The filmmaking legend has stories to tell and recounts a few in the conclusion of his two-part conversation.
Comedian-filmmaker Mel Brooks – Part 2
Tavis: Believe it or not, 40 years since Mel Brooks gave us “Blazing Saddles.” This is a wonderful anniversary edition with some notes and a bunch of other good stuff in here.
Mel Brooks: Yeah, nice little book.
Tavis: I can’t believe it’s been 40 years. I’ve seen this thing more times than I can count and laugh every time like it was the first time I saw it. It’s insane.
Brooks: Oh, yeah. I saw it the other night on a big screen.
Tavis: Yeah. I’ve never seen it on the big screen.
Brooks: Oh, yeah. When they come to the desert, there’s one scene where you see the desert on a big screen is real – on IMAX. We saw it at the Chinese Theater on IMAX. There’s a lot of desert and they come to a little spot. All these horses line up and there’s a toll booth, you know [laugh]. That’s so damn crazy, a toll booth in the desert.
Tavis: It’s funny is what it is. Last night when we wrapped this conversation, you were about to make a point and I cut you off. It’s been 24 hours, but do you remember what you were about to say?
Brooks: Yeah. I was gonna say that, you know, PBS it gives you so much. It gives you so many not just great stuff like “Downtown Abbey,” but all kinds of weird, wonderful people shows, you know.
It’s a strange phenomenon that it’s watched by intellectuals and college graduates and it’s meant for poor people [laugh]. It’s okay. You figure that one out, but I like it.
I love PBS and, you know, we used to have KCET which was a local station here, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. Now, thank God for KOCE that took over.
Tavis: PBS SoCal.
Brooks: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was – I’m just gonna say, how could you give up without asking us? Why didn’t they do a referendum or something, you know, some memorandum to the people who are KCET listeners and say, “Do you mind if we don’t do PBS?”
“Yeah, we mind! Are you crazy? We love PBS. Where you going, man? Where are you going?” You know? But they just did it, so KCET has suffered badly, you know.
Tavis: Can I just say on behalf of all the people at PBS SoCal and PBS across country, it’s a delight to know that Mel Brooks watches us on a regular basis.
And speaking of which, I don’t know about you, so I’ll ask you, but I was just overjoyed at the American Masters piece on you.
Brooks: Oh, they did a good – yeah.
Tavis: I thought they did an amazing job. Did you like it?
Brooks: I liked it. I did like it. Now we know it’s like 36 hours of stuff that they had to cut down, but it was beautiful. Trachtenberg, the director, it was lovely; it was beautiful, well thought of, well shot and well edited.
That was like a trifecta of talent and it really worked. American Masters was good. I was proud of it.
Tavis: Since we’re on this now, back to your work as producer and director. What’s been the most difficult part of the creative process for you?
Brooks: Well, I’d have to say that the most important thing is not to think about what is going to work, what is commercial, what will be accepted and digested, but inspiration.
Just say the things, get all your frustration out, get your dreams out. I think it’s the first part. It’s the creation. It’s the inspiration and the writing.
The rest of it is hard work, is sweat, you know. It’s shooting it. You could be, you know, shooting it for 12 hours a day. You could be editing until you’re blue and blind.
But it doesn’t mean a thing if it isn’t something like, I don’t know, little movies that you love that you don’t want – like “The Twelve Chairs” that I made in Yugoslavia.
I mean, it’s the inspiration. It’s what – you know how I got to make “The Twelve Chairs?” It’s a strange movie that nobody knows.
Tavis: Tell me.
Brooks: There was a Chinese Gourmet Society. We used to meet every Tuesday night in Chinatown in New York. And it was made up of Julie Green and Speed Vogel and Mario Puzo and Joseph Heller.
And we’d talk and we would just spend the night eating Chinese food and talking. Sometimes Joe Heller, he’d say, “Let me serve.” He’d take the best pieces and then he’d say, “Now you serve.” Really bad. He was a bad guy.
And Mario Puzo was beautiful. He just ate everything and there was nothing to take home because Puzo would vacuum clean. That was it [laugh]. And one night, this is a story that Joe told about Mario because he found out.
Mario was busy writing upstairs and at midnight every night, he’d come downstairs. He was living in Bay Shore, Long Island. And he’d make a Dagwood sandwich which there was a comic strip called “Blondie” and her husband was Dagwood…
Tavis: “Blondie and Dagwood,” yeah.
Brooks: And the cliché many years ago, he’d make a sandwich with like three or four pieces of bread and all kinds of bologna, cheese, ham and turkey and whatever. You know, a big sandwich. Mario actually did that [laugh]. He actually made that with mortadella, with olives.
I mean, he explained the sandwich one night and I was just so amazed and proud of him [laugh], you know, that he could make that and eat it. So he made that sandwich and he would put it on a tray and he’d take it up to the attic where he was writing and he would eat around 12:00.
One night, he comes down, he makes this incredible sandwich. He’s on the stairs and he goes up. He’s near the top of the stairs, boom! The tray goes, he goes. He tumbles down the stairs.
He hears a crack and he knew he broke his leg. He knew that his leg was broken. The sandwich landed over there, the phone is over there to call the police and to call the hospital, whatever, paramedics.
Brooks: Yeah. He’s in the middle. There’s the sandwich, there’s the paramedics. To hell with the broken leg. He crawls toward the sandwich [laugh]. This is Mario Puzo, guys. He finishes the sandwich, then he has this long crawl like an infantryman during the war back to the phone so he can call.
And it’s true, you know. He knew he’d be in the hospital with bad food, you know, for a month or something [laugh]. Joe told us the story and it was beautiful. But before we go…
Tavis: We got time. Go ahead.
Brooks: I’m very…
Tavis: You should be. This is your son. Tell me about Max Brooks.
Brooks: This is Max Brooks. Max Brooks wrote a couple of books. The first book, I thought it was – I hope he doesn’t hear this. I thought it was a little crazy. I really was worried about him [laugh]. He wrote a book called “The Zombie Survival Guide” and I said all right, okay, kids are nuts. He likes zombies.
The book, “The Zombie Survival Guide” is all about what to do in case you’re attacked by a zombie. You know, how to defend yourself, where to hide, where to go, you gotta stick a knife through their brains [laugh]. It’s a little embarrassing.
Tavis: I’m laughing – before you go forward, I’m laughing at you making fun of Max’s ideas with the stuff that you produced. You got some nerve. You got some nerve [laugh].
Brooks: I do, I do. By the way, that book sold like two million copies.
Brooks: I mean, I go to him now for money. So Max then writes another book about a zombie war called “World War Z” and Brad Pitt falls in love with it…
Tavis: Optioned it, yeah.
Brooks: And they make this movie and it’s like a big worldwide success. So he’s into, you know, big things. He’s doing really well. And then I said, “What do you got on the drawing board?” He tells me about this. I said, “Well, I don’t see that there’s a lot of money in that.” What this is, this is about the 369th Regiment in World War I.
Now African Americans who were part of the U.S. Army in World War I were not allowed to fight. They were just used as cooks, bottle washers and truck drivers, and this regiment was keen to show their prowess and show how good they were.
So when they got overseas, they asked General Pershing if they could fight for the French and the French took them in.
Pershing said sure as a fighting unit and they won the Croix de Guerre and they won every medal that’s possible to win in war. They risked their lives. They never lost, like Max says, a trench. They never lost a trench and they never lost a battle.
Tavis: The Harlem Hellfighters.
Brooks: They came from Harlem.
Tavis: The Harlem Hellfighters.
Brooks: In New York, and the 369th was the Black regiment. So Max wrote this book about them and it’s a graphic novel. It’s really beautiful.
Tavis: Those things get really popular these days…
Brooks: And I think – I’m not making this up. Will Smith bought it for Sony Pictures and I think they’re gonna make a wonderful movie of it.
Tavis: Max signed up some good people, Brad Pitt, Will Smith.
Brooks: Yeah, Will Smith, the best. But this is a remarkable book and Max said to give it to Tavis and tell him – I said yes? – that I will sign it. I will autograph it to him if he puts me on the show [laugh]. I said okay.
Tavis: Hand that to me.
Brooks: You should see. He was just on Conan…
Tavis: Okay, Max, Max. We got it, we got it, we got it. Somebody call Max. Get Max booked on the show. You mentioned the Harlem Hellfighters. Let me go back to New York where you were born in Brooklyn.
Tavis: Your father dies when you were two?
Brooks: I was interviewed about my father dying. A wonderful guy said, “So you lost your father?” I said, “We didn’t lose him. He died. He was in the bedroom. We knew where he was all the time.” You lost your father? We wouldn’t lose him. We liked him, you know [laugh].
Tavis: You were just a kid, though.
Brooks: Yeah. I was five.
Tavis: You were five.
Brooks: No, I was two when he died.
Tavis: You were two, yeah. That’s what I thought.
Brooks: My brother Irving was 12. He was 10 years older.
Tavis: How did you become a man? How did you navigate this? Your mom is raising four boys by herself?
Brooks: She’s raising four boys all by herself. Well, my grandmother and Aunt Sadie lived across the hall and they helped out a great deal. And there was my brother Irving who was a real hero.
He was 12, so he was like a surrogate father taking care of the family. And he went to Brooklyn College for eight years four hours a night so he could work eight hours a day and bring whatever he made at this factory on 7th Avenue.
At one time, we’re talking it’s 1944 or something, we’re in the war. My mother has four blue stars in the window, four boys in the service. Thank God none of them are gold ’cause if it’s gold, you’ve lost a child. You know, you’re gone.
So my brother Lenny and I are fighting the Germans. My brother Bernie is fighting the Japanese and my brother Irving is fighting the George Washington Bridge trying to get across [laugh] ’cause he’s in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He’s in radar or something there.
But, anyway, we’re all in the service. My brother Lenny is in the Air Force. He wins the air medal. He does 25 missions. He’s supposed to come home, then they make it 50 missions.
And then in his 35th or 36th, he’s shot down and he is a prisoner of war and he makes a record. The Red Cross goes there to prisoners of war and you can make a record to send it back home. My brother Lenny makes a record called “I Miss You.” That was a song that Bing Crosby made famous.
So every night, my mother Kitty she’d put this record on. “I miss you since you went away, dear, miss you more than I can say, dear,” then she’d break down and she’d cry.
I’d say, “Don’t put the record on! You put it on every night! We know you miss him. We know! We love you!” But she’d put it on every night, you know. But he made it. The Red Cross, they got him home. So thank you, God. Everything worked out.
Tavis: Everything has worked out for you. How did you get into this business? When did you know or how did it happen for you that entertainment…
Brooks: Well, there was this Amateur Hour at the Loew’s Gates in Brooklyn near Pitkin Avenue and there were three prizes and four contestants. And there was a majorette spinning and then there was a big fat guy and he sang Pagliacci. Every time he hit a high note, a button would pop off [laugh]. I swear to you.
Then there was this skinny Black kid and he was pretty good. He had black and white shoes and he was dancing. He was fair.
And I did Jolson. I was terrific, you know. Because everybody was doing “Mammy.” I was doing the other Jolson. It was a different Jolson. “When you were sweet, when you were sweet sixteen.” It was a beautiful thing that I could do, but they didn’t know that. They wanted “Mammy.”
So three prizes. Majorette wins. She dropped that thing three times [laugh]. The fat guy, he came in second with the buttons flying all over. The little Black kid, he did all right. He got third.
Three prizes, I got nothing, but I was determined. Finally I went to the Borscht Belt and to the resorts in the mountains and I learned my craft. I was a busboy and I was a waiter and I was all kinds of things.
Finally, somebody got sick. I was a utility actor and I took over. Unfortunately, the part – he was a district attorney. He was about 70 years old, so they put a wig on me, they put a beard on me, they put the lines, you know, to make me old.
And I’m supposed to say, “There, there, Harry, have a glass of water and tell me in your own words exactly what happened that night.” Okay, I can do that, but I gotta do it a little older, not so fast.”
Brooks: So I did. “There, there, Harry, have a glass of water and tell me exactly what happened on…” and the water falls and breaks all over the desk. And the audience is shocked, we’re shocked, Harry’s shocked, I’m shocked. I walked out. I didn’t know what to do. I mean, it’s all quiet.
I walked down to the footlights and I take off my wig and my beard. I say “I’m only 14. I’ve never done this before!” And I knew then I was in comedy ’cause I got pretty good laughs [laugh].
Tavis: And how did you – you mentioned earlier going up to the mountains to perfect your craft. You were much younger then. How have you perfected this craft of writing? You write so well.
Brooks: The inspiration is 80% of it, but there is 20% left and that’s called rewriting. And it’s not just one rewrite. It could be 16 or 17 rewrites before the ideas are captured. You’ve got to be blessed with the ability to come up with new, different, exciting ideas.
But you’ve also got to be blessed with stick-to-itiveness and craftsman-like qualities so that you keep working on it so that it’s easily understood, acceptable and polished.
Tavis: Have you always been – I suspect you’re always the final arbiter of whether your stuff is funny or not. But how do you know when you’ve got it to the point where it’s going to work?
Brooks: You know, I could hear the audience laughing. I’m a bit of a genius. I mean, you’ve got to know…
Tavis: You say so modestly [laugh].
Brooks: Yeah, modestly. Wait! I’m an EGOT! What the hell? Man!
Tavis: I’m an EGOT [laugh]! I said already, you’re an EGOT.
Brooks: I’m an EGOT, yeah. Actually, I divine. Somehow I write something and I can hear the audience laughing and enjoying it.
And I’ve been blessed with the ability to prejudge what – you know, every once in a while, something bombs and I say, “Where did that come from? How the hell did that not work? You lousy audience, go to hell!” But most of the time, it would work.
I want to tell you, you’re very bright and you’re very smart and, you know, you have a good sense of the whole business, you know, our business. You have a good sense of what’s working, what’s not.
But even more important, about what’s valuable. You’ve got a good little meter in you about what’s valuable. I watch your show. I do.
Tavis: I’m glad you raise that because, as everything does, it leads me to another question, which is how you develop that sense of compass in your own life of when to go left, when to go right, when to stand still? How did you develop your own sort of compass?
Brooks: I think I – you know, we’ve got to be lucky to intuit that from our families. You know, it starts when you’re a very little kid. My mother was good, she was kind, she was ebullient in life. She was, you know, onward and upward, excelsior. She loved life and she’d always be singing.
I mean, it would be a cold winter morning and it’d be freezing. She’d put my little clothes on the radiator, warm them up, dress me under the bed so when I got out of bed I was warm, you know, and she’d be singing all the time.
My mother would do like Crosby. I remember her doing, “Duh-duh-duh-do-do-dee-dee, oh, Brown.” She was doing Crosby’s scat singing, you know, and whistling. I mean, I got a lot of life force from her, you know, and from my brothers.
So I think, you know, I was lucky that early environmental things gave me a lot of drive, and the Jews in the mountains, you know. Couldn’t please them [laugh].
Say “Ladies and gentlemen” – the Jews, they’re all sitting out there. “Ladies and gentlemen, Man of 1,000 Faces.” One, two, three, and I’d turn to the band and I’d say, “They’re waiting for 1,000 faces.” And they were, you know. You couldn’t please them, you know.
Tavis: It could have been the Apollo in Harlem. It’s a tough crowd.
Brooks: You know, I used to go there all the time. There was one night – yeah, pretty good people. You know, tap dancing, singing and dancing.
But once in a while – there was this large girl. She was really large and she was singing, “Kiss me once and kiss me twice, kiss me once again, it’s been a long, long time.” She wasn’t bad. And then they were kind of tolerant and she was singing.
And then a big guy with a kind of lamb light color, beautiful vest and he comes in at the bottom of the stage. He looks up at the Apollo. And in those days when you didn’t like a contestant, you said “Boo.” There was a…
Tavis: The Sandman came out.
Brooks: And he’d shoot them. Bang, and then they’d take her off [laugh]. And the audience was just kind of wishy-washy. They didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“Kiss me once and kiss me twice.” She was going on and on. And this guy comes out. He looks like Fats Waller. He was a beautiful guy.
He comes out and he says, “We’ve got to shoot her!” I’ll never forget. I said, “Now that’s comedy,” you know? And they shot her and they took her off [laugh].
Tavis: Mel Brooks knows comedy and has entertained us for many, many years. Lot of funny stuff with some serious stuff along the way as well. This one is hilarious. It is the 40th anniversary of “Blazing Saddles,” now a special 40th anniversary collection out now.
And let me do something I’ve never done before and pre-promote an upcoming guest on this program.
Brooks: Max Brooks.
Tavis: Max Brooks [laugh], author of “The Harlem Hellfighters” to be seen here on PBS in the coming days. Mel Brooks, I am honored to have you on this program. It’s been a great…
Brooks: I got one question, then I’ll go!
Tavis: What? What?
Brooks: Where did Tavis come from?
Tavis: My aunt.
Brooks: Really? Was there somebody in the family?
Tavis: I think that my…
Brooks: Was there like an uncle or…
Tavis: No, no. I think my aunt was living – was born in Mississippi. My aunt was living in Texas and the best I can come up with is that she must have met some man in Texas.
Brooks: A traveling salesman.
Brooks: That’s the only guy that would have a name like that.
Tavis: Like Tavis [laugh].
Brooks: How do you do? My name is Tavis. I’d love to have a cup of tea with you, you know. He’s probably wondering…
Tavis: She told my mother to name me Tavis. The rest, as they say, is history.
Brooks: Well, you know, it’s good. They said, “Would you like to do the Tavis Smiley show?” I said, “Give me a minute.” No, I joke [laugh].
Tavis: That is not in Mel Brooks, but anyway…
Brooks: There’s many I say no to, many. And I like you…
Tavis: I feel honored. I’ve heard you on radio and television, all right. So thank you.
Brooks: Yeah, the next thing is radar. That’s the next thing to do. We gotta do radar together, whatever that is [laugh].
Tavis: “Blazing Saddles” 40 years later. Love you, Mel Brooks.
Brooks: I love you, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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