Shmoozing with Mel Brooks, the 88-year-old man

January 29, 2015

“OK, I can die now.”

That is what I said — out loud — when, on a recent rainy Monday afternoon, the phone rang and a familiar, gentle voice emerged on the other end of the line: “Hello, Mel Brooks!”

I had just finished watching his latest stand-up act, “Mel Brooks Live at the Geffen,” a 60-minute romp through his life and work filmed in Westwood last April that will air on HBO Jan. 31. It is Brooks at his most personal. At 88, Brooks is looking back on his life — reflecting on what his audience sees as an iconic career, but that for him comprised the simple fact of his existence. The show is a love-fest in which Brooks shares memories, anecdotes and even sings a song or two, offering up yet one more performance that is by turns homage, career retrospective and pure cotton candy for his fans.

“So how was it? Did you like it?” Brooks asks.

“I think you’re gonna be a real hit,” I tell him. “You’ve got a big career ahead of you.” 

Before he utters a single word at the Geffen, Brooks commands a standing ovation just by walking onstage. I ask him if it’s hard to gauge how well he’s doing, comedy-wise, because at this point, people will laugh and love him no matter what.

“If you’re nearly 100 years old,” Brooks says, “and you’ve done it all your life, and people know who you are, they’re gonna come and stand up. But if you’re a brand-new comic bursting out on the scene, they’re gonna wait and see what you’re gonna deliver …”

Brooks is at a point when there is less waiting and seeing, more recollecting and reflecting. He may think his best days are behind him. The efforts that once went so stridently into building his life have relaxed into simply maintaining it. I ask him what is hardest about aging.

“Seriously?” Brooks asks, maybe not entirely sure if he wants to answer. But then he does. 

“It’s empty spaces,” he begins, speaking slowly and deliberately, “that used to be filled with all the people that you grew up with, the people you love, your family — they’re all gone.” He often pauses between clauses, as his mind keeps forming thoughts. Everything he says is thoughtful — little is sarcastic, nothing is snarky. “That’s the toughest,” he concludes.

I feel bad for pushing a man who has rained down so much laughter on millions of people into the sad places in his life. 

“And what’s the best part of growing older?” I ask.

“Stuffed cabbage,” he says, not missing a beat. “I don’t live for anything else. I don’t live for people; I don’t live for performing; I don’t live for promoting my movies and my shows. I live for stuffed cabbage. I love stuffed cabbage. There’s this place called Fromin’s that makes it, on Wilshire and 19th Street, and they have beauuu-tee-ful old-fashioned stuffed cabbage.” 

There’s a part in Brooks’ stand-up routine at the Geffen, right near the beginning, when he talks about his first paying jobs. One of them was “pool tummler,” of which, he says, “It was my job to wake up the Jews around the pool.” He then recounts how he would dress up in dramatic costume, fake a suicide-by-drowning, and everyone around the pool would wake up and laugh. So I ask Brooks what it does for him to continue to work and perform when he could just as easily retire and be a Jew sleeping by the pool.

“It’s akin to walking,” he says. “It’s circulation. If you just sit at home and watch television, there’s gonna be a natural drying out and squeezing down and diminishing of your entire ability to see and to talk. But if you’re up and moving and have some goals in mind, you’ll stay alive a little longer.” 

I’m a little nervous about steering the conversation to Judaism, because I can only imagine how many millions of questions Brooks has been asked about being Jewish. But, as it happens, many of the anecdotes he shares in the show are about his early days in Hollywood, and most of them involve Jews. So I tell him I noticed that his recounting of his Hollywood history is littered with Jewish names — Wasserman, Glazer, Cohn, Strauss … 

Brooks interrupts.

“Let me correct you,” he says. 

Oh, boy, I’m thinking. I’ve botched it on question three. “You’re a good writer, Danielle?” Brooks asks matter-of-factly. I say yes. “Don’t say ‘littered’;  say ‘replete.’ ” He spells it: “R-E-P-L-E-T-E. Replete with Jewish names!”

Mel Brooks has just given me a grammar lesson. 

“That said,” I continue, after thanking him for the tip, “Do you think of Hollywood as a Jewish place?”

This question elicited his longest answer.

“It was, absolutely was,” he says in a measured tone. “I don’t know about today, but the first time I came out was for, like, a small job working at Columbia in 1952, [and] I saw Hollywood for the first time, [and] I was just drunk with the lure of studios and motion pictures and Edward G. Robinson; stuff like that. It was thrilling. And I was also aware that, you know, maybe they didn’t let Jews own coal mines or airlines or railroads or big farms — the Jews had to find their places. And [a] great big niche was entertainment. 

“Broadway, to this day — and there are very few exceptions — if you go to a Broadway musical, the book was [probably] written by, and the score was [probably] composed by, a Jew. I mean, 99 percent of Broadway musicals. The only great exception would be Cole Porter. But everything else, including me, Mel Brooks, [who did] two great musicals, ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘The Producers’ …” 

From left: Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman in “Young Frankenstein.” Photo ©Twentieth Century Fox

Here, he digresses to point out his proudest achievement: “By the way, ‘The Producers’ is still No. 1 in terms of the Tony Award — we have 12. No one else has come close to 12 Tony Awards on Broadway.”

Without prompting, he gets back to his point:

“So I’m telling you, when I first came out here, it was a great opportunity for Jews.” 

He offers a list replete with Jewish names: “The Cohns of Columbia, the Warners of Warner Bros., the Goldwyns, Mr. Goldwyn. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, right? 

“Actually,” he reconsiders, “I don’t know if Metro is a Jew.”

I ask him whether Hollywood is different today from when he started out.

“It has changed. It’s not so tribal; it’s not so Jewish. And it’s like … bean counters have come in — heavily. The bean counters [of] the gross, the bottom line: ‘What has the movie made? What has it done?’ Nobody says anymore, ‘Is it good? Did you love it?’ ”

Brooks suddenly feels compelled to share with me his three favorite movies of last year: “Whiplash,” “Nightcrawler” and his top favorite, “A Most Violent Year,” the J.C. Chandor film with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac — which I tell him also happens to be my favorite movie of the year. Then we both start exclaiming about how it was robbed of Oscar nominations. Brooks gets very excited that not only have I seen these less-popular movies, but also that I loved them.

“Danielle!” he cries with his perfect Mel Brooks-ian rasp. “We should hang out! We should live together!”

At this point, I really do feel prepared to die. Quite happily.

We do a little more raving about Albert Brooks’ performance in the movie, and because I now know that Mel Brooks and I share the same taste in film, I tell him to see Damian Szifron’s Oscar-nominated “Wild Tales.” He pauses to write it down.

“So,” I begin again, getting back to business. “I know you’ve been asked this like a zillion times, and you’re probably sick of this question, but … do you think Jewish humor comes more from fear and neuroses or creativity and intelligence?”

“I don’t know,” Brooks says, thinking out loud. “There may be some deep — very deep — like, genetic message in our bones: ‘Tell the world, especially the Jews, to keep smiling, keep laughing, it’s gonna be all right, it’s gonna be all right,’ you know? It could be a deep message from one generation of Jews to another to keep it going.”

You think because we’ve been through so many hardships?

“Exactly. It may be some kind of survival mechanism that is deep within us to help us survive all the tragedies that the tribe has endured these 5,000 years.” 

Because it’s been only a few weeks since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, when cartoonists and satirists were murdered for their art, I wonder if Brooks, a famous satirist himself, believes there should be limits to satire. After all, if there is anyone who understands the impact of satire on society, it’s Mel Brooks, who famously parodied Adolf Hitler in his hit film-turned-Broadway-musical “The Producers.” 

“I’m gonna say a very strange thing,” Brooks declares. “I would like to say that there should be no limits whatsoever to anything satiric, that you can make fun of anything in the world, no matter what it is. However, you have to temper that with intelligence. I think it’s up to the [creator] to say ‘Wait a minute, this could bring havoc down on our heads.’ ” 

Even when you feel it’s important to make a political statement?

“[Satire] should be tempered with reason, that’s all. When I did ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ and I made fun of the Nazis and, especially, of Hitler, there was no big Nazi movement in the world anymore — it was 15 years later. It was pretty safe. Today, it [might] be even more dangerous. Who knows? 

“But,” he adds, “I would still do it. You couldn’t stop me.”

Despite his philosophical objections, the artist in him prevails. So I seize the moment to talk to Brooks about his own comedic legacy. I remind him that in describing his admiration for “Blazing Saddles” star Madeleine Kahn, he once told a journalist that Kahn had transcended comedy and entered the realm of art. I wonder if he thinks of himself that way, but because he is generally pretty reticent on the subject of his own significance, I’m not sure this will be a question he’ll want to answer.

From left: Harvey Korman and Mel Brooks in “Blazing Saddles.” Photo ©Warner Bros. Pictures

“No, no,” he says, surprising me. “It’s a good question. Because certain cultures saluted comedy earlier in their growth as a nation — like the French saluted the great comedies of Moliere and Voltaire, and said that they’re great art. They’re as great as any of the more serious [dramatic arts]. Europe was way ahead of us in saluting comedy. America took a long, long time, and it’s still lagging behind. We still think, no matter what comedy is, we kinda still think of it as frivolous instead of as important.” 

“Why do you think that is?” I ask him.

“It’s as simple as this: Laughter doesn’t have the gravity of tears. 

“Tears mean so much more than laughter. [But] I’m saying they’re equal. Personally? Don’t print this … well, you can print a little of it: I think comedy is just a hair more important than tears, and that laughter is more important in our enlightenment and our development.”

It occurs to me when Brooks says this that he has had a deep personal investment in laughter, in comedy, in focusing on the humor in life, not only because he is a Jew (and there’s that genetic-survival thing) but also because he lost his father when he was 2 years old. He had to survive that, too. I ask him if it was a function of survival for him, as a young boy, to treasure the comic over the tragic? 

“That’s a very intelligent and bright, good supposition,” he says, pondering my (amateur) analysis. “There might be some truth in it, really. I lost my father when I was only 2. I can’t even remember him. There’s something big, you know, emotionally, missing in my life. [Making] alliances with father figures was always very important to me. Like Sid Caesar — he was very important to me, emotionally as well as professionally. Father figures always meant a lot. Even, like, rejected father figures, like [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], meant a great deal to me. I thought Roosevelt was so important in my life, you know? He could be my father; he could save us. And he did. He actually did.”

While the comic is in the very serious realm of emotions, I linger a little longer and ask Brooks how he has coped with the loss of his wife of more than 40 years and the love of his life, actress Anne Bancroft. 

“There’s no way to cope,” he says. “All you can do is just keep busy. Busy is the word. And keep [near] the ones you love.”

Unlike most grieving widows, Brooks is in the unusual position of having been married to a Hollywood actress who was immortalized on film. Does he ever pop in old movies just to visit her?

“Oh, all the time. All the time,” he says. “The Miracle Worker” is his favorite. 

Despite his stature in the culture and his extraordinary success, I ask Brooks how he has managed to remain so lovely and so humble.

“When you watch giants like Sid Caesar or Anne Bancroft, talents like that, and [then] they pass away, it humbles you. You say, ‘Wait a minute: We’re not gods, we die; we go to the earth like everybody else. You’re not in any way superior to anyone on the earth.’ Just the fact that people who are so close to you and so talented pass away really does humble you.”

Still, humble though he is, Brooks must know what an indelible mark he has made on the history of American — even world — entertainment. That the movies and musicals and TV shows he created will serve as his legacy, and will be watched and cherished for generations to come.

“There will always be comedy,” he says, launching into his philosophy of its meaning. “There will always be jesters to the king that point out the inadequacies, the half-truths, that see the emperor naked. I think comedy has done more to straighten out civilization than wars and revolutions. But then, I’m a comic, so I like to take credit for the advance of the world.” 

He seems to be on a bit of a roll, so, before we hang up, I ask Brooks what being Jewish has meant to him in his life. He is effusive on the topic.

“Being Jewish means a lot to me. I love my tribe. I love my people. I’m lucky to have been born a Jew. But I am not religious; I’m not frum, in other words. I will eat ribs; I’ll eat in Chinese restaurants. But I just love my people — their strength, their guts, their determination to survive. And I also love their sweetness, and their humor, and their talent. They’ve given me a lot of that. The sweetness, the humor, the talent. I can’t think of a tribe that is more profound and funny than the Jews.”

Finally, I ask Brooks to tell me his favorite Jewish joke. He instantly launches into a colorful, PG-rated and very clever joke that has me in stitches at the end.

“The Jews will love it!” he declares triumphantly. 

Yes, I tell him, the Jews will love it. And they will always, always, always love him.

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