Transcript:

Interviewer: So tell me, when you first met him.

David Steinberg: When I first met Mel?He was doing The Twelve Chairs. And I think Annie or George Seagle wanted us to get together. I was very young and just just sort of emerging on the scene a little bit. Not a big audience, but a good a good, solid audience. By my own estimation. And so, of course, I was dying to meet him. So George Segal is going to put us together. So he said, meet me at the Russian Tea Room. Of course, Russian Tea Room, Mel Brooks makes sense. And I didn't know whether to go in there to sit outside. I don't know what to do. So I was standing outside in front of Carnegie Hall, which is next door to the Russian chamber. And I'm waiting for Mel. Mel comes in and he says that. Is this going to drive you crazy every time I do that? Okay. I'm going to put it over. Mel comes in and said, just pick it up from there?

Interviewer: Sure.

Speaker So Mel, Mel sees me standing there and he gives me a big hug. And I'm just so excite. Imagine what it meant for me to be with Mel Brooks. You know, you've already done The Producers. I knew everything about him and I didn't realize our standing in front of Carnegie Hall. And behind me was a poster. And he says, David. What is that poster saying? And it was a poster for the stucart ballet. And I said, I don't know, what did they say? You said they're saying Natzis!, Natzis! it's not out there. This was a great way to meet Mel Brooks. And then we went inside and, you know, he knew everyone. He left me alone as he sort of worked the room. Who isn't happy to see you. We sat down and we just had fun. Got to know each other. I asked him a lot of questions. He answered a lot. And the place was thinning out. And it was just Mel and I there. And it was a Wednesday. So it was a matinee. And two elderly ladies were going to the matinee. And they saw Mel and they went nuts and they came over to him and they said, oh, Mr. Brooks were such a fan. They sort of knew me. Hi, how are you, David? Like that. Said, Oh, Mr. Brooks, we love your right. He's as well. Well, what were you girls going? They said, well, we're going to see our Broadway matinee. I said, well, what are you gonna see? Mel says what are you gonna see? So we're going to see two by two the Danny Kaye play Peter Stone had written the script, it was a story about no one was out at the time. So Mel says, you know, now when I see the place, it's sitting out there, still half of the group there. He says, you know, there's a song, you're going to love it. It's Danny Kaye. And he goes, See if I could do it for his. I never knew a day I did not love you, singing to the women and loving you the way that you love me. And he stood up on a chair and start to seem to the Russian tea room. They applauded. And that was my first meeting with him.

Interviewer: There's no one like him. It's unbelievable.

David Steinberg: I'm sure the mic was in. I could have warned you better than I would would've killed off the story.

Interviewer: But he got it. We have two cameras.

David Steinberg: Huh?

Interviewer: We have two cameras.

David Steinberg: You have two cameras. Okay.

Interviewer: Got it.

David Steinberg: I mean, I could do it again.

Interviewer: You're good Richard right. You got it.

David Steinberg: Okay, good.

Interviewer: You know, here's one thing I learned early on in doing this is that you would be able to correct me. And I hope I'm right and you don't correct me, but correct me if you have to compare to his contemporaries. He is operating on a wholly different plane because he's not concerned with the mother in law, the kids, the job, the brother in law, he's everything steeped in history, literature. His concerns are not any of his contemporaries, including Carl, to the point where when I was interviewing Carl, I said, you know, when the Dick Van Dyke Show started, Mel was out of work and broke. And I said, why don't you give him? Why don't you give him a job? You know, it never would never occurred to me to hire him to write a script for the Dick Van Dyke show because New Rochelle. None of it is of any interests to him.

David Steinberg: Yeah, well, his can his contemporaries like by contemporaries you mean Carl. Carl Reiner is one. I mean, they come from a very sort of specialized little community. They're these sort of of second generation. I guess they would be children of immigrants, maybe first generation. In some cases. They their family spoke Yiddish. They all seemed to, especially the eastern group of his contemporaries, all managed to be some version of the Catskills and be around there. The comedy was about music, which still influences him and everything he he saw Danny Kaye doing musical numbers and then whatever. Tamiment, remember, he was in all that. And Carl, too. They were a certain, really sort of unique group. So but Mel has only one commitment, and that is the laugh. His point of view has to do with being as funny as he could make anything. That's a very liberating way to be. And sometimes when he gets in sort of this hot water over the German Nazi, whatever, he's just being funny. It doesn't even occur to him really that that's going to be offensive at some point. That's what I think.

Interviewer: And he's he's not. Well, I think he's also concerned about making himself laugh.

David Steinberg: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, Woody Allen and Mel were sort of happening and suddenly at the same time. And Woody at that time was doing very sort of broad movies. I don't I don't think it reached the Annie Hall. But Woody was more of a darling of the film critics of the time than Nell was. I can hear people not. I couldn't understand how The Producers wasn't the most well reviewed movie of all time. It wasn't people found broad and burlesque and whatever they did to comedy people, all the people that I know, even at that time, I sort of steeped in this group. That was it. This was the non-stop, surprisingly funny every version of joke that you could hear, an incredible Zero Mostel and incredible Gene Wilder. I mean, if. If. If Woody Allen is if Woody Allen is Cole Porter, then Mel is Irving Berlin. They are both as good as you can get at doing what they do so they don't conflict with each other at all. But in critics minds, they do. Because what he was a little bit of a head maybe, you know, a more intellectual and they're sort of hearing that from a standup. Now was it? And then it took a while. Even Blazing Saddles. I remember audiences finding it before critics did. So he's committed to what he thinks is funny under any circumstances. So is Woody. But but that's Mel's God.

Interviewer: Can we get some powder? We're OK here with sound on tha?

David Steinberg: I got it right here.

Interviewer: All right, good. Do we need to slate? OK.

David Steinberg: You know, I ironically, I gave Mel the Irving Berlin part of them better for and Irving Berlin, ironically, created Christianity as we know it today. He wrote, I'm dreaming of a white Christmas and Easter parade and all that. So but but somehow I find the same pantheon.

Interviewer: And interestingly enough, this guy from Your Show of Shows and well, Get Smart, too, and all of the sudden he becomes the biggest star in comedy in the early 70s with young, you know, Young Frankenstein and High, I mean, a Blazing Saddles in one year. And somebody said to me the other day, who was about probably 17 or 18 when it came out, that he made it cool to be Jewish.

David Steinberg: Yeah, well, to me, it was always cool to Jewish. I come from that. But yes, the Jewish part of Mel is very important to to his humor. I mean, it is. Those those children of immigrants, if they weren't Talmudic scholars, if they were making their fathers and mothers laugh that was a very big deal to Jewish families. You know, Vegas, the Jews were the comedians and the Italians were the singers. And it was just sort of imaginary lines that I don't even know why they were drawn, because they were all children of immigrants. But but something about it. You know, I think Mel and I talked once about. I asked him who who is favorite, who influenced him, who was the best that he ever saw. And he said, Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers while the rich brothers again, Jewish guys, very musical. You could see where Mel's influence comes from, an up with all this music that he uses. And even in Mad About You, he created this rag, this varsity drag that he did. Everything is musical to him. I can see why he likes to write the music of the live shows like The Producers and like that. And he hears the rhythm. Little bits to Mel are like little songs.

Interviewer: He create he created that? That varsity rag thing, he wrote that?

David Steinberg: No, it was it was it was an old song, but he gave it to us. And then I, being the wonderful choreographer of dancers, I, I did the choreography with him and worked it out and. He was just a gift to that thought. We just couldn't get over what it was like to have him there and how Lucy was. And you know.

Interviewer: What? You should state it as fact you directed him.

David Steinberg: Yes. Yes. Well, I directed him and the Mad At You shows, and he was a gift basically to all of us. There are we would write a line for him. He's on trial. And the prosecutor would say, well, well, let's talk about the crackers. And now let's say, all right, let's talk about the crackers. So for months, that's all we could say after he left it. Just a Mel Brooks way of challenging him in in this comedic rhythm that he hears in his head. It's so unique.

Interviewer: How do you direct Mel Brooks?

David Steinberg: You don't have to direct him much about. Oh, I'll tell you what was interesting. He liked his hair standing up. He got some. He came to the set with his hair standing up. And I'm always late. So I was late coming to the set. So Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt made the mistake of laughing at that and enjoying it without checking with me as to what I thought of it. And I thought it was too much. I thought it's great for anything else you do and all that. And Paul Reiser took a big shot till Mel Brooks had his hair standing up is too much. So I said, well, you know, I mean, you're challenging my directorial integrity. I, I will tell. And I watched him do the see. And all I could see was the hair standing up. I couldn't even hear the scene. I saw the hair standing up, the hair standing up. And then finally, I just walked in and I thought, I can't I'm not going to do it. It matters too much to him. And his hair standing up got me an Emmy for Mel's performance. I would have had it out of there so fast. So he he connects with on some level, however. But it was out of character. But was it funnier than I would have done? Yeah.

Interviewer: Hold on, hold the tears. But in directing him, he didn't. Was he offering any suggestions or?

David Steinberg: He had a plan for himself. There were words that weren't comfortable where we just got rid of them. I got rid of them without any problem. He improvised a little bit. We almost just all of the improvisation, the repetitions were good for him. You know, he's not an actor where it's going to get better by the eighth or ninth time. He's going to be great the first time. Less the second. Less the third. But, you know, we could put it get him to put it together in pieces. But, yeah, I mean, the goal when you have someone like Mel Brooks is not not really to direct him to just see what you can contribute to what he's doing. Except for the hair, which drove me crazy. But Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser didn't need much directing because they you know, they they were doing their show.

Interviewer: You know, the thing with Paul in those episodes, in particular, the one where he's in the hospital is and I was friendly with Paul and I had I had actually done this photo of Mel and Carl at Paul's. I need to buy a print. I mean, obviously obsessed with now. And but you see the show and he's looking at Mel so adoringly.

David Steinberg: Yes. Both of them. You know, Helen Hunt, a big comedy maven herself. But Paul Reiser, we loved him. It was it was so important to have him on the show for who we were. That. Yeah. You don't need it. You know, I can't remember giving many notes to Helen Hunt. I mean, what I would I would do with Helen Hunt is Paul Reiser would walk into a scene and sit down in a sofa like an old Jew and not move. And Helen would run around and around and around to all I have to say, Paul, get up, go to the fridge, look in the stove, something that was the only direction I could really remember giving them. But you don't have to direct really great people. They'll show you what they want to do. And with editing, you can edit them into what you want.

Interviewer: What was the first time you you were aware of Mel?

David Steinberg: I think I was aware of Mel. I was certainly aware of Mel before The Producers and. And that the Two Thousand Year Oldman was up before The Producers that had to be. Yeah. So that alone there is no Jewish kid, no one interested in comedy, that that isn't a seminal cow album for them because of it just loose and funny. You know, they developed at cocktail parties. It's just remarkable. So I was aware of Mel even in Second City when I was 24 years old and escaped the University of Chicago and got into the Second City company. And I was aware of Mel even when I was there.

Interviewer: Tell us about the. Tell us about the Susskind show and in there somehow. Tell us why that show has become so legendary.

David Steinberg: Well, the Susskind show I had just started to do The Tonight Show. As I say, Mel had done Twelve Chairs and was out of the country. Wasn't that familiar with my work. We'd already had our lunch and we were going out to dinner at Elaine's with George Segal and Mel and myself, I think, and Annie. And I think that was the plan. So Mel said, pick me up at this place and gave me an address. OK. And I lived in around Sutton Place and I went to this address and it was like a big building. It didn't look like an apartment building. And we went in and there was a security guard there. And I said, I am David Steinberg. I have my back here. Yeah. Go to fourth floor anyway. It was Westinghouse and it was the Susskind Show. And he had committed me to the Susskind show without checking with me to see if that was a good idea or not. Now, ironically, I was very protective of being on The Tonight Show because I was on every six weeks or seven weeks and just starting and I didn't want to be overexposed and I thought, I'm not. And they said it's Jewish sons. And I heard the title and all of that. And I said, no, I'm really I'm not interested in doing this. I said, but I sat in the bleachers that they had and I said, You you guys do this. And then after I did after the show, we'll go out, we'll have dinner. And then I was sitting there and then everyone was buzzing around, you know, got obviously people thought I had committed to the show. And. Mel talked to me and this one talk, and I reluctantly I pouted my way down to the chair. That's why I was sitting all the way at the end, because I decided at the last minute to do that. And I sat there for that show, which, incidentally, moved my career ahead by five or six years just from having done it. That's how wrong my instincts were. But Mel and I start to talk as we were going to the set and he said it's Jewish sons. And he said to me, I don't want to talk about Jewish sons or whatever the son. Mel saying this to me. I said, what you want to talk about? I want to talk about sharks. I said, OK. We start the show and that's the first thing he said. We're here to talk about sons, David Susskind says, forget about your sons and mothers. Let's talk about sharks. And Mel goes off on sharks and. Everyone falls. I mean, it's just his improvisation was unbelievable. Mel was on fire for that whole show. That, to me, is the best Mel Brooks television appearance even to this day. He's done great stuff, but just the spontaneity was right in a sweet spot. Not afraid to talk about, you know, married to a non Jewish girl as Schick said all this stuff. And it was delicate because at that time, Jewish things weren't on television yet. It wasn't like you openly talked about a Jewish person not be married to a Jewish person. None of this subject matter was there. Mel brought it to a level where we didn't even have to deal with it. I dealt with it on the level that not on his comedic level. But where he he lifted us all up past the point of self-consciousness. And and we sort of discovered each other on the show. I thought, OK. He's an improviser. I'm going to lead him wherever I can. And I did. And occasionally he threw in back to me. And it just it was it was it was magical. It was I was the problem when I look at the show now, I was on the far end and all I did was laugh, I laughed for the entire it was just so funny. I mean, gut wrenching, funny when you're on a show with someone is not a very professional thing. But I thought God. And when I looked at it because they didn't have enough cameras, you never see me laughing. So whenever I talk, I, I sound very professorial. But it was really a remarkable, outrageously funny, improvised comic performance. One of the best ever on television.

Interviewer: Yeah, it's just, you know, it's not often the other one, too. It's not often that you that a talk show becomes one of the most sought after.

David Steinberg: Yes.

Interviewer: It's also right up here. Look over at me. This one right here. Right. Right here. Here that. There you go.

David Steinberg: You have so much a better eye than I do. I don't think I've ever adjusted a person's anything and clothes. You have.

Interviewer: I'll be up all night.

David Steinberg: Well, the show became well.

Interviewer: Well, start from the show became.

David Steinberg: Am I good?

Interviewer: Just just go right here, just give it a tug right there at the edge. You see what I'm talking about us. Pull it down. There you go. I don't look like you're going where you're going to right there where your hand is good. You don't want to look to give a hump to back here. People will say, how could you be getting older? You had the hump. You don't want get it. You don't want the perfect. OK, let her get back in the place.

David Steinberg: Well, the show became iconic in the almost immediately to such a degree that five years after it ran, it was played every New Years up until it was a 10 year run of every New Year's. It got the rating every New Year's up until 81, 82, there were still running. And I still got people who stopped me about that show and quote, lines and incredible.

Interviewer: But, you know, that's the thing, because that and The Two Thousand Year Old man, and he he's really besides everything he's done movie wise, he's made. How would you phrase it? Like the comedic interview into an art form.

David Steinberg: Well, yes. Yes. Yes. He he has. Well, he's made himself into an art form comedically. So every time you approach Mel, you get an energy, a jazz way of talking. Tut, tut, tut. You hear that, Mel rhythm. So almost every interview with him is totally and completely unique. It's like he's a Picasso. Noone is like Picasso. I don't know who Mel was doing. He wasn't doing Harry Ritts. He certainly learned a lot from Sid Caesar. He was being male. And even the stories of the writing room when they were doing Show of Shows was they were always quoting Mel.

Interviewer: It's also a. Would you say that because I was talking to Tracey Ullman and she's saying in England there was pre Monty Python and post Python? Mm hmm. Would you see in American film comedy that was pre Blazing Saddles and post in terms of opening doors.

David Steinberg: Yes, Mel. Well, the Show of Shows has to be a precursor to Mel in some way. So I would say you go Show of Shows owning a certain kind of comedy and introducing it to the world. And the next jump, The Producers, but the The Producers and Blazing Saddles. But but but The Producers introduced America to this sort of. It's sounds pejorative borscht circuit kind of comedy, but it isn't. It is the sort of Jewish style of going at people. And you no, no. Show people how to do that. And everyone came out of the woodwork afterwards and it became a way in which to talk in a way, was to do things certainly the way I wish to do broad things. No one is top Mel in broad humor to this day.

Interviewer: And that's kind of what I mean with Blazing Saddles, too, is, you know, the the broadness of it now and the.

David Steinberg: Well Blazing Saddles Saddles, the edginess of it. The black and white part of it, the you know what? It wasn't even called African-American at the time. Mel, just blast that wide open to be funny.

Interviewer: You know, it's a remarkable career because it. Not many people and not many comics get a second act. You know, he's been down before, Blay. Producers and Twelve Chairs as good as as they might be were not hits. And then these, as Norman Steinberg said to me the day we had nothing to lose at that point. I was brand new. Andrew Bergman and Mel was pretty much in the crapper at that point. But nothing to lose. So there's his second act. And then The Producers, the musical third. I mean, it's really a remarkable career of getting and not just resting on his laurels, but coming up with new.

David Steinberg: Well, Mel's work is how he breathes. He needs to breathe, so he needs to work. I mean, he identifies himself. I'm sure he identifies himself through his work. Of course, his kids and his family. But he he can't stop doing what he does. He can't stop talking the way he is. He can't stop being interested in comedy things which he's been in his whole life. And when you're that way, you have a very you have a good chance at a second act. But then to go live on Broadway and write the songs and work on the book and hire the right people and have a huge hit out of the one movie that hardly made any money yet when it came out. It's remarkable.

Interviewer: I think it's important to mention that Chaplin Keaton, the Marx Brothers. Often nobody bats it out of the park all the time.

David Steinberg: No, there no you you. I think Mel would agree with this. Almost everyone who works a lot will agree with the fact that you don't learn anything from your successes. You only learn things from your things, from your failures. So you don't learn anything from your successes, but you learn things from your failures. So there is no failure that Mel had that just didn't make him blasted out even farther and higher and try it again and go even farther this time. Most people sink when they have failures. These rare individuals that are sort of comic geniuses like Mel, they just are buoyant.

Interviewer: You're younger by 30 years?

David Steinberg: At least. Yeah.

Interviewer: So when he's you're in your 20s, when he's at his height. But it was never a generational thing. Oh, he's an older.

David Steinberg: No, no. If you're if you're funny, older doesn't even enter into it. Older is, you know, for network executives, for people and audience and artist to artist. You've got a sense of humor that still cooking at 84, 85 Mel, Carl Reiner, you're relevant.

Interviewer: And in the 70s, that seemed less of a this seemed to be less of a age divide, let's say then there would be now. Right.

David Steinberg: Well, in the 70s, you still in the comedy world look back to Jack Benny and George Burns and the Marx Brothers and, you know, the Ritz Brothers who are a secondary version of the Marx Brothers. You still that generation still dominated. Sort of a shadow over everyone else. Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, they start to pull you out of it. Then you see people being influenced by younger people like Judd Apatow being interviewed by Mel and Woody, and then they start to do their own version of it. But they never lose respect. They they're still relevant.

Interviewer: The thing is that their generation is. Tracey Ullman was comparing, complaining about her, her writers in her room who were second generation.

David Steinberg: Yes.

Interviewer: Who didn't have who didn't didn't have the Depression and World War Two to deal with.

David Steinberg: Right.

Interviewer: And it kind of kind of helps huh?

David Steinberg: Yes. You know, I if if you had I always have this thought that if you've had a great childhood and a good marriage and a lot of money, you're not going to be a great comedy person. You need to you need to figure your way out of things to start to understand, forgive the pretension. The Talmud of comedy.

Interviewer: How would you define his take on things?

David Steinberg: Mel's take is fearless. Go farther than people expect and always, always be surprising.

Interviewer: Is there particularly favorite thing that he's done for you?

David Steinberg: I love the Two Thousand Year Old Man, I thought that was like a level of brilliance, the likes of which I hadn't heard ever before. Albums were just happening when I was a kid listening to them. But The Producers, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, that incredible coupling that they made for comedy. Gene Weller, well, Gene Wilder is saying, I'm wet. I'm wet. And Zero Mostel taking out these old ladies. And it was just a level of, you know, just cannons going off in a way that you just no one had the balls to do that.

Interviewer: The last thing. He's. He's doing this is I mean, he you talked about the musicality. Like the rhythms of all that. Would you say it's almost like the stuff with Carl, the 2000 Year Old Man. It's almost like jazz improvising.

David Steinberg: Yeah. They're definitely influenced by music. They are definitely like jazz musicians. Comedians describe themselves like jazz musicians. Because you're improvising with each other, not just standup comics. I'm talking about all comedy people. It is a form of jazz. It's a form of music. It has more to do with your ear than your eye in all cases. And Mel comes from radio. And I don't think that ever left him that skill or that talent. And he uses it to this day.

Interviewer: But unlike and he had mentioned it today, people who were putting out albums and who he likes very much. But obviously, you don't think of like the Bob Newhart records as rhythmic.

David Steinberg: No. I mean, Bob Newhart was iconic in those days, too, because that album you never heard anyone. You never heard anyone talking like Bob Newhart talked in those days.

Interviewer: Is that OK? OK.

David Steinberg: That's OK. But but yes, there there they are. Music is a very important part of that, that comedy, especially for that generation.

Interviewer: Anything I'm forgetting?

David Steinberg: I think you've got it all.

Interviewer: Thank you so much.

David Steinberg: Great.

David Steinberg
Interview Date:
2012-08-07
Runtime:
0:34:56
Keywords:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
N/A
MLA CITATIONS:
"David Steinberg, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 07 Aug. 2012, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/337
APA CITATIONS:
(2012, August 07). David Steinberg, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/337
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"David Steinberg, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). August 07, 2012. Accessed May 21, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/337

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