SCOTT SIMON, host:
If Mel Brooks has a mantra it might be don't get me started because once you do you can't turn off. The spill of jokes, ideas, insights, Yiddish-isms, and non sequiturs; his latest Broadway production, "Young Frankenstein" from the 1974 movie of the same name received three Tony award nominations and this week it won the Outer Critics Circle award for best musical.
The accolades were yet more proof that after more than 80 years of "Young Frankensteins," "Blazing Saddles," "Springtimes for Hitler," and the power of the Schwartz, Mel Brooks is still vibrant, still bubbles with surprise. We had a conversation with Mr. Brooks this week in our New York studios.
Do I have this right, when you were a kid you used to do a version of "Puttin' on the Ritz" as sung by Frankenstein's monster?
Mr. MEL BROOKS (Filmmaker): I used to do that, it was part of my act. And I would often do "Puttin' on the Ritz" as Boris Karloff, you know.
SIMON: How did Boris Karloff do "Puttin' on the Ritz."
Mr. BROOKS: Puttin' on the ri- He never finished the T-Z.
(Soundbite of "Puttin' on the Ritz")
Mr. PETER BOYLE (Actor): (As the Monster) Puttin' on the Ri -
Mr. GENE WILDER (Actor): (As Dr. Frankenstein) Different types who wear a daycoat, pants with stripes, or cutaway coat, perfect fits...
Mr. BOYLE: (As the Monster) Puttin' on the Ri -
Mr. BROOKS: Boris Karloff was part of my act. I used to do Boris Karloff as an English butler. Antipasto. You know, if I say to people today, you know, anybody under 73 is a - I like to do an impression of Boris Karloff, they'd say, who? When we were doing "Young Frankenstein," Gene said, you know, the monster doing "Puttin' on the Ritz" would be perfect. And I said, no, it's - they would tear it.
You'd go over the top in a movie but you must link yourselves to what it's all about. And if you don't, if you tear it, then it's just foolish and it's silly and you lose the storyline and the character. He said, let's do it. We can always edit it out. So I said, let's do it. And it was best thing in "Young Frankenstein." So his instincts were always spot on.
And when I was doing "Blazing Saddles," I hired Gig Young as the Waco Kid, the part that Gene Wilder eventually played.
SIMON: I didn't know that. Yeah.
Mr. BROOKS: And Gig Young was recovering from...
SIMON: From drinking.
Mr. BROOKS: From drinking. And so I put Gig Young upside down, I said action and he started to spew green stuff out of his mouth and - and somebody said, you got to say cut, this is - I said, no, no, he's a great actor. I don't know what he's doing. And they said, no, he's having a fit. I said, oh, okay. Okay, you're right, cut, bring in an ambulance. And immediately I call Gene Wilder 'cause a Gene was a genius at inhaling a script.
And from that moment on, Monday morning, boom, he was hanging upside down and he was talking to Cleavon Little and they really bonded from the first minute and the movie was sensational because of the performances of Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder.
SIMON: "Young Frankenstein" now that it's had not only the successes of film, but obviously now as a musical, you must've read a lot of pop sociology about the relationship between Frankenstein and his creation and what that Mary Shelley story is about. And I wonder if any of it means anything to you.
Mr. BROOKS: I had my own private theory and I know it's really nuts. But my own psychological theory was that Mary Shelley was talking about womb envy, not penis envy.
SIMON: I'm trying very hard to keep a straight face now, but you're - but are - you're serious.
Mr. BROOKS: I'm very serious because it's almost impossible for a guy to have a baby. I heard it happened once in Philadelphia, but I don't know if that's true. But I think that she was onto something about men being unable to actually create life and so the scientist figured out a way to reanimate dead tissue, literally create life. And I think she was onto womb envy, but I've been wrong before.
I've been wrong about gum. I once thought gum was very good for you, and then somebody proved me wrong and they said, no, it's very bad for you, especially if you have dentures and stuff, it gets stuck. And then if you put it under a seat, I thought it was great, and I was proven wrong. So I may be proven wrong on womb envy.
SIMON: But still in over 80 years of life to just be even potentially wrong on just gum and womb envy.
Mr. BROOKS: Yes.
SIMON: That's impressive.
Mr. BROOKS: Yes. Those are the only two things I may have been wrong on. I was perfect in declaring war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. I was the first one to say, well, we should go to war. You know, and...
SIMON: Yeah, enough's enough.
Mr. BROOKS: Fifteen minutes later, President Roosevelt obviously must've heard what I said.
Mr. BROOKS: And he said, this is a day of infamy, and, you know, and he declared war.
SIMON: I read the other day you were at the Virginia Military Institute.
Mr. BROOKS: Yes.
Mr. BROOKS: A little Brooklyn Jew.
SIMON: Did you apply? Or how did...
Mr. BROOKS: No, well, I attended Eastern District High School in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, New York. And I was 17 and the army came there and they took one look at me and they said, Melvin, you're our guy. They issued a test, the army specialized training reserve program test. If you pass this test, I think it was like how much is one and one, you know? And I nearly failed because I said, well, side by side they're 11, but they took me anyway.
They sent me to Virginia Military Institute where I was a rat, a brother rat. That's what they call freshmen at VMI. They made a play and then a movie. I think Ronald Reagan was in it. Eddie Albert was in it.
SIMON: This is coming back, yeah.
Mr. BROOKS: "Brother Rat."
SIMON: Of course.
Mr. BROOKS: So there I was at VMI, the statues of Lee and you know, and Sherman, and not Sherman, Stonewall Jackson.
Mr. BROOKS: Oh yeah, he was a big guy at VMI.
SIMON: This was the training school for Confederate officers at one point.
Mr. BROOKS: Yes, it was the West Point to the South.
Mr. BROOKS: VMI. And you know, I really grew up there in a way because I never had a cheeseburger before, and there was a cheeseburger right there in the commissary and, you know.
SIMON: They didn't have a kosher line?
Mr. BROOKS: No, they didn't, never heard the word. And they taught me a code of honor, a code of behavior. I really bonded with the other guys in my freshman year at VMI and I learned an awful lot. You know, it was a growing up process and I'm very grateful to have been at Virginia Military Institute.
SIMON: I was astonished to discover, 'cause I thought that musicals are something that you just started to it a few years ago, but you wrote a couple of musicals when you were in your 20s.
Mr. BROOKS: They were musicals like "Shinbone Alley."
SIMON: That's what I wanted to...
Mr. BROOKS: And you've never heard that.
SIMON: Not until I read all the material I could find.
Mr. BROOKS: Starring Eartha Kitt and Eddie Bracken. And it was a good show and it closed in, I don't know, in a month or so. When I was even younger I wrote "New Faces of 1952." I wrote a sketch in that and that was a hit, and that ran for a couple years.
SIMON: So that musical is something that has interested for some time.
Mr. BROOKS: Ever since I was a little kid. Even when I was in the army I would do parodies. When we begin to clean the latrine, it brings back a smell. Anyway, so I would do stuff like that in the army. And then I always wanted to write, and then when I got a job on the Sid Caesar show I'd often try to stick a song in here and there.
And then when I began making movies, when I did "Blazing Saddles" I wrote three or four. I wrote songs. One for Madeline Kahn, the late great Madeline Kahn called, "I'm Tired."
SIMON: That's a classic.
Mr. BROOKS: Yes, and she was...
SIMON: Oh, I'm exhausted.
Mr. BROOKS: Right. She was so funny.
(Soundbite of "I'm Tired")
Ms. MADELINE KAHN (Actress): (As character) (Singing) I'm tired. Sick and tired of love. I've had my fill of love from below and above. Tired. Tired of being admired.
Mr. BROOKS: So beautiful. What a truly beautiful personality. And I love writing music and it was only when David Geffen kept pestering me to write "The Producers" as a musical, he was the first one to see it in his mind as a big musical comedy on Broadway. So I did it and I wrote 20 songs for that. And I think we won more Tonys than anybody ever won on Broadway.
And so when it came time to do another musical, Tom Meehan suggested my movie "Young Frankenstein." And Tom wrote the book with me for "The Producers" because when I was writing "The Producers" I called him. He had done "Annie" on Broadway, he had a big hit. I said, Tom, when do they start singing and why? When I lived at Fire Island next to me was a guy called Wolcott Gibbs and he never gave a musical a good review.
SIMON: Yeah, he's a famous critic.
Mr. BROOKS: Famous critic. I said, Mr. Gibbs, why did you never give a musical a good review? He said because there's no reason for people to start singing in the middle of a play. And then - and so I called Tom and I said, Tom, why are they singing in the middle of this play, you know, what the hell are they doing?
And he said, I'll tell you when they start - when they get so full of emotion that they can't talk anymore, that's when you start singing. He said, you've got a beautiful, emotional story.
Mr. BROOKS: In "Young Frankenstein" and you've got just runaway comedy. I said, well, I don't know, you know, the critics are gonna say what is he gonna - this guy turns movies into musicals. Hasn't he got an original idea? He said to hell with them, to hell with the critics. I said, yeah right, they don't count. Let's do it. So we wrote "Young Frankenstein." And it was a delicious experience.
When you make a movie you wait two years for the first laugh. You write it and then you wait and you wait and finally you have a rough cut screening somewhere in Pasadena and you hear people laugh. You do a Broadway musical and first day of rehearsal people are laughing. You hear the laughs. Nobody ever goes into show business to make money, never 'cause it's a very mercurial and precarious and stupid thing to do.
But there is one real golden payoff and that is applause, cheers, and more important than anything for me, laughter. And every night at the Hilton Theater I sneak in the back and I listen. And I am paid in full every night.
SIMON: We've just got a few minutes and I have two questions to get to, hope you don't mind.
Mr. BROOKS: Go, get to them.
SIMON: At the end of "Young Frankenstein" there's an open joke about a musical of "Blazing Saddles," and I don't know if you're serious about doing the musical about "Blazing Saddles."
Mr. BROOKS: I am and I'm not and I'm not and I am, but I'm not. But I could. I could do it. I could do it tomorrow. But I don't think it's a good idea for the critics because it's grist for their mill. But for the audience it's a great idea, so I could do it or not or I could not do it.
SIMON: How would you handle the campfire scene?
(Soundbite of "Blazing Saddles")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) How about some more beans, Mr. Taggart?
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) I'd say you've had enough.
Mr. BROOKS: There's always been wind across the prairie, we know that, since the beginning of time. Since cowboys scraped a tin plate of beans and drank gallons of black coffee. I would never leave that out, I mean, I'd be stoned if I left that scene out. I don't know what I would do about all the horses. There's 100,000 horses in "Blazing Saddles."
SIMON: Oh right, of course.
Mr. BROOKS: But there is a thing now called projection and it's in almost in every show on Broadway so I could put the horses in projection. I know that I will be incurring critical wrath if I do it because is there nothing left in Mel Brooks' mind, you know? I mean, but "Blazing Saddles" is not just farting, there are other things in it. Actually it's the most profoundly social movie I have ever made.
Mr. BROOKS: The engine that drives it is the hatred for black people.
Mr. BROOKS: You know, and to admire and appreciate the black sheriff and come to love him is a very important arc in the storytelling. You know it's a forward progressive move and maybe some critics will say, well, maybe there's something underneath all - maybe it's not just about farting. Maybe there are other things to consider. Anyway, I know I'm running off at the mouth, but you know, look, I don't get a chance to be on NPR and talk to people who are smarter than me.
SIMON: Well, that's not true.
Mr. BROOKS: Well, you all are. I've had a lot of dopes interview me and you're one of the smartest dopes that have ever - tell your wife she has very good taste.
SIMON: Well it's awfully nice talking to you. Thanks Mr. Brooks.
Mr. BROOKS: Okay Scott, keep in touch, don't be strange.
SIMON: By the way, to hear a great podcast, come to the NPR website NPR.org/wesat. W-E-S-A-T. Puttin' on the ri -
(Soundbite of "Puttin' on the Ritz")
Mr. BOYLE: (As the Monster) Puttin' on the ri -
SIMON: As we say around here.
And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.