As a child in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mel Brooks assumed he would grow up to work in Manhattan’s garment district. That’s what most of the kids in his working-class Jewish neighborhood did.
But everything changed when he saw his first Broadway musical — Anything Goes, starring Ethel Merman.
“My hands stung from applauding so much after it was over,” he says. “And I remember going back in Uncle Joe’s cab and I remember saying as he was driving me back home to Williamsburg, ‘Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe! I’m going to do that! … I want to be in show business!’ “
It wasn’t a direct path. Brooks was drafted into the Army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, Brooks’ big break in comedy came when he landed a job writing for TV legend Sid Caesar‘s live variety show, Your Show of Shows.
Now 95, the filmmaker/actor/comedian is a member of the exclusive EGOT club, for those who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. His film credits include High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, History of the World: Part 1, Blazing Saddles and The Producers, which was adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. He’s also the author of the new memoir, All About Me!
Over the course of his career, Brooks has told countless edgy jokes, but he doesn’t regret any of them.
“Not one would I take back!” he says. Instead, he says, it’s the jokes he opted not to tell that haunt him: “There were plenty, plenty of jokes I should have just exploded with and I said, maybe that’s a bit too much for the kids or whatever.”
On being 95
I’m so grateful to be able to eat scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast and sometimes a roast beef sandwich for dinner. I’m so happy that I still have somewhat of an appetite. I’m having trouble sleeping. That’s a problem. But otherwise things are pretty good for being 95 and I’m getting around fairly well and my basic emotional attitude is still more positive than negative. I’m still looking forward to talking to people, to meeting people, to have dinner with people.
On being a happy kid
When I’m asked what was the happiest time of your life? Was it marrying Anne Bancroft? What was it winning the Academy Award? Was it writing your first sketch for Broadway, for New Faces? I cut them off and I say I was the happiest — and to this day, probably the happiest in my life — from 5 years old to 9. Those four years were blessed with running, Johnny-on-the-pony, kick the can … playing with my gang in the streets and just being free and and careless and reckless and just a happy, happy child.
On what being Jewish means to him now, late in life
Being afraid I’m going to die has not made me more religious. I’m tribal. I love being a Jew and I love Jewish humor, and I loved the je ne sais quoi that the Jews [have]. They have a wonderful attitude. I guess it’s called survival. …
The synagogues in Brooklyn charged money on the High Holy Days — not much, I think maybe $5 a family, to keep the synagogue going. My mother simply didn’t have the money, therefore, we were very rarely in a synagogue because it cost $5 on High Holy Days. But I loved going to Passover dinners at my grandfather’s house in Bensonhurst. I loved the trappings of being a Jew — the dinners, the jokes.
On some of the responses to making fun of the Holocaust in The Producers
When I did The Producers, I got a thousand letters, mostly from rabbis and Jewish organizations, [saying] “How dare you! It’s the Holocaust!” And they were right and they were wrong, and I would say, “You’re not wrong. You’re absolutely right to take offense at it. But let me tell you this, if we’re going to get even with Hitler, we can’t get on a soapbox because he’s too damn good at that. We got to ridicule them. We’ve got to laugh at him. Then we can get even.” And sometimes I’d get a letter back saying, “Maybe you’re right.”
On hiring Richard Pryor as a writer for Blazing Saddles
Richard Pryor was so good and I expected him to play Black Barnett, the Black sheriff. And then when Warner Bros. said, “No. Under no circumstances. We can’t get any insurance on Richard because of the drug problems, and he’s been in jail.” And I said, “OK,” and I said to Richard, “Richard, We’re not doing this movie. I’m not going to do it.” And he said, “Nonsense. Stupidity. We’re going to do it. And you and I are going to find the right Black sheriff to play the lead.” … The casting agents found this Broadway actor whose name was Cleavon Little and he flew out in the audition for me and I kissed him and said, “You’re the guy!”
On remaining friends with Richard Pryor until his death
Yes, we sure did and then he became ill, and it was very sad losing such an incredible, truly incredible talent. He was the best stand-up comic that ever lived. That’s saying a lot. There were thousands that were really good, but he was the best.
On the meaning of life
I haven’t figured it out yet. … That’s a very good question. And maybe in my second book, the sequel, … maybe I’ll figure it out. But so far I haven’t. But I don’t want to get too close in case the answers are negative, I don’t want to know. I want it to be up and at ’em and positive and fun. And I still love comedy. It’s my delicious refuge from the world. I hide in humor and comedy. I love it.
Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.