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Happy birthday, Mel Brooks, well-trained maniac

Today’s a fine day to have an egg cream. It’s Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday!

Brooks — born Kaminsky — is a man with the disturbing power to reduce me to a gargling, inarticulate heap. When I was too young to get most of the jokes in his movies, I used to just watch my mother watching his movies, screeeeeeeaming with laughter, tears rolling down her cheeks, as limp and helpless as a puppet.

Brooks is not a holy man; but his movies, when they are good, are so good that they make you want to live instead of die.

 

If you want to spend half an hour well, read through Brooks’ 1975 interview with Playboy (the link is to the Daily Beast, not Playboy, so you can click without fear). Brooks is, of course, profane, vulgar, and obnoxious, but never nasty, and only rarely obscene — and he works so hard to make the interviewer laugh.
When asked how he came up with the idea for Blazing Saddles, he says, totally off the cuff:

It’s an interesting story; I don’t think I’ll tell it. Can I interest you in a Raisinet? No? Maybe you’d like a chocolate-covered Volkswagen? Do you have a dollar on you? I hate to answer questions for nothing. [Accepts a dollar] Thank you. For two more I’ll sell you my T-shirt. See this little alligator on the pocket? I understand that in the Everglades, there are alligators with little Jews on their shirt pockets.

There he was, at the height of his career, still hustling to earn his audience. Sometimes he crashes and burns, but it’s always because he tries too hard, not because he’s lazy. As he tells the Playboy interviewer, of his early career:

I would jump off into space, not knowing where I would land. I would run across tightropes, no net. If I fell, blood all over. Pain. Humiliation. In those pitch sessions, I had an audience of experts and they showed no mercy. But I had to go beyond. It wasn’t only competition to be funnier than they were. I had to get to the ultimate punch line, you know, the cosmic joke that all the other jokes came out of. I had to hit all the walls. I was immensely ambitious. It was like I was screaming at the universe to pay attention. Like I had to make God laugh.

Here are a few of the more printable excerpts from the interview. Do read the whole thing — to hear about his childhood, his meteoric success and the time all he had left was his Tolstoy and an iron skate key; to hear him quoting Joseph Conrad and referencing Rembrandt, Chagall, and Prometheus; to relish him parsing the influence of the fart joke and comparing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and, when things get too personal, repeatedly trying to force Raisinets on the interviewer. Read about his passionate love for his second wife, Anne Bancroft, whom he married with a repurposed silver earring instead of a wedding ring; about his deep longing for his father, and about how much he hates directing movies, but does it “in self-defense.”

 

On the intended audience for Blazing Saddles:

Actually, it was designed as an esoteric little picture. We wrote it for two weirdos in the balcony. For radicals, film nuts, guys who draw on the washroom wall—my kind of people.

On filming The Twelve Chairs in  Yugoslavia to save money:

To begin with, it’s a very long flight to Yugoslavia and you land in a field of full-grown corn. They figure it cushions the landing. The first thing they tell you is that the water is death. The only safe thing to drink is Kieselavoda, which is a mild laxative. In nine months, I lost 71 pounds. Now, at night, you can’t do anything, because all of Belgrade is lit by a ten-watt bulb, and you can’t go anywhere, because Tito has the car. It was a beauty, a green ‘38 Dodge. And the food in Yugoslavia is either very good or very bad. One day we arrived on location late and starving and they served us fried chains. When we got to our hotel rooms, mosquitoes as big as George Foreman were waiting for us. They were sitting in armchairs with their legs crossed.

The Yugoslav crew was very nice and helpful, but you had to be careful. One day in a fit of pique, I hurled my director’s chair into the Adriatic. Suddenly I heard “Halugchik! Kakdivmyechisny bogdanblostrov!” On all sides, angry voices were heard and clenched fists were raised. “The vorkers,” I was informed, “have announced to strike!” “But why?” “You have destroyed the People’s chair!” “But it’s mine! It says Mel Brooks on it!” “In Yugoslavia, everything is property of People.” So we had a meeting, poured a lot of vodka, got drunk, started to cry and sing and kiss each other. Wonderful people! If they had another ten-watt bulb, I’d go there to live.

Here are some memories of his mother, who raised him and his three siblings alone after her husband died young:

Playboy: Did your mother have time to look after you?

Brooks: I was adored. I was always in the air, hurled up and kissed and thrown in the air again. Until I was six, my feet didn’t touch the ground. “Look at those eyes! That nose! Those lips! That tooth! Get that child away from me, quick! I’ll eat him!” Giving that up was very difficult later on in life.

He’s not kidding about that difficulty. He explains later that, the higher he climbed and the more he earned, the more he was wracked by anxiety, uncontrollable panic, and grief. A therapist helped him manage his anxiety, but, he says, “then we got into much deeper stuff—whether or not one should live and why.”

Brooks: The main thing I remember from then is bouts of grief for no apparent reason. Deep melancholy, incredible grief where you’d think that somebody very close to me had died. You couldn’t grieve any more than I was grieving.

Playboy: Why?

Brooks: It was connected with accepting life as an adult, getting out in the real world. I was grieving about the death of childhood.

You often hear, you know, that people go into show business to find the love they never had when they were children. Never believe it! Every comic and most of the actors I know had a childhood full of love. Then they grew up and found out that in the grown-up world, you don’t get all that love, you just get your share. So they went into show business to recapture the love they had known as children when they were the center of the universe.

 

On the initial reactions to Blazing Saddles:

A lot of crickets said the film was chaotic—kitchen-sink school of drama. Not true. Every scene and damn near every line in the film were in the script. Even the farts were in the script. It was calculated chaos. Something a lot of people don’t yet realize about me: I am a very well-trained maniac.

The most concise explanation of comedy I’ve ever heard:

The greatest comedy plays against the greatest tragedy. Comedy is a red rubber ball and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively. Vershteh, goy b****rd? No offense. Very, very few people understand this.

And finally, his recipe for that egg cream you really should hoist in his honor today:

Brooks: First, you got to get a can of Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate syrup. If you use any other chocolate, the egg cream will be too bitter or too mild. Take a big glass and fill one fifth of it with U-Bet syrup. Then add about half a shot glass of milk. And you gotta have a seltzer spout with two speeds. One son-of-a-b****h b*****d that comes out like bullets and scares you; one normal, regular-person speed that comes out nice and soft and foamy. So hit the tough b*****d, the bullets of seltzer, first. Smash through the milk into the chocolate and chase the chocolate furiously all around the glass. Then, when the mixture is halfway up the glass, you turn on the gentle stream and you fill the glass with seltzer, all the time mixing with a spoon. Then taste it. But sit down first, because you might swoon with ecstasy.

Playboy: What does an egg cream do for you?

Brooks: Physically, it contributes mildly to your high blood sugar. Psychologically, it is the opposite of circumcision. It pleasurably reaffirms your Jewishness. But what is all this with egg creams? Isn’t this a Playboy Interview? When are you going to ask me about sex?

Well, you read it, and you tell me.

***

Photo: Angela George (Wikimedia Commons)

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