Melvin Kaminsky, better known to his legion of fans as Mel Brooks, has been making people laugh for 51 years, from his first da-da-ba-ga-ba-ba at four months to his recent Hitchcockian film spoof, High Anxiety. Although Brooks is hard put to explain the source of his comic genius (even after six years in psychoanalysis), he remains one of North America’s most durable and funniest comedians. Brooks got his first major break in show business by helping to script Sid Caesar’s now legendary Fifties TV variety show, Your Show Of Shows, and later collaborated with Carl Reiner to create the now classic The 2,000-Year-Old Man sketch (‘‘a man with 42,000 children, and not one comes to visit”). Brooks, married to actress Anne Bancroft, subsequently branched out into feature films (The Producers, The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie). He was interviewed in Los Angeles by Maclean’s contributing editor Philip Fleishman.
Brooks; I’d like to apologize and explain to you, anyone who may be hearing this tape, that the phonetic inarticulation is due to the fact that I’m eating a Rome Beauty, which is an American apple.
Maclean’s: We don’t have them in Canada. The closest thing is a Delicious apple. Brooks: Now the Delicious apple I don’t like. It’s too tall. It’s not round enough. It has too much . . . it’s fraught with shoulders, so to speak. I prefer McIntosh which has just a little bit of tartness in the apple. I know more about apples than I do about show business, as many critics are wont to shout.
Maclean’s: Where exactly did you learn so much about apples?
Brooks: Observation and deduction, my boy. I observe everything and deduce almost nothing.
Maclean’s: Let me ask you a question.that might be a little more pertinent. What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a business like this?
Brooks: I guess it was a series of unlucky accidents. Because if I didn’t get into this business, I probably would have become a z lace salesman.
1 Maclean’s: A lace salesman? ÿ Brooks: Lace. L-a-c-e. I have a penchant ^ for flax. You can catch me between 3 and 4 Ë a.m., alone with great deals of flax. I like m flax and flax likes me. It’s my only real sexï ual perversion. Flax, g Maclean’s: I’ve heard that you had no sex5 ual perversions.
* Brooks: Not true. I practice bondage and
discipline in the afternoon and I do my flax late at night.
I like flax and flax likes me. It’s my only real sexual perversion. Flax
Maclean’s: Besides the fact that you preferred lace ...
Brooks: Yeah, I love lace. I like doilies. I like tablecloths. I like the little things, antimacassars I think they’re called. Are you familiar with the word antimacassar? That’s the word for the little lace cover on the arms of the armchair. Antimacassars they’re called. Yeah.
Maclean’s: You obviously haven’t become a lace salesman . . .
Maclean’s: What have you become, and why?
Brooks: I’ve become a bit of a wino. I like red wine. Did you know that about me? People in my family prefer to call me a wine connoisseur because I’m familiar with the secret pleasures of wine, red wine espe-
dally. But I will drink a bottle of Ripple if the vintage is good, if it’s a ’59, or even a ’61 Manischewitz.
Maclean’s: ’61 Manischewitz?
Maclean’s: Around that time, 1961, you were also working for Sid Caesar, as a comedy writer?
Brooks: Yeah. I was one of the staff. Sid and I got along famously together. He could do incredible Jewish accents. “I don’t vant nobody to take the rowboats but the people that can row them back.” He was fabulous. I had found a vehicle for my comic passion. Everything I wrote could be played by Sid Caesar. Along came television; Sid asked me to write the show. I wrote the show, and for the first five years it was called Your Show Of Shows. It was 1 Vi hours, live.
Maclean’s: Where did your passion for comedy come from?
Brooks: I’m finished with the apple. That’s why I’m speaking so beautifully now. Maclean’s: The original passion?
Brooks: In me?
Brooks: I don’t know. Maybe genetic ... I have no idea ... the aura of that strange coalescence of vapor that creates a personality is often beyond the realm of science and in the purview of the imagination of the surreal of God-given accidents . . . There are physical reasons: sometimes when somebody is funny-looking and short, he is comical. Maybe his peer group exerts certain pressures on him and he responds through comedy. Another thing may be, like myself, the baby of the family; always being adored and psychologically wanting to keep that adoration alive. I don’t know why certain people are driven to become certain things. Psychologists will tell you why but they’re often wrong. They’re just supporting the fact that they’re psychologists, by making up these absurd reasons.
Maclean’s: What were some of the first bits that used to get a laugh?
Brooks: Da-da-ba-ga-ba-da-da-ba-ba. I was four months old. It got laughs. Do you want me to move a little further than that? I always felt it was my job to amuse those around me. Don’t ask me why. That was my job. Who knew that you could get paid for it, that there was a job called being a comedian. Who knew? I don’t know: Maclean’s: Yourfirst feature film. The Producers, was relatively successful, but it was also considered to be in somewhat bad taste. Brooks: It was a succès d’estime. That’s a nice word for a commercial failure. It was an absolute commercial failure. The critics were for the most part very cruel. The New York Times indicated that I should not make movies, that it was not my field. Maclean’s: Where did the comic influences come from? Sid Caesar was one of them. A riot her was Neil Simon. But your work is totally different.
Brooks: My work is large, unstructured, rambling, vulgar and every once in a while has an insane, blinding blast of imagination that I hope pushes all of it ahead one notch and into perhaps the creative art of comedy.
Maclean’s: Why vulgar?
Brooks: Well, I mean, a lot of cowboys sitting around a campfire farting is not exactly drawing-room comedy. Shakespeare said hold the mirror up to life; I held it a little behind and below. I mean, forgive me, but I thought . . . I’ve seen a thousand cowboy movies ever since I was a
How much of my comedy is founded in • my Jewish psyche? I'd say 311/2%-l’m guessing
baby, and they always swill black coffee and eat tons of hot beans, scrape them off tin plates, and they never make even so much as a burp, let alone a fart, and I mean, you can’t eat so many beans without some noise happening there. What happens with that scene from Blazing Saddles is miraculous. With the first fart, a slight shudder goes through the crowd, and you can hear a gasp from the people who are just a little more sensitive. With the next series of three or four farts, titters begin to escape from mouths. The fifth or sixth fart evokes a flat-out laugh from a third of the audience. By the time the sixteenth fart rolls around, the entire audience is in a state of'hysterical convulsion. Suddenly you see gaps in the audience and they’re people who’re literally on the floor trying to hold on to their own sphincters, laughing, you know, to beat the band. Maclean’s: You’ve lived to see success. Brooks: I’ve outlived my bad reviews. Had I not done Blazing Saddles, let’s face it, had I just done The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, they would not be the memorable cultist films that play around all the time in the small theatres on the edge of town. They would be gone.
Maclean’s: Were you ever worried that you weren’t going to be given that third chance? Brooks: Very worried. The man that’s under the most pressure in Hollywood is David Begelman. He was the head of Columbia Pictures, and he’s under pressure for misappropriating funds, and they’re all out to kill him. Anyway, Begelman, who together with Freddy Fields had an agency called CMA, sees me walking in the street and says, “Why so glum, Mel?” “David,” I say, “here I’ve done The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, and I can’t get a job.” “Come with me,” says David, and buys me lunch, and takes me to his office, spends five hours with me, the busiest man . . . Redford calling, can’t take the call, literally. “We’ve got to get you ajob; you’re too talented. I’m going to be your agent without commission until you’re on your feet, and if you want to hire me, fine.” He turns me around from a wistful cultist failure to a critically assailed commercial success, in a period of 18 months. Literally. I got Young Frankenstein, I got a three-picture deal with Fox, I got everything out of Blazing Saddles, because the picture has done close to $50 million in rentals today. This man David Begelman ... I will be forever grateful to him. People are quick to scream rape or lynch, or one of those words. I hate the mob, from the bottom of my heart. I’ve always hated mob thought and mob action, and that’s what’s happening in Hollywood against David Begelman now. Now ask me another question .. .
Maclean’s: How much of your comedy is founded in your Jewish psyche?
Brooks: 31 Vi%, I’d say . .. I’m guessing. Maclean’s: I was curious about what you said about mob reactions. Where does that emotion come from?
Brooks: That may be my Jewish heritage, the Jew being persecuted, especially my mother’s people in the Ukraine, the pogroms. More than anything, the great holocaust by the Nazis is probably the great outrage of the 20th century. There’s nothing to compare with it. And ... so what can I do about it? If I get on the soapbox and wax eloquently, it’ll be blown away in the wind, but if I do Springtime For Hitler it’ll never be forgotten. I think you can bring down totalitarian governments faster by using ridicule than you can with invective.
Maclean’s: A lot of your material is psychologically based, and you went through a period of therapy yourself.
Brooks: About six years, yes. I was on the
couch six years. But I always took my shoes
Maclean’s: What future projects are you considering?
Brooks: I was thinking about doing a series of bits, maybe called Brooksamania or Brooksian Insanities of 1979, and in it I would put some of my favorite ideas. Maybe English Restoration comedy in which two London fops leave their townhouse and walk to their carriage, stepping over the Hogarthian poor, crushing their bones, while you hear, “Oh, please, give us something gov’nor.” And they are so exquisite and so elite and they speak such wonderful English that we can’t understand it, these rich fops. So we have subtitles for the first time in an English movie. One of my favorites would be to have the Nobel Prize ceremonies done like we do the Academy Awards, shamelessly you know. Jonas Salk may win and say, “I’m sure E = mc2 is a very important contribution to humanity, and I’m sure that Mr. Schweitzer’s lepers taught us something, but I’m very glad you gave it to Poland.” Maclean’s: You have just won the first Charles Chaplin award.
Brooks: Yeah, I won it because I look a little like him. The student body of UCLA gave me a standing ovation, and instead of crying I told them to sit down and mind their manners. I told them it was very smart to give me the award because I’m very good. I told them that Charlie Chaplin lives. His spirit is green and fresh, whilst other great figures of the period ... the D. W. Griffiths, wonderful film makers, are dusty, and you’ve got to call a friend who knows a friend at a museum to get some torn 16mm print of The Birth Of A Nation or Greed.
Maclean’s: Do you want to create what Chaplin created?
Brooks: I don’t want to create anything. I don’t think in terms of results at all. I think : what next insanity can I shock the world with? What can I say to, for, my fellow citizens of the world? How crazy shall I be? And whether they’re failures like The Producers, or successes like Blazing Saddles, it’s not important. I’ve got to get this stuff out of my system.
Maclean’s: How do you feel being responsible for something that costs millions of dollars to make?
Brooks: I don’t spend a lot of money. I’m one of the few film makers in Hollywood who spends $3‘/2 million to make a major motion picture. I don’t know what Close Encounters cost, but I know it has to make $51 million just to break even. It’s incredible. Maybe I’m a little Jewish candy-store owner, but I really think it’s too much. Any movie that costs more than 10 million dollars shouldn’t be done.
Maclean’s: Could the money be better used? Brooks: Of course. I think it should be used for armaments to blow people out of this world. Cobalt bombs, that’s what we should use . . . I’m being facetious . . . It’s outrageous that we should spend 30 mil-
lion dollars to make a movie. It doesn’t make it better. The Seventh Seal cost $400,000 at the most. Miracle In Milan, The Bicycle Thieves, what did they cost? $200,000? Masterpieces. And God bless Charlie Chaplin. What the hell did City Lights cost? It probably cost 500,000 bucks. And has anybody made a better comedy than City Lights? I don’t think so, except The Producers ... I shouldn’t say that. Shame on me.
Maclean’s: Beneath the surface of Mel
I don’t think in terms of results. I think: what next insanity can I shock the world with?
Brooks, is there an artist seeking to make the great film?
Brooks: No, you’re not going to find an artist; you’re going to find a short Jew who really wants to work on a stage in Las Vegas, gamble later and say, “Hi ya Sammy, hi ya Frank, how’s it going?” And I want Sammy to say “Who’s that beautiful, tall blonde with you?” And I'd say, “Never mind.” That’s the life I want. I want to drink bourbon like Frank. And I would also like to make Les Enfants du Paradis.
Maclean’s: For High Anxiety, you wrote the title song. You produced, directed and starred in the film.
Brooks: I am the star, the Jewish star, the
Mogan David of this film. I am the sixpointed beauty. It’s basically a straight role because when you do a send-up of an Alfred Hitchcock film, it’s incumbent upon you to play the central role like James Stewart or Cary Grant or any number of Hitchcock heroes. He usually has a very well dressed man in a vest and a Phi Beta Kappa key being chased by all kinds of villains and the police. He’s on the run from everybody, and usually at his side is a girl named Tippy with blonde hair. Tippy or Doris ... they always have blonde hair. Maclean’s: In one scene you’re being chased by pigeons .. .
Brooks: Yes. But they’re not pecking at me. They’re not feathered peckers. They just leave little green messages all over a beautiful three-piece suit. It was very hard to get that stuff out. I wanted to keep that suit so I could wear it in French restaurants and make believe I was rich.
Maclean’s: You’re bringing out the sound track of High Anxiety.
Brooks: Yeah, the first side of it has your obedient Jew singing exactement comme Frank Sinatra. Yes, yes, ladies and germs, I sing a lot like him, and I will sing High Anxiety on that record. You want to hear a little? “High Anxiety, whenever you’re near, oooh-xiety, it’s you that I fear.My heart’s afraid to fly, it’s crashed before, but then you take my hand, my heart starts to soar. Once more.” And that’s without the band.
Maclean’s: A lot of your films refer to what one would call, in the psychiatric profession, anal fixation.
Brooks: What do you mean by anal fixation? You’ve got to be careful with those terms. Anal fixation sometimes means a penchant for neatness, so anality, as it were, is a little different from an anal fixation. The critics always get it wrong, and the critics are not necessarily intellectuals, or even well-read, or even nice people. Now, I do like to run the gamut of the orifices. I think there should be talking and kissing from the mouth. I think there should be blowingof the nose. I think there should be cleaning of the wax of the ears. And I do think there should be some attention paid to toosh functions. I could have been a great doctor.
Maclean’s: Did you ever really want to be a doctor?
Brooks: I think I did. I really get a kick out of making people feel good. There is no greater joy for me than to sit in the first row of a movie house showing one of my films and turn around. It’s not so much the laughter; it’s the glow of the faces in anticipation or just the silver light of the screen bathing over their faces. Success, money, they’re all by-products. Fame, the enemy, is a by-product. It’s no good to be famous. It really doesn’t pay. People watching you, they don’t behave normally when you’re around, and your God-given gifts' of observation are out the window. Whatever anonymity I have I try to cling to.