World War Z will soon be a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt, out this summer. World War Z. I don’t know how much it has to do with Max’s book, but, you know, the title is intriguing.

Bianculli: Yeah. Plus, he got the advance.

Brooks:  Oh, definitely.  [Laughs]  And it’s all good. You know, you just hope to get lucky in life. You feed your kids for a while, and then you hope they work and start feeding you, you know.

Bianculli:  It’s true. My son is out there trying to do the same thing, and sold a screenplay —

Brooks:  One day, he will come with Chinese food, and bring it to your house. Little buckets of chicken lo mein. And your son will say, “Here, dad. That’s for what you’ve done for me.”

Bianculli:  [Laughs] Yeah. That evens the slate.

Brooks:  That evens us up, right. [Laughs]  So where were we?...

Bianculli: If this is too personal of a question, just tell me… But how are you doing, years after, as a widower? And how important is Carl [Reiner, with whom he meets, and eats, regularly] to that?

Brooks:  A: We still have a tremendous amount of humor. We have so much humor that we don’t even need an audience, sometimes. We just amuse ourselves with strange teasings. For instance, the other day we were all alone — this is true — and he’s teaching me how to speak with a proper French accent. Not French. He just said, “I’m going to teach you how to speak with a French accent.[Brooks goes on describe Reiner teaching him a series of French pronunciations for such words as “cheek” and “chin,” and then offers up a French-accented version of “eye,” which Brooks balks at repeating.] I said, “I beg to differ. That’s not the eye.” And he said, “It is. In a French accent, it is de ayyye, de ayyye.” And he got mad. And I said, “No, this is de ayyye, and I stuck my finger in his eye — not just below it. And even though it hurt him, and he teared, he screamed with laughter. Screamed. And he said, “I’ve got to tell people this — how crazy you are.”

We actually do things like that with each other, and we never sink into any kind of maudlin states, ever. We feel things, but we don’t bother expressing anything that’s seriously sad. He’s a widower, I’m a widower, we miss our spouses very much — but we still have each other, and we still have a sense of humor.

Bianculli: Clearly, you do. A couple of fast DVD set questions — first, who interviewed you for the Mel and His Movies segments? [There are five of them, quite lengthy and generously sprinkled with clips, in the five-DVD, single-CD boxed set]:

Brooks:  Steve Haberman (right). Good question. Damned good. I’m going to tell Steve that. Steve Haberman has written books on silent movies. Steve Haberman and Rudy De Luca and I wrote Life Stinks. He became my friend then, and he’s still one of my best friends, and one of my co-workers. And then we went off to write Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and Rudy writes and acts in my movies, but Steve strictly writes and advises. And he’s very, very bright, and very good. He teaches at Columbia College…

Bianculli:  Please tell him he did a really good job of making you feel so comfortable, and drawing you out.

Brooks:  He did. And what he is — he’s a sly son of a bitch. He says, there’s a pattern, but if I tell Mel there’s a pattern, he’ll eschew it and run from it. But if I can let him discover the pattern… Like, for instance, he said, “You know what it’s all about, in the end, what you’ve proven? Your movies are about one thing.” I said, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a theme.” And he said, “Yeah. Basically, they have one theme. It’s a very human theme.” I said, “Well, what is it?” He said, “Love or money. That’s what your pictures are about.” And he says, “I’m going to prove it to you.” And he did.

A lot of them are. Right from the beginning. Bialystock [in The Producers] is out for money, only money, only power. Bloom is out for glory, only glory… and they seem to settle for love. And we go on to The Twelve Chairs, and an aristocrat and a street urchin — Ostap Bender, played by Frank Langella (left) — and they are from opposite poles. One is an aristocrat and a patrician, and one is a petty thief. And in the end, here the aristocrat and the patrician throws the piece of chair in the air and falls down, and goes into an epileptic fit so he doesn’t lose his vow. So I said, “You got me. You got me!” Sometimes it doesn’t work: Silent Movie is all about Engulfs and Devours [a takeover corporate modeled after Gulf and Western, sticking its fingers into movies, into art. And there are some others that have different modus operandi —

Bianculli:  But generally, it does drive them. And your conversations with him, they’re almost like mini-memoirs, movie to movie and TV show.

Brooks:  Yeah, I think they’re very valuable. And you know, it turned out — it’s a lucky break. At the end of each goddamn disc — they’re long discs, but they all come together with “Cinema 101.” I talk about my movies: why, how, honestly. Never lying for a minute about how they came to be, why they came to be, what I thought of them then, what I think of them now, what they mean to me. They’re wonderful little things at the end of each disc: it’s Mel and His Movies. And that was Steve’s idea. He says, “There’s no continuity here. It’s all crazy.” I said, “Well, should we go for chronology?” He said, “Never. It’s dull.” But then he suggested, “Why don’t we do Mel and His Movies at the end of each one? Because we stick them in haphazardly, but at least they’ll have a resting place at the end of each disc.” I said, “Okay.” Good, Steve Haberman, good. And he said, “I’ll ask you the questions,” and I said, “Okay.” David — that was a good question.

Bianculli:  Thank you. As long as I get one per interview —

Brooks:  You’re a perceptive guy. That was really good.

Bianculli:  Well, thank you. Thank you. Now listen — my two favorite parts of this set, things that I hadn’t seen in a long time, are one, your performance on The Tracey Ullman Show –

Brooks:  Oh, bless you. That tickles me every time I see it.

Bianculli:  You tell me why it tickles you, before I tell you why it tickles me. [In the sketch, Brooks plays a washed-up film director whose latest movie will get green-lit only if he can sign a top-tier, Meryl Streep-type actress, played by Ullman.]

Brooks:  It tickles me because I just went back to being a great sketch comedian, with panic and need in the character — and playing against a super artist, a super pro, like her. It was heaven. It was like, “Okay! I’m glad I’m in show business, doing that sketch. You know? It makes me so happy to be in show business, because of the professionals of the art, and the energy and the creativity that we both threw into that.” Out of the blue, she started limping! That was her idea. I said, “How can I not laugh? How can I not crash to the ground here? I’ll just incorporate it, you know? She’s amazing.” [Laughs.]

Bianculli:  The limp was an ad lib? The wooden leg?

Brooks:  It was her ad lib. She said she thought it would round out the character.

Bianculli:  Oh, that’s wonderful.

Brooks:  [Laughing] It’s the last thing any director would even want near the movie.

Bianculli:  That’s great. That’s great. And the thing that I love, because I’ve seen so many of his classic series, is [executive producer] Jim Brooks — when he laughs, you can hear his laugh offstage.

Brooks:  Yeah.  You can.

Bianculli:  And you made him laugh so many times in that sketch.

Brooks:  I threw in some wonderful ideas… One was I said, “Spray the chair, so that, for some reason, he just slips right under the desk and disappears.” So it just all came together so beautifully. And it [the clip] was expensive to get, because it’s owned by various people — not the Tracey Ullman people, but it’s owned by networks and things. But I said, “Pay anything! It’s one of the most valuable things we can have. Get it, no matter what!” And Shout! Factory was so wonderful in supporting me in this whole thing, you know.

Bianculli:  It’s a fantastic set… And the other thing that I just absolutely loved, above anything else, to see in this was, of course, [the 1963 Oscar-winning animated film short] The Critic. [In it, Brooks, as narrator, comments on a series of odd moving animated shapes (right), saying things like, “Uh-oh, it’s a cock-a-roach!”]

Brooks:  Not many people know about The Critic.

Bianculli:  Well, I was shown it in college, the first time, in a film class, and absolutely adored it, and had not seen it much since. I had an old bootleg copy… but this is the first time it’s out on home video, isn’t it?

Brooks:  It’s the first time it’s out on video. Also, another one that you never see, ever, because it was banned when it first came out, from television, because they thought it was too raw, was The Hitler Rap. I’m one of the first Jews in the world to rap! And it’s great. And Alan Johnson did such an incredible job with the choreography, and the beauty of the women, and my performance as Hitler — and it was just amazing.

Bianculli:  It’s absolutely, quintessential early Eighties. I don’t know what year you actually filmed it —

Brooks:  I think I did it in ’81.  [According to the box set information, The Hitler Rap music video was released in 1983.]…

Bianculli:  How did The Critic ever come about, by the way? It seems almost like a TV sketch.

Brooks:  [Director] Ernie Pintoff said he had an idea. Norman McLaren, I think was the name of the guy, who had an avant garde Canadian animation edginess, and he would do kind of Mondrian and Miro… art pieces on film.  And he [Pintoff] had one in his office, and he was showing it to me, and he said, “You know, it’s beautiful, but it’s crazy.” And I said, “You bet.” And I said, “You could imitate that. You’re a good artist. You do that, and I’ll be an old Jew trying to make sense out of it. We’ll do it for three minutes. And that’s how we did it.”

Bianculli:  It seems almost like it would be done to be given to a variety show or something like that, rather than done as a short film.

Brooks:  No, no, no.  We did it for ourselves, and then it was done [shown] at the beginning of a movie. I forget which movie. But I remember we saw it on Third Avenue and 57th Street — the Sutton Theater [in New York City]… And the audience applauded like crazy at the end. And it’s a little — it’s three minutes, you know?

Bianculli:  It’s wonderful. Hey — you may have made me a critic with that. It may have inspired me. Who knows?

Brooks:  Yeah. Who knows?

Bianculli:  Switching subjects — I have an Alan Yentob question for you that I know no one else interviewing you this week is going to ask.

Brooks:  Yeah?

Bianculli:  I just finished doing research on a thing for Dennis Potter —

Brooks:  The Singing Detective?

Bianculli:  Yes! And Alan Yentob, 20 years ago, was at the Museum of Television & Radio, which it was then [known], interviewing Dennis Potter the way he was interviewing you for Mel Brooks Strikes Back. And I don’t know if anybody has ever asked you if you have seen, and if you have any reaction to, either the miniseries or movie versions of Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective.

Brooks:  I loved it. Nobody asked me about it. But I loved every minute of it, every inch of it. It was so good.

Bianculli:  The original miniseries, I’m presuming?

Brooks:  The original miniseries, right.

Bianculli:  Okay.  All right. You have such a wide range of film interests and talents, that I thought that might be the case —

Brooks:  And you didn’t know that Max Brooks was my son.

Bianculli:  [Laughing sheepishly] Now look, I don’t know how that happened. I really don’t know how that happened.

Brooks:   [Laughing] You’d have to ask the late, great Anne Bancroft how that happened…

Bianculli:  [Laughing loudly] I’m sure that’s a very good story.

Brooks:  But he’s such a great guy, and such a talented guy. And my instructions — I instruct you, I charge you, to go out and buy a copy, it’s in paperback now, of World War Z, and see what I consider really good, wonderful writing, in the style of — you may know the name — Studs Terkel.

Bianculli:  Of course I know the name Studs Terkel. I became a journalist, in part, because of Studs.

Brooks:  You’re going to love it. Max has kind of inherited the Studs Terkel sensibility in terms of really good books. And you’ve got to buy it, and you’ve got to read it. It’s called World War Z...

Bianculli:  Well, I love the pride that I can hear, and the love that I can hear, for your son. That’s a great way to end this.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Want to read more from Mel but don't want to go back to scan for those pesky little hyperlinks in the story? Try these:

Mel Brooks: The 2011 TVWW interview

Mel Brooks: The 2012 TVWW interview, Part 1

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