Mel Brooks still bubbles with comedy at 83

Meet Mel Brooks, 2,000-year-old Renaissance man.

Actually, he's a youthful 83, full of vigor and ready to tell a joke at the drop of a "Hello."

The comedy writer, filmmaker, musical theater maestro and hilarious perpetrator, with straight man Carl Reiner, of the 2,000-Year-Old Man, has been enjoying a recent run of career honors: the Kennedy Center Honors, the TV Land Legend Award and, on April 23, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

At the Kennedy Center, he sat in the seats of honor alongside President and Mrs. Obama and Bruce Springsteen.

"[The president] was really very sweet. He actually put his arm around me at intermission and said, 'I'm very sorry for your loss. Your wife [Anne Bancroft] was a great actress.' It really was a very lovely moment, very personal."

Mr. Brooks, turning on a dime in midconversation, continued, "Well, I said, 'All right, listen, you're the black sheriff. I know what you're going through. I hope you can survive as well as Cleavon Little did [in 'Blazing Saddles'].' "

He said Mr. Obama took it with a smile. "Oh, sure. He said he snuck in to see 'Blazing Saddles' when he was 10, even though it was R-rated."

In recent years, Mr. Brooks has added voice artist to his list of achievements, in kid-friendly fare to charm his 12-year-old granddaughter and 5-year-old grandson. He's charmed to know that his son, Max Brooks, has touched on the local zeitgeist because of his zombie connection. The younger Brooks' "World War Z" book has been optioned for a planned movie.

Mel Brooks' brush with Pittsburgh came in 2002, when his Broadway smash "The Producers," winner of a record 12 Tony Awards, began its national tour at the Benedum Center.

"I was certainly there," he said by phone from Los Angeles, "and Pittsburgh was very good to us. And there are three rivers; it's a little scary. One river is enough for any city."

Now "The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein," as it's officially titled, is headed our way as part of the PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh series at the Benedum Center, starting Tuesday.

In a far-ranging conversation, Mr. Brooks addressed the state of comedy, his life in movies and musical theater, and whatever else happened to be on his mind.

You broke into song when you got your star on the Walk of Fame. Were you always a song and dance man at heart? Did you ever imagine that you'd be a musical theater maestro?

I enjoy writing songs, both the melody and the lyrics, I think more than practically anything. [The idea of writing music for theater] was really beyond the pale. I never dreamt ... Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gershwin, people like that. And now I wish they were alive to see "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein." I'm sure they would have appreciated the kind of music and lyrics that I was saluting. They were my masters.

When you think of today's music, do you miss the influences that shaped you?

I've been out of touch with music starting with progressive jazz, somewhere in the '50s. Actually, I've been in and out ... I like rap. "It's Good to Be the King" [from "The Producers"] was a rap song way at the beginning. It was a big hit in France, by the way. ... And then I did the Hitler rap: It was Goebbels, Goering and good ol' Marty Bormann ... It was fun.

What do you think when you see the creators of "South Park" threatened and censored for daring to do work that represents the prophet Muhammad?

Oh, my heart goes out to them. It's so crazy. There's no one who threatens me for besmirching the Nazis. At the beginning, though, I did get a lot of stuff from the Jewish audience that was very upset about my putting a swastika on the screen [in "The Producers" film]. And I responded to every letter with the same basic response. You can't win if you get on a soapbox because these guys were good. Goebbels was good; Hitler was terrific; these guys were great performers. But if you could ridicule them, you could bring them down with comedy. ... I did the same thing with the Spanish Inquisition [in "History of the World: Part I."]

I hope I've opened some doors for people like ["South Park's" Trey Parker and Matt Stone] to free them. I think my quest was to destroy political correctness. I just thought to be politically correct, say the right thing at the right time ... listen closely, you can hear the snores. So what you've got to do is shake it up, take some chances. ...

I was very lucky to have Richard Pryor as one of the writers sitting next to me on "Blazing Saddles." I said, "Richard, we're going to use the N-word all over the place." He said, "It's OK with me. Our hearts are in the right place. That's what they call them, these rednecks. If we called them anything else, we wouldn't be saying the truth."

Richard wrote all of Mongo: Mongo only pawn in game of life.

It was a great writing team [on "Blazing Saddles"]. Andy Bergman came up with the idea of a town in the West in 1874, and we'd have some characters, especially the black sheriff, who spoke as if it were 1974. That juxtaposition of expression was what made the picture.

Norman Steinberg, who wrote "My Favorite Year," was also a writer on that film ...

He's mister Pittsburgh. He's a great guy. He looks like Nikolai Gogol. I call him needle-nose. Nikolai Gogol was a Russian writer who wrote "The Overcoat" and "The Nose." "The Nose" is a wonderful story about a nose that's very unhappy. He was a genius, a brilliant writer. You'd better read everything he ever wrote.

Mr. Brooks gives a bit of a history lesson on his other Russian writing influences, including Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, who wrote "The Twelve Chairs," which he adapted for his 1970 film of the same name.

It didn't make much money but it didn't cost much money. That's the way to do movies. If they're not going to be cartoon-y, or "Avatar," or 3-D, make a little heartfelt movie but make it for a couple of hundred grand. Just try to get your money back.

Getting back to "Young Frankenstein," have you tinkered with it for the road?

We trimmed it for the road so it wouldn't be quite as long, and we trimmed some scenes that were heavy on scenery because we can get just so much in a truck and so many stagehands. There are financial dynamics that make a show either profitable on the road or just a waste of time.

You've collaborated with Roger Bart first in "The Producers" and now as Dr. Frankenstein. What makes him a great interpreter of your creations?

Good ol' Roger, right from Broadway. He's an angel and an ace. He gives a great show every night. He never dogs it; he never glides through it. He's always giving more than 100 percent. He was so great as Carmen Ghia, the gay roommate of the director in "The Producers."

The original Carmen Ghia in the movie ... his name was Andreas Voutsinas. He was very smart, he was at the Actors Studio, he was a big friend of Anne Bancroft and that's how I got to know him. I knew right away he was Carmen Ghia, he was so incredibly amusing and delicious. And I said would you stick with me in casting, because he would say, "Or you got it or you ain't." And I would say you can't start a sentence in America with "or." And he would say, "No, it's or. Or you got it or you ain't." ... That's Roger Bart. I guess Andreas was saying, either you're talented or you're not. Roger is.

Roger was saying playing the lead is slowing me up, because I can really do characters. Being a romantic lead, I can do it, but it's not as much fun.

It's good to "work back" from a talented guy like Roger Bart or Nathan Lane. For instance, Nathan Lane would be wonderful in "Life Stinks" as a billionaire, very effete, very silky, very rich. And then 20 minutes later, he's in the street, he's picking up a dead sardine and he's saying, "Do you think this is edible?" He'd be wonderful. And Roger could do anything. I'd just have to zero in on the essence of him, which is an incredible vocal talent, whether he's talking or singing. He has such vocal dexterity. You can throw a dopey sentence in his mouth and it comes out like Noel Coward. He's wonderful.

Billy Crystal said at the TV Land awards that he got into comedy because of you and Carl Reiner. Who makes you laugh now?

"Saturday Night Live" every once in a while, they hit a 3-pointer from way out. There's that Kristen Wiig, she makes me laugh. And Tina [Fey] and Alec Baldwin. And Chris Rock, he's always so brave. And I discovered David Chappelle, he was in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," and he's always been one of my favorites. I've got to talk to him. [Chappelle has been absent from the comedy scene of late.] He's been asking, Why do it? He's skirting around the why. I'm sure when he figures it out he'll be back in force. He's so good.

Comedy is hard, it's really hard to be truly free and loose and funny. I don't care if it's smart or dumb, it has to be style, not just wit. Rodney Dangerfield was wonderful, he had great style. The Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers were my influences that really took me into show business. They were so funny and so delicious. Chaplin and Keaton I adored but I didn't hook up with them emotionally as much as I did the Marx Brothers. The nerve of Groucho to tell such bad jokes ... I love that. I revel in bad jokes.

My first joke I ever wrote was: You can't keep Jews in jail; they eat lox. Then there'd be a pause, then there'd be a laugh when they figured it out: locks. I always told bad jokes: I met a girl who was so thin, I mean she was so skinny, I'm talking about a thin girl. I took her to a restaurant, the maitre d' said let me check your umbrella. Those are the kinds of jokes I wrote and did in the mountains.

Back to "Young Frankenstein" ...

I'm so proud of it. All these young girls; Joanna Glushak stepping into Andrea Martin's shoes, and what about Cloris Leachman, the original [Frau Blucher]. But she does it, she's sensational. But Glushak had a lot of nerve to come in; either you got it or you ain't. She got it. ... And I love the ensemble. They're all tall, gorgeous, beautiful, talented.

I think it's better than "The Producers" as a show, I really do. The stage work is really much more sophisticated and sensational, actually. The word of mouth will be great after the first night. Everybody who knows about theater in Pittsburgh will see it. And I always say, if there's a little old lady in front of you at the box office, knock her on the side. God will understand. It's a hot ticket.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette or 412-263-1960. First Published May 2, 2010 4:00 AM


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