“It’s a good thing you’re in New York and I’m in Los Angeles then,” Mel Brooks says, before howling with laughter. He’s just been informed that, as preparation for getting the 90-year-old filmmaker on the phone, the interviewer he’s speaking to has consumed a large amount of black coffee and baked beans — the same combination that fuels the notorious, and extremely noisy campfire sequence in Blazing Saddles. “Actually, three thousand miles between us might not be enough — it depends on the coffee. There are easier ways to get in the mood to talk to me, you know. Please send my apologies to your coworkers.”
Brooks has been taking his 1974 Western parody, the one with the justifiably famous symphony of flatulence, on the road for series of events he’s calling “Mel Brooks: Back in the Saddle Again,” in which he screens the film and then sits for an onstage Q&A afterward. But his appearance at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, September 1st, is one he says he’s been looking forward to for a while, and he promises a number of surprises, “plus maybe a Rockettes routine or two.”
In honor of the event, we got Brooks to talk about the making of Blazing Saddles, how he produced the most memorable moment of screen fart-istry in American film history, how his friend Gene Wilder saved the picture (the 83-year-old actor would pass away due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease a week after we spoke), and why what he thinks is “the funniest movie ever made” has stood the test of time.
Who’s idea was it to take Blazing Saddles — and you — on the road?
I can’t remember who first brought the idea up, but I can tell you it works. I’ve done Nashville, Newark, Santa Barbara, Tampa … all sort of crazy places. I just finished doing this in Chicago a little while ago, and I’d been to theater before with The Producers. So I knew it was big, but I didn’t think I’d sell it out. Next thing I know, there were 300 or so people circling the theater waiting to see if there were no-shows, trying to get last-minute tickets. Blazing Saddles plays first, then I go out and talk — that’s how it works. So about an hour into the show, I went outside and signed autographs. It was a mob scene. I lined everyone up, and said, “I’m going to do my Borscht Belt act for you … it’s only 20 minutes of bad Jewish jokes, so you’ll get home early.” It was all bits on sour cream and why Jews die.
Why do Jews die?
“Dancing in the Dark.”
The Springsteen song?
No! The Bing Crosby song. Jews don’t die from overeating. It’s from trying to sing a Bing Crosby song in the wrong key. [He then sings part of the Bing Crosby song in a way-too-high high key, ending in a long, screeching note and him yelling, “Stroke. Dead.”] Anyway, it was great. Did wonders for my ego.
You’d done The Producers and The Twelve Chairs at this point, which were straight-ahead comedies — so what prompted the idea of doing a parody?
Right, you could those describe those pretty easily: Two Broadway producers realize they could make more money with a flop than with a hit. Two guys look for a chair, and find the inequality behind the modern Soviet Union. This was different. I was given Andrew Bergman’s original script for this comedy he’d written, to see if I might be interested doing it. And I’m thinking, Hell, this is a Western: What a great tapestry for a satire! You could have such fun with this. The whole notion of a parody … it works on the hundreds of thousands clichés that we all know. So I’m reading this and I’m already thinking, we have cowboys, we have outlaws, we have horses running in the wrong direction — I’m just seeing comic potential left and right here.
So I call Andy up and I say, listen, would you come do this with me if I direct it? But we need a black guy. Otherwise, we can’t use the N word, and we’ve gotta use the N word many, many times.
Let me stop you there for a second. Why, exactly, did you need to use that word so much for the movie?
Well, because the idea of a black sheriff — which Andy already had in his first draft — is great, but all the bad guys are going to call him that. He had a hero who spoke like a 1974 resident of Harlem in a Western town in 1874. I mean, the juxtaposition of it was just great. But you know, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to need permission. I don’t want to cross lines I’m not supposed to be crossing.
So I called up a friend of mine, this guy who was a brilliant writer and the best stand-up comic of all time: Richard Pryor. I said, “Richard, read this, tell me what you think.” He read it and said, “Yeah, this is good … this is real. I like this.” I asked, “Right, but what about the N word? We can’t say this so many times …” “Well, Mel, you can’t say it. But the bad guys can say it. They would say it!” Then I asked him to come write it with us, and he said sure. That was how it started.
Pryor was supposed to play the Cleavon Little part, right?
Right. I almost quit the movie because the studio was scared of casting him. He was the original Black Bart. But Richard said, “Mel, don’t quit — I still have two more payments coming to me from the Screenwriters’ Guild, let’s make the movie. I have to get paid. We’ll find a good Black Bart, let’s just do this.” We saw about 20 different people before we saw Cleavon. The minute he read for us, Richard and I just said, “This is the guy.” He was so laid-back and took his time with the jokes.
Was the studio a little wary of this kind of language being used repeatedly in a big, mainstream comedy?
Oh, we never told the studio what we were doing. [Vice President in Charge of Production at Warner Brothers] John Calley knew, and that was it. This was Warners, where there were many echelons of CEOs and executives and bigwigs, all these people who were ready to say “no” in a second. I just cared about Calley, so I went to him and said, “John, can I really punch the shit out of an old lady?” “Look, Mel, if you’re going to go up to the bell, then ring it!” He was on our side.
So when his boss, and boss’s bosses, came to that first screening … I mean, it was anarchy. They could not believe what they were watching: A person cold-cocking a horse? Farts? One of the guys got up and asked me. “What did we spend on this?” “I don’t know, $2.5 million?” So he turns to everyone in the room and says, “Well, I suggest we eat the picture. Let’s bury this. The campfire scene, and the language, and that goddamned Jew Indian [laughs] — it’s disgusting. I don’t want Warners’ name on this!” Calley, to his credit, said, “Well, give it a weekend in L.A., Chicago and New York. No critics, no marketing, no advance notice — we invite an audience in cold, they see the words ‘Blazing Saddles’ come across the screen and that’s it.” I don’t have to tell you — those three sneak previews we did were absolute riots. Suddenly, the same executives who wanted to kill the film saw gold coins floating in front of their eyes.
Who came up with the title Blazing Saddles?
That one was all me … I can’t take sole credit for a lot of stuff on the movie, but that one’s mine. Originally it was called “Tex X,” but John Calley said, “No, sounds too much like a blaxploitation film.” Then it was “Black Bart,” which obviously had a double meaning — Black Bart was what you called a stock Western villain. Also our character’s name was Bart, and he was black. Not exactly rocket science. But again, Calley said, “People will just think this is another Western … next!”
So I waited a couple of weeks, so I said “I may have something that says Western and wacky …” And he says, “Whatever it is, it’ll never work.” “And I say, “Blazing Saddles.” And he goes, “YES!” and jumps up and down. “That’s a great fucking title! I’m sending a press release right now!”
Gene Wilder came into the picture late, right?
Every since we had done The Producers, Gene was my best friend. So he knew I’d cast Gig Young as the Waco Kid; Gig had won the Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, so he was considered a dramatic actor. But if you see some of the stuff he did earlier, like the Doris Day movies he was in, you’d see he had a real light comic touch. And the Kid is a alcoholic, and so was Gig. He knew how to do it.
Then we have the first day of shooting, he literally started throwing up green stuff all over the set. I thought, “We aren’t shooting The Exorcist, are we? I think something’s wrong here.” I sent him to the hospital, and called Gene in tears. I heard him sigh over the phone: “I know, Mel, I’m the Waco Kid, you need me, I’ll be there.” This was a Saturday; he flew out on Sunday, tried on the costume, tried on the gunbelt, tried on the horse … [laughs] it all fit. By Monday, he was shooting the scene where he’s hanging upside down next to Cleavon. It all worked.
One of my favorite lines in the whole movie is when Cleavon asks him, “What do you do for fun?” Gene goes, “Screw, and play chess.” And Cleavon says, “Let’s play chess.” [Laughs] It’s all in Gene’s delivery. That’s why it’s so funny.
You listen to Gene say another line now — “These are just people of the land, the common clay of the West. You know … morons.” — and it’s hard not to think of certain aspects of our political landscape.
I’m actually surprised Trump hasn’t asked me to use “It’s Good to Be the King” [from 1981’s History of the World, Part 1] for his campaign rallies. He knows I don’t license my songs out, maybe.
I don’t think he usually asks.
Was the idea always that you were going to play the Governor and the Native American chief?
I don’t remember, but I do know that the idea to have the chief be Jewish came later. Originally, I was supposed to speak pure gibberish. But I thought, Well, I’ll just speak Yiddish, no one’s going to know the difference [laughs]. And you know, the similarities …
Both are nomadic tribes …
… Both had land taken from them, both like cured meats … yeah, exactly.
Let’s talk about the campfire scene. Was that in Andrew Bergman’s original script?
He may have had something in there that we built on, but I don’t think it was anything close to what we ended up doing. I can tell you that we made the majority of the fart noises in the editing room. Not actual farting, mind you — it was courtesy of soap, water and our armpits. We did that for a whole day until we had a supreme volley of farts that I knew would work.
It started with me saying, “We have to introduce Mongo,” you know, the Alex Karras character. We have to get the bad guys to discuss getting him to go kill the sheriff. How are we going to do this? I mean, cowboys don’t have offices, they don’t chit-chat with each other when they’re in the elevator … they’re out on the prairie. They’re talking about stuff around the campfire at night, right? And someone else said, Right, they sit around drinking black coffee and eating beans and they …” I said, “Let me stop you right there, I think I’ve got it.” You do that, there’s going to be a lot of noise. It’s biology.
It’s a classic scene.
I didn’t know that at the time. I mean, seeing the reaction that Warner executives had after it came on in that first screening — I had an idea. But you never really know what’s going to work and what won’t. What always makes me crack up is the tollbooth scene: You have all these acres of land on either side of these cowboys, and they’re still all lined up going through a tollbooth in the middle of the desert. “Someone needs to go back and get a shitload of dimes.” [Laughs] My grandson says that all of time; I have to keep telling him, “Quit saying you want a shitload of dimes in public, kid!” I thought, people will think this is the movie’s funniest scene. I hadn’t counted on the farts.
You lucked out with getting Madeline Kahn to play the Lily Von Shtupp role. Other than Peter Bogdanovich, you were one of the few director who knew how to use her talent properly when she was starting out.
Bogdanovich was the one who made me notice her. I’d seen her in his movie Paper Moon, and said to myself, I have to marry this woman — or at the very least, cast her in something. She was a true genius. Her audition was one of the most awkward things I’ve ever had to experience, because … well, I told her, I love your work, but I can’t hire you unless you raise your skirt and let me see your legs. “Oh, so it’s that kind of audition,” she said, and started to walk out. “No, no, I’m happily married, it’s not that at all. We’re doing a take-off on Westerns, and if you’ve ever seen Destry Rides Again, there’s the scene where Marlene Dietrich sings in the saloon. We’re trying to match that, and I know you can do it, it’s just that…”
And she goes, “Oh, I get it now,” and grabs a chair, hikes up her skirt and straddles the chair just like Dietrich does in the original. I mean, like an exact match of the shot. I nearly fainted. It was her idea to hum the song out of tune as well, which seems like a small thing, but adds so much to the scene in the end. She was amazing.
Where did all the fourth-wall breaking come from?
Oh, I’ve been doing that all life. When I was 14 years old, I was a busboy up at the Catskills and I was what you’d call a “utility player” for the theater troupe — they’d call me in whenever they needed somebody to fill in, that kind of thing. So this guy who was playing a lawyer had broke his leg or something, and they needed me to do the part. They gave me a fake beard, they gave me a hunchback, they gave me a white wig — the whole thing. My big line was: “There, there, Harry, take a seat … now, tell me in your own words, what happened on the night of January 16th. Have a glass of water.”
So my first time doing this, I’m onstage, I’m nervous, I go to pour the water into the glass for him — and the fucking thing drops right out of my hand, crashes onto the desk and spills all over the place. I’m just standing there, everyone is in shock, it’s dead silent. So I walk down to the footlights, I take off my wig and beard and I say to the audience, “I’ve never done this before, I’m 14 years old!” The laugh I got out of that was huge. From then on, I thought, Okay, I’ve broken the fourth wall and I’m never putting it back together. That’s how you get Count Basie and his orchestra playing in the middle of the desert in Blazing Saddles. That’s my whole method of working as a director in a nutshell. Find the fourth wall, then smash the hell out of it.
Do you think those wink-wink aspects are partially why Blazing Saddles has held up for all these years? You hear “a parody of Westerns” and you’d think it would have dated. But this movie …
Yeah, it still gets huge laughs when we show it. And it’s not like racial strife and prejudice has gone away, clearly. All that shit is still there. But some movies are diamonds, and a wise man once said, diamonds are forever. I mean, Chaplin’s City Lights still holds up, and it’s, what, over 80 years old. Sullivan’s Travels, same thing — it was made in the Forties and its just timeless. I really believe that it’s the funniest movie ever made. Sometimes you get lucky.
“He made the funniest movie ever” — that’s what your legacy will be?
My legacy … [clears throat, then in deep, important-sounding voice] “He was a noble philosopher who use humor to shed light on the human condition, which was hard to take sometimes but he helped us see the folly of our …” Oh, I don’t know. Who fucking cares? I don’t give a shit. I won’t be around for any of it anyway.