AMERICAN MASTERS PODCAST - The Comedy Writer: Mel Brooks

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Satire is often described as one of the most powerful tools against tyranny. Listen to a previously unreleased interview with legendary comedian Mel Brooks, who reveals how his experience as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II led to his groundbreaking satirical comedy “The Producers.” Brooks earned Oscar® and Tony® awards for writing the hit film and musical, cementing his status as one of America’s sharpest wits. [“American Masters – Mel Brooks: Make A Noise” (2013)].

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Mel Brooks: Comedy is a weird thing. Even though it seems foolish and silly and crazy, comedy has the most to say about the human condition because it's... If you laugh you can get by. Somehow you can... you can struggle when things are bad. If you have... If you can get a sense of humor.

Anna Drezen: That was writer, director, producer and comedy legend Mel Brooks, speaking with director Robert Trachtenberg for American Masters – Mel Brooks: Make A Noise. At 91 years old, Mel Brooks has had several careers worth of successes, and is on the astounding 12-person list of people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award, A.K.A. an E.G.O.T.

A few of his most popular film credits include Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, History of the World Part 1, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I know every single word of that last one. But before he became Mel Brooks, he was Melvin Kaminsky, an 18-year old boy in the U.S. Army during World War II. During this time he served as a corporal in the 1104 Engineer Combat Battalion, and was responsible for defusing enemy land mines at the front line. Not that back line, not the middle line. Right at the front.

Mel Brooks: The army was very good to me. They gave me a rifle and a helmet and a bed and... and something to eat and throw up with. And they sent me on a liberty ship in the middle of January in the Atlantic and sent me to Europe. I was with the combat engineers and at one point I was near Saarbrucken and the uh Germans were only a few miles away across a creek or a river and uh that night I could actually hear them singing something in German. "Ya ya ya ya. [SINGING IN GERMAN]." Something in... "Ya ya ya ya. [SINGING IN GERMAN]." And so I picked up a... a big bullhorn and I said, "Well, I'll sing to them." So I sang, "To- to- Tootsie goodbye. Don't cry Tootie. Don't cry. That choo choo train that's takes me away from you, you'll never know how said it made me. Tootie and then, I'll be coming again. Wait for the mail, I'll never fail. If you don't get a letter, you know I'm in jail. Ha ha. Goodbye Tootie. Goodbye. Don't cry Tootsie. Goodbye!" And I actually heard, "[CLAPS AND SPEAKS IN GERMAN]." I heard some cheering. They really liked it, you know. I think... I think I could've ended the war right then and there but uh General Patton or somebody kept going.

I got to know a little bit more about Hitler, being a soldier than I... than I did with just hearsay, reading the New York newspapers. But uh I was aware that he was not a nice person. Strangely enough I didn't know anything about concentration camps. Not until I actually was in Europe, in the war. It took a long time to make any kind of human sense out of that and to this day I'm… it's heartbreaking and mysterious that human beings could do that to other human beings - to this day.

And I never thought of doing anything about Hitler until after I got back from Europe, from the army and I was discharged and I... and I realized this... this guy was very valuable. I had an idea for a show, a play in which the presenters could make more money with a flop than they can with a hit. So I said, "What would make them get up and leave the theater?" I said, "How about a big musical called Springtime For Hitler? And the minute they sing Springtime For Hitler maybe half the audience would say, "Ah!" and get up and leave and that they wouldn't have to worry about it being a hit because he was... he raised too much money and he could keep all the money and go to Rio. So that's where Hitler became more and more important to me. I was more interested in human... human behavior, human survival and still wanted it to be funny and... and I... I made my life making people laugh even though a lot of it was disturbing and real.

Anna Drezen: After the war, Mel Brooks began writing for television, working with the legendary comedian Sid Caesar on his various shows. It was around this time that he decided he wanted to write a satire about a pair of producers scheming to put on a play called, of course, Springtime for Hitler.

Mel Brooks: There was a lot of TV, a lot of sit-coms and it never appealed to me. And I'd read a book by Nikolai Gogol and I'd... and I'd read this book and I'd say, "Gee. This guy is really good." Or I'd... I'd read... I don't know, Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or uh sometimes you know I'd be... I'd be in love with uh... uh... I don't know. I'd be in love with stuff that wasn't sit-coms. Even Get Smart, which was crazy and silly, it still had to do with, I don't know, human personality rather than a sit-com. That was a very hard sell. As a matter of fact we did Get Smart with, you know, the wonderful Don Adams and uh after a season, one season only, NBC canceled it and we were... I was out of a job. And then they couldn't find a... I don't know. They couldn't find something to replace it so they ran it another season and it caught on. Then they ran it another season and it was a hit. And so for the next five years money was coming in and then I said well maybe I can... I can finish a book uh that I was writing called Springtime For Hitler. And I was going to... I was going to write this book. I showed it to some friends and I showed it to some uh publishers and they said, "Too much dialogue. Not enough narrative." They said, "Maybe it's a play." Good. So I turned Springtime For Hitler into a play and I took it to Kermit Bloomgarden who did Death Of A Salesman and I said, "Kermit! How about this play?" And he said, "It's too many sets. You've got too many places. And... and it's going to be too expensive." You know the cliché is... is "one set, five characters," and here I had thirty-five sets and twenty-eight characters. He said, "It's going to be too expensive. So I said, "What do I do?" He said, "I think it's a movie." So I began to write Springtime For Hitler as a movie. And I... I went everywhere. Nobody wanted it. They said it was too crazy. And then I met a guy called Sydney Glazier and he said, "Read it to me." So I began reading it to him and when I got to Springtime For Hitler he got very excited, he fell down laughing and spit out the tuna fish and said, "We got to do it. We got to do it." So we went everywhere. We went to Paramount. We went to Warner Brothers. We... We went... Universal said they might do it. They were interested in doing it but they didn't... They said, "If you could change Hitler to Mussolini it would be better, because people like Mussolini. They don't like Hitler that much." I said, "Well you really don't get it. These guys are putting on a flop, not a hit. In order to get a flop they have to rave about Hitler and people would walk out and then they'd raise too much money and they'd keep the money and... Forget it." And finally Sydney uh introduced me to Joseph E. Levine. At that point Joseph E. Levine was making movies for Embassy. The movies were called Hercules and then Hercules Unchained and then Hercules Nearly Chained and then Hercules Chained Again. All these
Hercules movies were making money. And he said... He liked Springtime For Hitler and he said, "I'll do it."

We start to make Springtime For Hitler and then Joe Levine calls and says, "It can't be called that. I called all the Jews that own movie houses and they said, ‘No. You can't... You got to get another name.’” So I said, "Okay. I'll get another name. I'll call it um The Producers. That's ironic." So we decided to call it The Producers, because they were anything but producers. And so Zero Mostel was hired to do it, it was difficult to direct Zero Mostel. I had never directed before and he simply wasn’t taking direction from anybody. And so I had to really be careful about not hurting his feelings and still getting what I want. And for the most part it was difficult but so rewarding in terms of his talent. I mean he was such a great, great artist.

But no trouble at all from Gene Wilder. There was one night... It got to be five thirty or six and I said, "I want you to do the wacky scene where you uh... where you really go crazy." And he said, "I'm really tired. Can't we do it tomorrow morning?" And I said, "No. I need it. I really need it tonight." So he said, "But I'm exhausted." I said, "Well what would give you some... some spirit?" He said, "Well chocolate." I said, "Okay.” I got him some chocolate, I said eat slow. Finally he got to be finished and I said, "Have a black, some black coffee." He said, "I don't drink coffee." I said, "Drink it tonight." He said, "I don't drink... drink coffee. I don't like coffee." I said, "Drink it tonight. Do it. Drink the coffee." And [15:42:27.09] he said, "Okay." You know. And he drank the coffee. Now I think I went too far cause he was... he was... he was nuts. And... and he did this crazy scene in which his name is Leo Blume and he... he was working for Max Bialystock as... as a... as an accountant and Bialystock tried to woo him into joining him with creating Springtime For Hitler - the... the uh... the show. And... and... and Gene was dipped by him and... and uh Gene was... Finally, he dropped him, he nearly jumped on him, he had a nervous breakdown in the corner. I mean it's a great scene where, you know, where Gene... Gene goes bananas. And I... You know, I shot it twice but first take was it. It was just brilliant.

You know, I think my movies are really about, philosophically anyway, money or love. And every movie I make I always have them decide that love is better. In The Producers, their scheme, Bialystock’s scheme, is to make a bundle of money, a real bundle of money, and go to Rio. And in the end, they end up being arrested and in court and Bloom confesses how much Bialystock means to him, and how happy they are to have found each other and their affections for each other and their respect for each other, than money. And Bloom was just a caterpillar who would never become a butterfly, until Bialystock became his catalyst. And Bialystock was just a crook who wanted a lot of money and didn’t care about people and art and theater until Bloom showed him the glory of what he was actually doing.

But, nobody came. Joseph E. Levine did not spend any money. And it was kind of a surprise. There was a bag lady who came. There was me and Alpha Betty Olson who helped me cast it and helped me write it and her husband uh... David Patch now. It used to be David Miller. But anyway there was me and David and Betty a bag lady. That was four. And two people with Joseph E. Levine from his company and there was four of them. So all together, in a sixteen hundred seat house, there were eight people. So... I thought we had a failure, completely. Anyway, I threatened... I threatened Mr. Levine with uh a lawsuit, with taking it somewhere else, with buying it back and I finally got him to open it at The Fine Arts Theater in New York City on Fifty-Eighth Street between Columbus and Madison. I came there, early Friday morning and there was a line around the block. How? What was the magic? How did they know? Who knew that... that The Producers was a movie to see? A line around the block. Till this day I don't know why. And it was packed. And it got kind of mixed reviews. When it opened uh there was a woman who wrote for The New York Times. Her name was Renata Adler. And she crucified it. She called it the worst picture in the world and in very bad taste with Hitler and the leading man was too fat [inaudible] Zero. And I... You know I thought that... well that's the end of my career. But then Gene Shalit came up and said, "No one will be seated for first eighty-eight minutes of this movie. They'll all be on the floor laughing their head off." And so that was a big... So it got mixed reviews and it ran. It just ran. Well I'll tell you the truth is I always believed that uh you could have... you could get even with... with a dictator by making people laugh at him rather than getting on a soapbox... a soapbox and trying to play vocal Ping-Pong and... and having a point of view about democracy versus totalitarianism and... I said, "If you can just make people laugh at Mussolini, make them laugh at Hitler, make them laugh at all, you know, uh dictators, they... they would be defeated by laughter."

(Musical Interlude)

Mel Brooks: Uncle Joe was about four feet, seven inches tall. He drove a cab and uh when you saw a cab come down the street without a driver that was Joe. You saw just a cab rolling by itself... And he... he sat on many telephone books. It didn't help because in those days nobody had a telephone. They were about a half an inch thick at the most, you know. And Joe used to work in the Broadway area. He drove a cab. And when he was finished for the night, one or two in the morning, he would take home the doormen at restaurants and at Broadway shows. And they were kind, you know, in return to him and so one time the doorman I think at The Alvin Theater, 1935... a show had opened by Cole Porter called Anything Goes. And he gave Joe, my Uncle Joe, two tickets to a matinee uh and so Joe took me. He said, "Get in the cab." And I was sitting in his cab, he said, "We're going to go to The Alvin. We're going to go to New York and see this." And he said, "Get down. Get down on the floor." So I got down on the floor because the flag was up. If you put the flag down you had a fare. If the flag was up you were empty and the light was on. So he... He said, "Get down. I got to keep the flag up and I could get a ticket if somebody sees somebody in the back." So I laid down on the floor and I knew we were going to go over the Williamsburg Bridge when I heard a certain hum on the wheels and we got to Fifty-fourth Street or something... Fifty-second. Wherever the Alvin was. And we... we... he parked... There was plenty of parking. In 1935 you could park anywhere. There were like ten cars, you know? So we get into The Alvin. We walk up the balcony. We walk up another balcony. And finally we're at uh... we're at the last row in the last balcony. You know like a thousand miles from the stage and it was thrilling. And even then when Ethel Mermen started singing it was too loud. You know? She had an incredible voice and uh... And I heard these songs. I heard these songs, these Cole Porter songs like Your The Top and All Through The Night and one beautiful or peppy song after another and I think I said to myself, "One day I'm going to have a show on Broadway." It took sixty years, but I finally did get... get to write a musical for Broadway. But it really was so thrilling. So... And I knew somehow that no factories for me. No... no driving a cab. No... no working renting bicycles. There were many little jobs and stuff. I said, "No. I'm going to be... I'm going to write things that are in my soul and in my heart and I'm going to be in show businesses." And I knew it. And I was, I don't know about nine... about nine years old. You know twenty-six, thirty-six is ten, thirty-five... nine. I was nine. And I knew at nine, no matter what... And when I was in the army and... and... and during the war, I said, "I got to live through this. I got to be in show business. I better..." You know I was very lucky I was short because if they shot it went over my head. You know. But uh I... I really made up my mind, no matter what, that's what I was going to do. I was going to be in the theater. I was going to be in whatever avenues I could, but it would be show businesses and I was going to enjoy my life and have fun and... and live that kind of life. And I did.