Revelation the First: Mel Brooks Is Not Crazy
Mel Brooks has a good friend who is a psychologist. This psychologist thought that mentally Brooks was the healthiest person he had ever met until one night when Brooks was standing next to him in a men’s room and urinated on the psychologist’s shoe. The psychologist thereupon retracted his professional evaluation.
Examining the elements of this story, we find that the psychologist was correct in the first place. By the mere act of declaring Brooks mentally healthy, the psychologist was setting himself up as a figure of power to whom one turned for blessing or damnation of one’s behavior. In short: father.
Implicit in Brooks’ decision to rebel is the realization that no one is qualified to be a father. If everyone is crazy (as all mentally healthy people know), then it is mentally healthier to urinate on shoes and remind people that they are crazy than it is to go around saying they are mentally healthy.
Herewith we arrive at a critical insight into the creative process: despite his being a wine connoisseur, Mel Brooks cannot urinate on everyone’s shoe (at the rate of five discharges per day spread over 215 million people, it would take 117,808 years to drive just the United States sane, let alone the rest of the world). Hence, Mel Brooks makes movies that urinate on everyone’s shoe. Particularly his latest movie, High Anxiety, an Alfred Hitchcock parody about crazy psychiatrists (see “Revelation the Third: Mel Brooks Is Not Graceful”).
Revelation the Second: Mel Brooks Would Not Have Wanted John Lennon’s Autograph Anyway
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Mel Brooks calls me on the phone and says that although he will let me write a personal profile of him, I am not allowed to ask any personal questions. “Nothing about my wife, nothing about my kids and nothing about money,” he warns. I agree, since I would make the same request of anyone doing a personal profile of me (one thing I learned while writing Random Notes for a year is that no sane person should trust anyone struggling to fill space against a deadline). An hour later I arrive at the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street where we are to have lunch. This cab pulls up, only it isn’t Mel Brooks; it is John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who haven’t talked to anyone in years, and I’m thinking, “Scoop! Scoop!” But then this other cab pulls up and it is Mel Brooks this time. John and Yoko are walking away when Mel Brooks catches my eye, and I think, “If I were a big deal and some journalist were doing a story on me and the first sight I had of him was chasing after an entirely different big deal, I wouldn’t tell the journalist a damn thing.” So I say hello, and John and Yoko disappear amid the other pedestrians.
Brooks introduces me like a longlost son to Joe Stein, who used to write with him on Your Show of Shows and happens to be walking by. On the way from the curb to the Russian Tea Room, he meets two more guys he hasn’t seen in years and remembers immediately who they are.
Inside the Russian Tea Room, it seems as if he’s greeting most of the help and half of the customers by name. (He is clearly a man, who, if he had looked like Robert Redford and had not been obsessed with doo-doo, could have been president.) At the table, he carefully describes all these unfamiliar foods so I know what to order, ascertains that I am comfortable, wants to hear how I got to Rolling Stone and if they’re paying me enough (“I’m very proud for you, Chuck”). Within 10 minutes of meeting the guy, I feel like the Young Frankenstein monster who bursts into tears when Gene Wilder tells him he knows how hard it is to be seven feet tall and green. Mel Brooks understands, by God, and I’m going to tell him my life story.
When I finish, he launches, surprisingly, into a discussion of money. “Silent Movie cost a little under $4 million to make, and over $5 million to advertise,” he says. “Advertising on a film should never be more than the negative cost [the amount spent actually making the film], so I thought I would do a little more personal advertising on this one. Articles are more interesting than ads the studio takes. The Tonight Show is also a good forum for my insanity, but only with Carson, not a guest host. It’s dangerous to have another comedian in the cockpit — I’m not as funny.”
A David Susskind Show I once saw featured six Las Vegas comedians, all named Jackie or Mickey, discussing their art. It wasn’t a discussion at all, of course, just six guys, nakedly pathetic in their need for laughs, trying to top each other with bad jokes.
“It’s like a curse from God,” Brooks shudders. “The need to get laughs and no sense of humor.”
I ask how he guards against false inspiration (yoks being in the eye of the beholder).
“If I’m going to spend 18 months of my life making a movie, I’m very careful about that,” he says. “I cast the best comic performers living — all self-starters who don’t have to have every nuance of behavior explained. As the final judges of what’s funny in High Anxiety, we used an audience of ordinary people. It’s not only laughs we listen for, but all kinds of oohs and ahhs and other vocal excitements. You can also tell by the cigarettes. If the movie is boring, it’s a forest fire in the audience. It it’s good, no one breathes.
“The biggest laugh in High Anxiety is actually a very mundane moment when I slowly remove a terrycloth bathrobe and the audience knows they are going to get several minutes of Psycho [the Tony Perkins-Janet Leigh shower murder scene]. They are saluting the intention of the scene. They know their champion is going to win, it’s just a matter of what I take on: the Western, the monster movie or suspense.”
Would the movie work for people who didn’t know Hitchcock?
“On Your Show of Shows [Sid Caesar’s pioneering TV comedy show], we satirized Japanese movies way back in 1954,” Brooks says. “There were maybe 7000 people who had seen Japanese movies in art houses on either coast, and the TV executives objected at first. But the skits worked on two levels: for the 7000 who had seen them, and for those who understood fear, hunger, lust, anger — everything human that was in those films. So High Anxiety ought to work for the movie buffs — there are 45,000 film graduates every year — and everybody else, too.”
A man and his wife, apparently tourists, shyly approach the table and ask for Brooks’ autograph. Exchanging pleasantries, he obliges. “They weren’t really autograph hounds,” he explains when they have left. “I can smell good people. Autographs are never healthy for an adult. It sets us apart from each other — like I’m some godlike creature. When they come up to me, I often ask them for their autographs.”
Revelation the Third: Mel Brooks Is Not Graceful
Mel Brooks started life as Melvin Kaminsky 51 years ago in Brooklyn. The youngest in the family, he learned quickly that he could get a lot of attention by clowning around, particularly because he was short and funny looking. He entered show business at 14 as a drummer for a four-man band. After a brief stint as a combat engineer at the Normandy invasion, Brooks accepted a gig in the Catskills one night for the then-huge sum of $200. The hotel was expecting Max Kaminsky, a famous trumpet player, and was not amused by the mix-up. So Mel adopted a truncated version of his mother’s maiden name, Brookman. “I thought if I ever did anything important, I’d change it back to Kaminsky,” he now says with some regret. “No wonder Woody Allen and I are great. We are not Brooks and Allen, we are not some department store. We are Konigsberg and Kaminsky. Now those are names, like Tolstoy and Dostoevski.”
Brooks got his first break when comedian Sid Caesar asked him to write gags at $50 a week for his nightclub act and then took him along to write for Your Show of Shows in 1950. Perhaps the greatest TV comedy ever, Your Show of Shows went on live for 90 minutes every week for four years. By all accounts, the pressure was crushing, but it threw Brooks in with a group of writers that included Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Carl Reiner. There, competing for Sid Caesar’s attention, he learned his craft and nearly lost his mind. He saved it with six years of psychoanalysis.
“It was a choice of that or suicide,” he recalls. “I had low blood sugar, a chemical imbalance, plus the normal nervous breakdown everyone goes through from adolescence to adulthood. It comes from the suspicion that only an incredible amount of failure is there to greet us. But if you can fail between the ages of 20 and 30, it’s fabulous. Too much early success and the rest of your life becomes a measure of repeating it. If they had praised The Potato Eater, Van Gogh never would have painted The Starry Night.”
After Your Show of Shows ended in 1954, Brooks spent the rest of the decade doctoring musicals, trying his hand at screenwriting and finally creating (with Carl Reiner) another enduring contribution to American comedy: the 2000 Year Old Man. I remember hearing some of those bits on the radio when I was in the fourth grade and not finding them funny. Yiddish accents just aren’t inherently humorous when you’re from “John Wayne country,” as Brooks calls everything west of the Hudson. Now that I’ve been in New York for three years, I can understand the humor of a culture that could produce, as the 2000 Year Old Man complains, a man with 42,000 children “and not one comes to visit.”
He won an Academy Award for his first film, The Critic, an animated short featuring an old Jewish man commenting on modern art. His first two feature-length movies were The Producers, about New York Jews, and The Twelve Chairs, about Russian Jews. Both bombed in John Wayne country. They also bombed in New York, where the critics accused Brooks of vulgarity. (The Producers had Zero Mostel selling stock in a deliberately awful musical called Springtime for Hitler to steal all the investors’ money.) Brooks’ hit TV series, Get Smart, a farcical parody of secret-agent movies, did much better and pointed the way to his film success — that is, the material was familiar with people unfamiliar with Jews. Except for an Indian chief with a Yiddish accent, Blazing Saddles in 1974 was not about Jews at all. It was about cowboys eating beans around a campfire and farting, about lynching and racism and punching out your horse. The people in John Wayne country could relate to that, and Blazing Saddles grossed more than $100 million at the box office.
“It was my first surreal movie,” says Brooks. “What I did when the gunfight spilled over onto the Busby Berkeley set with 50 dancers was what Picasso did when he painted two eyes on the same side of the head.”
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael thought the film was “intentionally graceless” — sort of like charging the Atlantic Ocean with intentional wetness — but Brooks did get more favorable critical recognition than before. The horror parody Young Frankenstein followed in 1975, and the monster myth proved to be a superb device for raising dramatic expectations only to be shattered by some outrageous absurdity. Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman and Cloris Leachman were his finest combination of actors yet. Young Frankenstein‘s box-office gross also totaled more than $100 million.
Released in 1976, Silent Movie was a less-successful effort, though it grossed $36 million in one release. The plot — in which Mel Brooks played a director trying to save a movie studio from merging with a giant corporation by making a silent movie with lots of big stars — was not as ridiculous as The Producers, not as dramatic as Young Frankenstein.
High Anxiety could well be Brooks’ funniest movie yet. The plot is disarmingly rhythmic, sucking you into suspense-movie clichés and then exploding them with a joke. Brooks (who also produced and directed the movie, composed the title song and wrote the script in collaboration with Ron Clark, Rudy DeLuca and Barry Levinson) plays a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, who is appointed head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Cloris Leachman (Nurse Diesel) and Harvey Korman (Dr. Charles Montague) are engaged in a nefarious plot to keep rich people locked up in the institute. With the aid of romantic interest Madeline Kahn, Brooks overcomes his acrophobia (high anxiety) and foils Leachman and Korman in an outrageous final scene. The camera and the music are also important characters, contributing to several wonderfully surreal gags. Not every joke works: one dissident doctor dies of a brain hemorrhage from listening to rock & roll (now that’s offensive, it’s been done before, and the music should have been by Sick Dick and the Volkswagens). The key, I think, is that High Anxiety transcends shtick enough that you are glad when Brooks wins the fight, gets married to Madeline Kahn and lives happily ever after in the suburbs. That’s a Brooks trademark that may reflect his own marriage to actress Anne Bancroft and their living happily ever after in the suburbs. Where the satirist Jonathan Swift (also obsessed with bodily orifices) argued for people to live logically, the comedian Mel Brooks only wants them to live happily.
Revelation the Fourth: Mel Brooks Would Not Be Popular on the Debate Team
Mel Brooks comes up to the office one afternoon and immediately starts introducing me to my own friends as “the world’s largest living WASP” and asks it it’d be okay if he says I’m his son the next time we eat lunch so people will not think he has brought small children into the world. We finally settle down in an empty office. He wants to discuss Alfred Hitchcock.
“He is the greatest film director who ever lived,” says Brooks. “Maybe not the greatest director, but he understood more about what the camera could do than anyone. He sees what the camera sees, what it can tell us. Hitchcock would never pick War and Peace to shoot because it’s too large to be seen by the one-eyed camera, and too personal. Tolstoy was the big soloist in that band. Something like The Thirty-Nine Steps can be seen through the camera. His shots were never just for effect, always to implant some emotion.”
With awe in his voice, Brooks goes on to describe how Hitchcock, using a miniscule budget, made 10 actors in The Man Who Knew Too Much look like a crowd in the Royal Albert Hall. “When we wrote High Anxiety,” Brooks continues, “we thought that the most Hitchcockian sort of hero has a serious malady, like James Stewart with vertigo. The plot develops so that both the police and the bad guys are after him. And he always has a beautiful girlfriend and no chance to get laid. The title is similar to Blazing Saddles — two words that seem to go together but really don’t. There’s no good word for fear of falling in English. I figure in 10 years ‘high anxiety’ might have worked its way into the language.”
Hitchcock liked the idea of the parody and, according to Brooks, even gave hints on the script. “He still has his own set at Universal,” says Brooks. “He’s 80-years-old and thinking of doing another movie. When I visited him, he very matter-of-factly explained that no one in the company hierarchy came to visit him anymore. In the old days, the executives used to attack him. I didn’t know if the new ones didn’t care or if they’d just forgotten him, so I called them up and said, ‘Will you please go bother this man?’ He’d have a glass of wine with anyone, there’s a billion thoughts in that head. He’s a marvelous storyteller!”
(When I called Hitchcock for a comment, he replied through his secretary that he was working on several new projects and could not be interrupted for an interview.)
Brooks has defined tragedy as “if I cut a finger” and comedy as “if you walk into an open sewer and die.” It’s a funny line, but also true enough to be damn depressing if you stop to think about it.
“I don’t find it depressing at all,” says Brooks. “We are by nature selfish. It’s part of our survival equipment — until certain situations arise and the word ‘noble’ comes in. We are capable of giving of ourselves, but it has to be worth it. World War II was worth it. Vietnam was not. Well, World War II was worth it up to the bomb. That was in questionable taste.”
Steering the discussion onto the philosophy of comedy, I ask what he sees as its function in society. Brooks talks about unmasking false ideology and popping pretensions, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. “Look,” he says finally, “I have no firm philosophical base. I believe in God with all my heart three days a week. Humor is just another defense against the universe. I don’t know any more than anyone else. What I have is a gift for articulation; beyond that, it’s a matter of discipline and technique. Like any other artist, I have the ability to let my essential self float through so that others can enjoy it.”
Did he ever envision making a serious drama? “I’m just too manic now,” he says. “As long as I can hit this hard in comedy, I will hit with all my might. You know, if you look back on the great films of the silent days, the dramas like The Birth of a Nation have lasted only in museums. Comedies like The Gold Rush are much more alive and dynamic today, although the Academy Awards have never recognized that. They think it’s not important when we pee in our pants for laughs, but it’s comedies that will be watched in 50 years. I’m not complaining — I won an Academy Award for the screenplay of The Producers — but I’m disgusted that they think we have less sagacity than drama writers. It’s just that we choose not to be maudlin. As long as I am on the soapbox, farts will be heard!”
Revelation the Fifth: Mel Brooks Does Not Like Bassoons
Mel Brooks climbs the conductor’s podium in the huge recording studio at Burbank Studios in Los Angeles and faces the 66-piece orchestra that will play the score to High Anxiety. “There are just a few things I’d like to go over before we start,” he says. “Woodwinds, I want you to keep your hands on your instruments at all times. Drummers will keep their snares tight at all times. … Thank you all for coming and for dedicating your first day’s salary to UJA [United Jewish Appeal]. This is going to be an album on Elektra/Asylum. [It actually is.] I told them we wanted the Asylum part.”
The musicians are loudly appreciative of his humor, much to Brooks’ satisfaction, but his attention shifts entirely to me when he notices I have arrived. “How are you? How was your flight? How did you get in from the airport? Where are you staying? … John,” he says to his music director John Morris, “this is the writer from New York, the one who uses such language. I don’t know what his mother thinks.”
Walking back to the control booth, I ask, “Well, what does your mother think of your language?”
“She’s more and more hip to what’s happening in movies and the press,” he says. “She still can’t believe a word like ‘fuck’ in the newspaper, though. She’s right, in a way. You use it too often, it can lose whatever spice it can add to a phrase.”
Brooks sits at the soundboard and stares intently out the window at the orchestra, now on the 29th take of a 30-second bit of suspense music titled “Walking to the Violent Ward” (for what it accompanies in the picture). Switching on the microphone to Morris on the podium, Brooks is still dissatisfied. “The trombone is a little funny,” he says. “We’re setting the audience up for too big a joke with the buh-buh-buh.” Morris nods and motions the orchestra to try again with less trombone. “It’s the bassoon!” Brooks shouts after the 30th take. “I want the bassoon out! It is an intruder from nowhere!” Morris takes the orchestra through for the 31st time. “Everything is fine except for the dopey sound at the end. No offense.” Brooks switches off the microphone. “No offense. You say cruel things and no offense is supposed to make it okay.”
The 32nd take is a “buy,” and Brooks decides to give the musicians, bored after an hour of playing buh-buh-buh to his exact specifications, a break. I walk back to the studio and ask Morris, who has done music on all six of Brooks’ films, what he’s like to work with.
“He’s always understood what music can do, and that’s not always the case with directors,” he says. “He also knows music and can articulate very well what he wants. The thing to understand is that you never do funny music for a comedy. The humor must come from the truth of the situation, the juxtaposition of serious music and bizarre behavior. The song ‘Blazing Saddles’ was completely straight — no horse whinnies, no temple blocks — yet it was completely crazy. For Young Frankenstein, Mel told me to write the most beautiful Slavic lullaby I could.”
Carl Reiner, Brooks’ old straight man for the 2000 Year Old Man and most recently the director of Oh God!, has stopped by the control booth. The two immediately start doing funny walks around the soundboard and trading one-liners. When they settle down a bit, Brooks tells him the plot and Reiner is effusive with his compliments. He is laughing over the name “Nurse Diesel” when I interrupt by saying I just did a story on a rock singer named Johnny Rotten.
“You know, Mel was the first one to come up with that name on the old Your Show of Shows,” says Reiner. “We had a character named Prince Rotten. Actually, Mel came up with the ultimate name back then, when all the actors were monosyllabic: Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson, that sort of thing. Mel wanted to name someone Fuck Jones.”
“Yeah, but what good was it?” asks Brooks. “You couldn’t get it on the air.”
Revelation the Sixth: Mel Brooks Probably Does Not Have Ulcers
Because Howard Morris has known Mel Brooks since 1948, it seems only logical to ask him how Brooks has changed over the years. “He has always had the ability to cut through the shit,” says Morris in his Pacific Palisades home. “The way he has changed is that when you are 18 or 19 and you have that instinct, people think you’re crazy. You think you’re crazy. Now he has the confidence, having proven himself economically.”
Morris plays Professor Lilloman in High Anxiety; it’s the first time he and Brooks have ever acted together. Morris first achieved fame as the little guy Sid Caesar would drag around on his foot on Your Show of Shows, went on to play Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show and has since directed a wide variety of TV commercials. It was not a straight road to success, however. “In 1961, I was flat-on-my-ass broke,” he recalls. “I’d been out of work several years, and I came to Hollywood to give it another try. Mel gave me his apartment and he gave me his car, a 1959 Mark IX Jaguar.”
If Brooks was generous, he could also be unpredictable. One of the oft-repeated stories about Brooks is how he twice mugged Morris: once tying him up and stealing his wallet when they were walking down a street in Greenwich Village, and again a few years later in a rowboat in Central Park. “That’s absolutely true, and I did not know he was joking,” says Morris. “I told him that with what he was paying me for this new movie, he was holding me up for a third time, but, hell, I would have done it for free.” “The thing that interests me about Brooks,” I say, “is that he’s a talented guy who is not destroying himself with booze or drugs or decadent sex. He has this overwhelming charm. His intelligence is always out there engaging the world. I keep thinking, ‘Mel Brooks has the secret of life and he’s not telling anyone.'”
“You don’t think there’s really a secret, do you?” says Morris, appalled. “If there is, it has to do with digestion.”
Revelation the Seventh: Mel Brooks Is Not What You Think He Is
Mel Brooks calls me at home in New York to answer a couple of wrap-up questions before I sit down at the typewriter. I tell him that one of my favorite lines in High Anxiety has not gotten big laughs from the screening audiences: Brooks is walking through this airport, doing all the mundane things one does in an airport, accompanied by suspense music steadily building to a crescendo pitch. When he walks out the door, he says, “What a dramatic airport.” Maybe, I suggest, an incident with a homosexual flasher occurs too close for the drama of the airport to be built up. It seems to need another five seconds of music.
“You’re right,” he says. “We’re going to remix the music a little crazier and bring the line up one dB [decibel] before release. You’re a filthy perfectionist.”
Pleased that he agrees with my criticism, I add that it worries me when he talks of himself in the same breath with Picasso and Dostoevski. “If you think of yourself as a great artist,” I say, “you might forget to urinate on people’s shoes.”
“I know what you mean,” he says. “Artistry should be a free and unconscious act. The later assessment, that’s the world’s business. I do what I do because I have to get it out. I’m just lucky it wasn’t an urge to be a pickpocket. It’s an oblique ailment. It’s crazy. In 13 billion years, when they total everything up, they may decide it was tomatoes that were important and all the rest was jerking off. You know, tomatoes are red, they’re round, they’re nice to look at, they taste good, they have seeds …”
“There was one last thing I wanted to ask you, Mel,” I say. “I know I promised not to ask any personal questions in the beginning, and I don’t normally ask these kinds of questions, but I really feel this has some bearing on the article: are you Jewish?”
“No, I’m not,” he admits. “I’ve had the most incredible plastic surgery. I had myself shortened by two feet, and if you don’t think that was painful! I’ve had bone grafts for 10 years on my nose. And I had my eyes pushed together for that beady-eyed look. I had to do it to be a success in showbiz.”