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
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.