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MEL BROOKS: The TV Worth Watching Interview
September 8, 2011  | By David Bianculli
 

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Friday night on HBO, Mel Brooks sits down with Dick Cavett to tell jokes, swap stories and regale a theater audience of nearly 2,000 appreciative fans with tales of his life and friends in show business. Earlier this week, Mel Brooks generously did the same thing by phone, with me, exclusively for readers of TV WORTH WATCHING.

We covered the HBO special, of course, but also touched on lots of other subjects, from Your Show of Shows to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and including his love of musicals, the status of Blazing Saddles coming to Broadway, and appreciations of everyone from Richard Pryor to Gene Wilder...

The prime-time HBO special on which Brooks tells other, different stories (don't worry, he has plenty) premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET. Its title is Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett: Together Again, which alludes to the fact that these two men have chatted together before, on both Cavett's 1970s talk show and a more recent rematch for Turner Classic Movies.

Both men, coincidentally, began their show-biz careers behind the scenes, writing material for two of television's earliest iconic pioneers: Brooks for Sid Caesar on Admiral Broadway Revue and Your Show of Shows, and Cavett for Jack Paar on his influential version of the Tonight show. Clearly, they're comfortable together -- so much so that Brooks opens the show by describing Cavett as "prey," a remark Cavett accepts with a chuckle, and as a compliment.

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The evening's event, taped last December at the cavernous Saban Theatre (formerly the Wilshire) in Beverly Hills, is just two men on two chairs, swapping stories. Ostensibly, it was staged as publicity for Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, Cavett's new collection of New York Times online essays. (You can find, and buy, it HERE.)

But really, it was a chance for two well-connected, sublimely funny storytellers to talk, and for the audience to eavesdrop. Between the two of them, they tell at least four hilarious anecdotes about Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe more. I was laughing so hard, I lost count.

Here's a brief sample from the special, in which Carl Reiner -- the reliably sharp straight man from Your Show of Shows, as well as Brooks and Reiner's famous "2000-Year-Old-Man" routines -- throws a new question at Brooks' millennia-old character, but doesn't throw Brooks at all.

HBO is the perfect place for this special, because both men occasionally spout profanity -- sometimes quoting other celebrities, other times just being casually and unapologetically themselves. I told him I was surprised that a conversation so intimate worked so well in a theater that large -- and he agreed.

"It's a big, gracious, old beautiful movie palace that was turned into a legit theater," Brooks said. "I've never seen so many people in my life...

"I got on stage," he continued, "and I looked, and I said, 'Holy shit!... You need a big band. You need a rock band with firecrackers.' But we did very well.

"What I was surprised by were the waves of laughter. Big waves. Came right back to us, bounced off these beautiful big hard walls, right back on stage, and we kept looking at each other. I've never gotten so many laughs in my life."

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At times, Brooks enlivens the proceedings even more by jumping to his feet to tell a particular story -- how, for example, he imagined Frank Sinatra would have sung "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers. Or how he made his disastrous onstage debut as an actor in the Catskills at age 14. Brooks is so at ease on stage, telling stories with such confidence and timing and precision, it's clear he could have had a future, or a past, as a successful standup comic.

"I should have done more," he said. "I could have had a lovely career being a standup comic, but I wanted more. I wanted movies, and I wanted to write movies, and I loved theater, and I wanted to write musicals -- and standup was not enough. It just didn't give me enough deep-down pleasure."

But Brooks had other, stronger creative passions. Comedy writing was chief among them, but Brooks also loved musical theater -- a love that was born when he was taken to his first Broadway musical, at age nine, by his Uncle Joe.

"My Uncle Joe drove a cab," Brooks recalled, "and he used to take the doormen at various theaters, who lived in Brooklyn, back home -- for free, just because he was a Broadway cab driver. So every once in a while, they'd get a couple of tickets and they'd give them to Joe.

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"And one time, it was a new show at the Alvin Theatre -- a [1934] Cole Porter show called Anything Goes, starring William Gaxton and Ethel Merman (right)."

Young Mel hid on the floor of the back seat of the cab (it would have been illegal for his uncle to have a passenger without the meter running) until they got there, at which time Uncle Joe escorted him to the last row of the second balcony.

"And they start the show," Brooks continued, "and... Be still, my heart. I couldn't believe the joy, and the songs. And they had no microphones in those days... and I even thought, from the second balcony, that Ethel Merman was a little loud."

Brooks reveled in the wacky plots, the machine guns in violin cases, the tap-dancing production numbers, the bubbly songs... all of it.

"And that was it, I was hooked. But I didn't get back to it for 40 to 50 years. I just went to TV. I was lucky to get a job with Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows, and then Get Smart."

But Brooks did, indeed, dabble in musical theater from time to time, starting on Broadway with Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952. "Sketches by Melvin Brooks" is how he was credited, in a show whose New Faces included Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence and Pau Lynde.

Brooks continued by co-writing the book for 1957's Shinbone Alley (also starring Eartha Kitt, and based on the archy and mehitabel newspaper columns of Don Marquis) and writing the book for another musical, 1962's All American (starring Ray Bolger, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams).

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Then, eventually, came the 2001 Broadway musical version of Brooks' 1968 film The Producers, a stage production that was showered with Tony Awards, and led to a subsequent musical stage adaptation of another Brooks film genre satire, Young Frankenstein.

And Brooks confirmed to TVWW that he may, indeed, complete the hat trick by mounting the much-anticipated musical version of 1974's Blazing Saddles.

"There's a lot of stuff there already," Brooks said. "If I could come up with maybe five or six new tunes, new production numbers, I think there'd be enough there for a wonderful night of entertainment. It's the kind of think you don't have to open on Broadway. You could tour for a year, get it right, give the investors back their money and then take a chance with The New York Times...

"I've been fooling with them [the new songs], I confess. I've been fooling with some lyrics. There should be a song in the jail."

Brooks recounts the scene in which Cleavon Little's Black Bart is hit by the N word, and Gene Wilder's character defends the townsfolk as "simple people, pioneers -- you know, morons."

"Instead of just that joke," Brooks hinted, "there could be a song there, explaining the West in 1874."

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Reinvention, if not outright reincarnation, seems to work especially well with Brooks' comedies. The Producers was a movie, then a Broadway musical, then a movie again -- and its plot, about a scheming producer who tries intentionally to stage a horrible musical as a tax dodge, was recycled brilliantly by Larry David in a season-long Curb Your Enthusiasm story line, with Brooks playing himself --and with Larry cast in a stage production of The Producers with the shock-ending motive of having it, too, fail miserably.

"I've got to just salute Larry David," Brooks said. "I think Larry came up with the concept, and I bought it. To mimic and mirror The Producers, for us to have a scheme knowing what a lousy singer and dancer he is, that the show had to close" -- and, at that point, Brooks punctuated and ended his sentence with a hearty, appreciative laugh.

In Friday's HBO special, laughs are all over the place -- and so are celebrity stories, about Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire, Orson Welles, and so many, many more, it's less like name-dropping than name-carpetbombing. Sometimes audience members toss out a name, and sometimes Cavett does. Either way, Brooks takes each pitch and hits it out of the park, like a comic word-association game.

I asked Brooks if I could save time by conducting part of the interview that way, just to see what thoughts would pop into his head at the mention of certain talents with whom he has worked. His is a multimedia career that boasts significant triumphs in TV (Your Show of Shows, Get Smart), film (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and so on), recordings (his "2000-Year-Old-Man" albums), and the stage (his gloriously irreverent musicals).

The mention of each name, predictably, resulted in another instant, anecdotal, out-of-the-park homer:

Larry David. "That season with him [on Curb] was absolutely wonderful. But you don't want to have dinner with him, and you don't want to live with him. He's a real pain in the ass. He always thinks he's right, no matter what. You can't argue with him.

"But he's so good to work with! I love commedia dell'arte. Just give me the bones, the subjects, and let me jump and run with it. And he's awfully good at that."

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Madeline Kahn. "Divine. One of the most incredibly talented women that ever lived. I just gave her the song "I'm Tired" [in Blazing Saddles] -- she did do Marlene Dietrich, that was one of her voices, so after I created Lili Von Shtupp, and I begged her to be in it.


"And I wrote this song for her, called 'I'm Tired,' and it's a great song, and I'm very talented," he said, laughing at himself, "but it would have just been good. But she made it divine. Her timing, her leaning on things and missing, her humming along with the bass melody line, harmonizing with it and getting it just wrong..."

Richard Pryor. [Co-writer, Blazing Saddles.] "Genius. I'm just sorry he wasn't a Jew, that's how good he was. He may have been the best standup comic that ever, ever lived. His associations were so real. He understood life, and he knew how to turn life into comedy, better than anybody that ever lived.

"He was a thrilling comic. He and Sid Caesar were the giants of my life."

Harvey Korman. "Spectacularly, individually heavenly. You could be the craziest pitcher in the world -- throw screwballs, fastballs -- I could do anything, when we were shooting History of the World, Part I, but he was the greatest catcher and returner. He was so fast and so furiously funny.

"And Harvey was a splendid actor. A real actor. Once he was in character, he was in it, and he did it perfectly... That's why The Carol Burnett Show was so successful. I think he was the pillar that supported that entire show. I don't think I ever gave Harvey one direction. He inhaled the script. He and Madeline, never wrong.

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Cloris Leachman. "Cloris was a fountain, a spraying fountain of talent, but sometimes she turned it up too big. The first time she did Nurse Diesel [from 1977's High Anxiety], I said, 'You know, Cloris, that's brilliant, but nobody knows what you're saying. You're so much in that character, you've RRRR'ed me to death. That R is so think and rich, I don't know what you're saying.

"She came to the set, costumed herself, with these kind of triangular tits... and then she had a slight mustache. And she said, 'It's very faint, it's very faint.' And I said, 'I love it.' And she said, 'I got everything from the name you gave me. Nurse Diesel. It's German! It's a six-wheel truck! I got everything.'"

Gene Wilder. "Gene was a combination of sweetness, sadness and comedy you couldn't get from anybody else. He's like a cello. It's beautiful, and yet it's deep. It has deep resonance.

"When he played the Waco Kid [in Blazing Saddles], he could make you cry. That's how good he was... And he never played for comedy. He just played the character. He never asked the audience to laugh at his performance. It was just the situations that made that performance so funny...

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"When he was Leo Bloom [in the original movie version of The Producers], he was an hysterical little accountant. And he wasn't acting funny. He was just acting scared...

"I think Gene is responsible for the 'art' part of my career. He started me on that track, he and Zero [Mostel], in The Producers -- not just crazy comedy, but comedy with character and purpose.

"I don't think The Producers would have been half as good without Gene and Zero, no matter who did it as a movie... When I spoke to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick [about starring in the Broadway version of The Producers], I said, 'Who are you going to play?' And they said, 'We're going to play Zero and Gene.' And I said, 'Okay. Good. Good.'"

 

6 Comments

 

Eileen said:

This is wonderful! Mel Brooks has had such an amazing career it almost defies reason. There's nothing he hasn't done, or at least tried. So kudos to him for entertaining all of us so many, many years.

I watched The Graduate with my son one evening, and asked if he knew who "Mrs. Robinson" was married to in real life. He threw out a few names, and I answered in the negative. He finally insisted I tell him; when I replied it was Mel Brooks he acted as if I were making it up.

I was always intrigued by that very, very long and happy marriage. I'm sure they were crazy about each other, and seemingly so different is why it probably worked. I'm sure Anne is smiling down on Mel with every new venture.

Comment posted on September 8, 2011 1:42 PM


wilberfan said:

What would we do without you, David? Miss a lot of great television, that's what.

Thanks so much for this heads-up!

My favorite Brooks story involves the night I went to UCLA for a "sneak-preview" of Mel's (unnamed) latest movie. It turned out to be "Blazing Saddles", and we howled with laughter through the entire film. (I remember we were sitting right next next to a young, appreciative filmmaker by the name of John Landis.)

After the film ended, Mel went up on stage to take some questions--but started by complimenting us for laughing at the opening logo. "Smart crowd!", he told us.

My favorite exchange of the evening:

Q: Mr. Brooks, what do you consider the hardest part of making a film?

A: Punching all of those little holes...

[Great story. Thanks for sharing it. And for lots MORE great stories, watch the HBO special... no kidding. -- DB]

Comment posted on September 8, 2011 2:49 PM


Jill said:

I think I'd watch a toothpaste commercial if Mel Brooks was doing it. :-) He's a national treasure...

[He did do a BEER commercial once, with Dick Cavett. They talk about it on their special. -- DB]

Comment posted on September 8, 2011 6:18 PM


Mark N said:

Dear David,

What a pleasure it must have been to play word association with Mel Brooks! And one of those pieces made me mourn and rejoice in his Madeline Kahn comments. Loved that lady. And Mel's movies, for the most part, have been special and unique (NOT a Spaceballs fan, though). And I just feel doubtful that Blazing Saddles could make the transition to Broadway as well as his first two efforts did...but who dares to doubt what Brooks can do? Great piece.
Mark

Comment posted on September 8, 2011 6:30 PM


Doug N said:

Ahem: The scam in The Producers wasn't a tax dodge. It was investment fraud. Raise more money than you need, in return for 400% interest in the show. Then have the show fail. Keep the extra money. Unfortunately, it succeeded.

Comment posted on September 9, 2011 5:20 PM


Mark N said:

and David...as advertised...the special was tremendous, Always count on you, my friend.

Comment posted on September 9, 2011 9:28 PM
 
 
 
 
 
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