Only 11 people in the history of the world have one. As popularized by the show 30 Rock, an EGOT is the prestigious honor of making a grand slam out of all four major entertainment awards. It’s a distinction that lasts a lifetime. In the case of Mel Brooks, however, even if he hadn’t won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, thereby breathing the same rarified air as Audrey Hepburn (and of course Whoopi Goldberg), he’d remain distinguished beyond measure.
Brooks is a comedy pioneer in every sense. From his Borscht Belt beginnings, the comic went on to television’s first comedy, which just happened to have one of the most esteemed writers’ rooms ever—his compatriots on Your Show of Shows included Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.
Although he didn’t invent the parody film, Brooks took it to delirious new heights, sending up just about every movie genre on a quest to bring anarchy to the cinema. He nurtured a robust postmodernist streak, titling a film History of the World, Part I, even though he never intended to make a sequel, and creating a silent movie in which the only line of dialogue is spoken by the world’s most famous mime. Brooks was also the first filmmaker whose work has been adapted into a hit Broadway musical, which itself was adapted back into a film. (John Waters has since followed suit with Hairspray.)
The recently released box set, The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy, spans the entire length of Brooks’ long-winding career path. To mark the occasion, Co.Create spoke with the comedy trailblazer about conquering multiple comic disciplines, and lessons he learned while doing so.
You can get away with a lot more today than you could back on Your Show of Shows. The networks were incredibly prudish. You couldn’t use the word "God" in any way. You couldn’t say anything that would be construed as a dirty word. You had to be very careful. Today if you watch Comedy Central, or HBO, or Saturday Night Live, they’re a lot more lenient in what they can allude to and get away with, sexually and otherwise.
We were forced to be more resourceful. We just relied on the human condition. "What do human beings do when they’re fired from a job?" "What do human beings do when they wanna make love, and they meet resistance?" "What do human beings do when they drink something and they don’t want it in their mouth, don’t want it in their stomach? Where do they go to get rid of it?" We were much more creative than you need to be today, in terms of survival.
We were always worried we were going to get cancelled. We were the only revue at the time that was live. We did 39 shows a year for five years that were absolutely live. If your fly was open, that was it. If you coughed or said a dirty word, there was no delay—you went on with the show.
One time they dressed Sid Caesar as a Roman gladiator, sent him on stage and he walked into a boardroom meeting at a Wall Street firm, as a Roman gladiator. The dresser had got the sketches mixed up. Everybody else had on suits. They were all staring at him, and he was staring back. We were in the green room, gasping: "What are we gonna do?" And I’m dazed by Sid Caesar once again, who said, "Those damn costume parties, they go on forever. I didn’t want to miss the meeting so I just came right here."
Later, when Sid and an actor got into an argument about mutual funds, Sid rushed him into a corner with his sword, and the guy said "Okay, okay, we’ll do mutual funds." He used the costume brilliantly in every way. It was a mistake that we used for our comedy advantage.
Chemistry is the word. By the time [Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and I] put on that special, we understood each other’s chemistry. What would titillate us, and our rhythms, and how long we would go back and forth before we would reach for a punchline: We just knew. It was like a marriage. You just know. "Better not put kidney beans in that, she doesn’t like that." You know your recipes, you know.
When someone was really good, like Gene Wilder, I never wanted to let them go. When I met Madeline Kahn, I never wanted to let her go. When I ran into Harvey Korman, I said "This is gold." I never wanted to let him go. Cloris Leachman, she was so great, I never wanted to let her go. I knew how incredibly talented and quick they were, and how bright they were and I always wanted to work with them.
I did a bunch of different things when Your Show of Shows was over—just staying alive on different shows. Then I decided I’ve got to do one of these sitcoms, but I thought maybe we’ll do it as a movie, which makes more fun than three cameras. I wrote a one-camera show with Buck Henry called Get Smart, which did well. That bounce kept me alive until I did my first movie. I only wanted to do one-camera shows, though, and they wanted to do studio shows like Lucy, where there are three cameras. It was one-third of the price, shooting shows like that. So I quit that and went over to movies, where I could use my one-camera.
[Carl Reiner and I] were pals because we worked with each other on the same show, and we’d seek each other out and have fun. He would walk over and stick mics in my face all the time and say, "I understand that you’re a psychiatrist in Texas," or "a submarine commander" or "a scat singer from New Orleans." And then I’d have to be that guy. But the one that really caught on was The 2000 Year Old Man because I used to come up with the craziest and the most passionate answers, so we stuck with that character. Carl’s still my best friend in the world.
There was no writing with us. I never knew what he was going to ask. We did do editing—like if we recorded an hour, there would end up being 41 minutes—but I never knew what the questions were going to be. The only time we plotted the questions was when we had to do The Ed Sullivan Show or something.
When we were asked to do television, we couldn’t afford to get lucky and take the time. So we would pick the best four or five jokes and plan what we were gonna do. Otherwise, I just said "Carl, surprise me. I don’t want to know what the subject is." One time, he asked me "Who was your favorite, out of the 500 wives you’ve had, and why?" And I said "Shirley." And he said, "What was so special about Shirley?" And I said, "Her friend, Lyla." And he fell down, laughing. He couldn’t go on for a while. What I loved more than anything was to break him up with a surprise.
I think we knew we were going to do [a "2000 Year Old Man" LP] for 2000. We actually started doing them in 1961, and we pledged that if we lived until the year 2000, that we would do a special one in the year 2000, and we did. And it was good. I sound like the bible. "And they did. And it was good. And they ate of the palm tree, and it was good. And later they suffered a terrific bout of diarrhea, and it was bad."
I had to make The Producers. That’s all there was to it. After [producer] Joseph E. Levine backed the script and we were ready to shoot, he asked,"Who are we gonna get to direct this?" I said, "Me." And he said "You? Oh no, honey, you never directed anything." And I said that I directed all the stand-up stuff on Your Show of Shows—not in the booths, I didn’t direct the cameras and stuff, but I directed the comedy. So I said "Joe, this is all in my head. Get another director, he has to figure out." I said, "I’m the writer. When I write it, I already see it. If I see it, I gotta recreate it. If the director comes in, he doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see it the way I see it. He’s gotta somehow figure out where things go, what they look like, the colors. I said "I got it all in my head." He said "Okay, you direct it."
One guy kept bothering me at a restaurant called Chock Full Of Nuts. Every day I went for lunch, he’d be sitting next to me. I said, you look like Nicholai Gogol. You have a needle nose and you have beady eyes—what do you want?" And he said, "I’m Norman Steinberg, I’m a lawyer and I want to be a comedy writer." I said, "Okay Norman, I’m gonna send you to Lenny Stern. Watch a few Get Smarts, and write one and then bring it to him." And he did. And I liked it. So one day he was sitting next to me and I was putting together a staff. I told him, "I’m doing this thing called Blazing Saddles. I want you with me. He said "I’m working with a dentist." I said, "On what? A comedy? Your teeth?" He said, "On comedy, and I want to bring them along. And I said, Okay bring him." I think the dentist went back to dentistry, though. He didn’t like show business.
We’re jesters whispering in the king’s ear. We must tell the truth. Things are happening in society and we have to always say what we think is the truth. We can’t play ball with anybody at any time. So I decided, "We all know it’s a movie, let’s drop our pants and tell the truth. No pretense, no lying." And it worked. It was refreshing. People liked it. My respect for the great writers who broke the fourth wall made me want to do it in movies. Nobody had done it in movies before, as far as I know. Nobody looked at the camera and winked. That was my style—that’s why satire was perfect.
When I sat down for the first time with my buddy Richard Pryor and the other writers on Blazing Saddles, I said, "Write anything you want, because we’ll never be heard from again. We’ll never be heard from. We will all be arrested for this movie. This should be pure anarchy. We should just attack the world, attack society with comedy." And we did. And strangely enough, it turned on us and became a hit.
There’s very little ad-libbing in the movie itself when you’re on the set. But there’s a lot of ad-libbing when you’re writing the script. You go over it again—the rewrite is the ad-lib. Once you get down to camera and lights and rolling film and days and unions and costs, you really can’t afford it. You can ad lib on stage, but you can’t ad lib when you’re making a movie. Every once in a while, though, it happens and it’s okay.
I used to almost write with [actors like Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman] in mind. I’d tell them way in advance. I’d give them a rough draft of the script and I’d say "Do you have any ideas about your character?" and I would say that 10% of the time—whatever they’d tell me—I’d say "You’re right, it’s in!" and then the other 90% of the time, I’d say "Shut up, you’re wrong. It’s the wrong thing, forget it." But that 10% was very valuable. They would come up with the right rhythm or the right joke or the right switch. You always have to listen to your actors.
I was entering a whole new field [on The Producers Broadway musical]—composing the score, both the music and lyrics, in addition to working on the book. I didn’t really have time to think about directing it. But I had a great deal of time to do casting, and what I call correcting. Susan [Stroman, the director] would show me a few rough things, I would whisper in her ear, and she would correct them. But then casting was always my choices. And Stro would have to agree with me. But then in the directing, I would have to agree with her. It was a good collaboration.
I didn’t care that much about the singing. Stro did, of course, because she’s a professional. I didn’t even know Matthew Broderick could sing. I knew I wanted him to be Leo Bloom. He was Leo Bloom. And Nathan, I wouldn’t care if he could just Rex Harrison it—you know, sing-speak. But Nathan sang like a bird, he sang beautifully, so I didn’t care about that. But when it came to everybody else, I really cared about only the major players.
Carmen Ghia was played by Roger Bart and I insisted that Roger should be that guy. Stro actually found him. He came in to do Liebkind, the German playright, and on the way out, Stro said "I think he’s got something," and she stopped him and had him try Carmen.
I used to say to Tom [Meehan] who wrote the book with me, "Tom, I don’t want to take sides here. I don’t know if I have the complete and proper and correct vision, so you tell me what you think works on the musical stage and what you think is too private or too cinematic." That’s why I joined up with Tom. I was afraid I’d fall back into all the movie clichés, and I wanted a big Broadway stage, and Tom had done Annie on Broadway and he knew Broadway, and he was smart and a pleasure to work with.
I wanted to return to Broadway for a long time. I always missed it. I missed the live aspect. You write a joke, the audience laughs. You don’t have to wait 15 months for editing and for color correcting and timing. You’re out there and you do it, and it’s one human being to another. A human being onstage to 1,500 other human beings in an audience. It’s an amazing phenomenon. I love live. More than anything in the world, I love it.