It may seem like Mel Brooks has been entertaining us for 2,000 years, but really it’s been about 60 and some change since he began writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”
(Perhaps it’s Mel’s turn as the 2,000 Year Old Man that threw me for a loop!)
Six decades worth of TV appearances and projects comprise “The Incredible Mel Brooks,” a comedy collection of five DVDs and one CD recently released from Shout Factory.
Sure, he’s best known these days as the creator and co-star of prime parodies of the Silver Screen—two of them turned Broadway musicals—but Mel has also contributed comedy gems since the early days of television.
“Incredible” features some gut-busting interview clips of Mel bringing tears to the eyes of Carson and Cavett and some little-seen nuggets like a BBC documentary called “I Thought I was Taller—A Short History of Mel Brooks.” Oddball bits like “The Hitler Rap” also pepper the set.
“I don’t want to be over. If I do this, I’ll be over,” Mel joked about his TV career being packaged into a box set.
A couple of his pals who worked on Mel’s movies, Rudy De Luca and Steve Haberman, contributed to the set, getting Mel to reminisce about all his flicks.
“One of the greatest things they did, they got the only continuity in the whole meshugaas, the whole insanity. At the end of each disc, I spend 15 or 20 minutes, and it’s called ‘Mel and his Movies.’ I talk about why I got into movies, what the movies were and all my memories vis-á -vis those movies. It binds the whole thing together,” he said.
Thank goodness for this box set of rare Mel moments, because many of us were beginning to miss his mischief. It’s been a couple years since his last big musical, though Mel said he has written a few new numbers for a possible “Blazing Saddles” stage opus.
“It’s almost a musical. ‘Our town is turning into s---, at the beginning,’ from ‘The Ballad of Rock Ridge.’ Then that gorgeous Marlene Dietrich take off that Madeleine Kahn did with ‘I’m Tired.’ There’s a lot of great stuff in it,” he said.
Mel grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but we caught up in California, where he’s called home for 40 years.
Mel Brooks: California is amazing. California really is paradise. It snows and sleets and we do get the occasional earthquake. Apart from that, it’s nice. I’ve been here since ‘Blazing Saddles,’ so ’73. I kept an apartment in New York to be legitimate. I go back once or twice a year just for the right kind of bagels, cream cheese and excitement. And occasionally for a big Broadway show like ‘The Producers’ or ‘Young Frankenstein,’ something like that.
Corey Andrew: You may have told this story many times before, but when I was trying to think of the really unforgettable moments from your movies, I go to Frau Blucher and the horses neighing from ‘Young Frankenstein.’ I don’t think I ever heard where that came from.
Mel: I was given a good excuse. I stole… I took it. It’s not true. Someone said to me,’ I know why the horses neigh.’ This was right after the picture opened. ‘Blucher means “glue” and they don’t want to go to the glue factory. I said, ‘That’s perfect. I love that. That’s great. It’s not true.’ Who cares? It’s truer than anything could be. Let’s live with it. Could be true. There was a Blucher, a general with a pointy hat, in World War I. I really don’t know where I got the name.
Corey: I guess those absurd moments don’t need an explanation. They just tickle us.
Mel: People like Gene Wilder and Cloris Leachman, they not only act it, they throw their heart and soul into it. They realty believe they are those people. Crazy, you know. Sometimes you say, ’Break for lunch,’ and you see the madness in their eyes and you don’t want to disturb that. Let them stay in it. Madeline Kahn wasn’t like that. Madeline could pop in and out of anything. She was genius.
Corey: Another bit that just jumped out at me was at the end of ‘To Be or Not to Be,’ when you burst into the Scottish tavern as Hitler. That always elicits a reaction.
Mel: Right. The cigarette falling out of the mouth into the beer was great.
Corey: ‘To Be’s’ praises are not sung as loudly as a ‘Blazing Saddles’ or a ‘Young Frankenstein,’ but that is one I’ve had to watch over and over.
Mel: I’m so glad you like it because I love it, too. That was the last chance, you know... The very last chance was when we did the Larry David show together. [Mel and his wife Anne Bancroft starred together in the “To Be or Not to Be” remake.] That was one of the few movies we did and it is very precious to me.
Corey: I imagine it is. It’s full of some really great moments. You’ve got a knack for picking leading ladies, that’s for sure.
Mel: Yeah, they were all good. They were all good. The only one I missed, because Gene Wilder married her, was Gilda Radner. God bless her. She was great. I did alright.
Corey: I think you did really well. What are your chats like with Carl Reiner like when you get a chance to talk these days?
Mel: We’re really au currant. He says things like, ‘What does it mean if I have an itch at the back of my neck. It comes on around midnight. The back of my neck begins a terrible itch. What does it mean?’ I say, ‘It means the back of your neck is itching you.’ ‘Well, what do I do?’ ‘I think I would scratch it.’ That’s the kind of dialogue we have. It isn’t very exciting or very current.
Corey: What line do you most often get quoted to you?
Mel: ‘Walk this way,’ people will say to me. I don’t know why, but I threw it into almost every picture I made. I love ‘Walk this way.’ It’s a cheap vaudeville joke. I love it.
Corey: People still use it. RuPaul is currently using that on his drag show.
Mel: Really? (laughs)
Corey: They bring these women in that they are going to makeover into drag queens and he says, ‘Walk this way,’ and does a silly walk. Then he says, ‘No. Walk this way.’
Mel: I love it. I love it. That’s so great. Most people shout out, ‘Walk this way.’
Corey: Has your son helped you prepare for the upcoming zombie onslaught?
Mel: You know about Max Brooks? When we were doing ‘Young Frankenstein’ up in Seattle, before we took it to New York, we were checking into a hotel. I saw my name and the girl behind the desk said, ‘Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks. Your son is Max Brooks! Tell him I love him. Tell him he’s the best. I sleep with my zombie book.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘maybe you should get out more. Meet a lot of people.’ I have a lot of fans, but they’re not fierce. They’re not iron filings to a magnet. They’re not crazy. His fans are really devoted. They’re just as crazy as he is.
Corey: With the big announcement of Lucasfilm being sold and Disney taking over ‘Star Wars,’ it might be time to look at a ‘Spaceballs’ sequel.
Mel: He was very good. Lucas sent me a wonderful letter. I was pretty bright. I did all the post-production with ILM, his company, thereby preventing any animosity or bad blood. He was very happy. It’s a wonderful movie. As a matter of fact, it is my No. 1 movie in sales. It’s probably on a big screen in Peru. They like it all over the world.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. He recently published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family several years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.