Encore: Renee Montagne Looks Back On Her Interview With Mel Brooks As Renee Montagne begins her final week hosting Morning Edition, we'll listen to some of her favorite interviews, including one with comedian Mel Brooks. This piece originally aired on Jan. 23, 2015.

Encore: Renee Montagne Looks Back On Her Interview With Mel Brooks

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I'm Renee Montagne, and the time has come. This is my last week joining you all as host of MORNING EDITION.



MONTAGNE: And the thing about a story on a radio show is you hear it once and it's gone, even for me. So this week, we're playing a couple of my all-time favorites, starting with the one conversation that makes me laugh just thinking about it, Steve.

INSKEEP: And not just you - I think I know the one you mean.

MONTAGNE: That's right, the great Mel Brooks. Several years ago, he came out with a compilation of a lifetime of comedy.


MONTAGNE: Mel Brooks is a comedian who makes the unthinkable very, very funny, like a musical about Nazis.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Singing) Springtime for Hitler and Germany.

MONTAGNE: He also gave us cinema's most famous campfire scene, composed almost entirely of cowboys sitting around farting.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, flatulating).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Gee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) How about some more beans, Mr. Taggart?

SLIM PICKENS: (As Taggart) I'd say you've had enough.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) And he brought us "The History Of The World: Part I."


MEL BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) The Inquisition.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Let's begin.

BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) The Inquisition.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Look out, sin.

BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) We have a mission to convert the Jews.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing) Ju, ju, ju, ju, ju, (ph), Jews.

MONTAGNE: Along the way, Mel Brooks made a lot of people laugh and cringe at the same time.

BROOKS: I'm just vulgar really (laughter), but I'm very proud of having bad taste.

MONTAGNE: And now, the actor, director, writer and all around funny guy is putting his taste on display in a new box set titled "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy."

BROOKS: It's a - just a mixture of some very good and very bad things that I've done.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) It's not entirely chronological, but it does have some things...

BROOKS: You said the right words.

MONTAGNE: It does have some...

BROOKS: Renee.


BROOKS: You said the right words because it's anarchy.

MONTAGNE: The thing is, Mel Brooks never intended to become a comedian. He was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1926. He studied psychology in college and served in the Army during World War II deactivating land mines. After the war, he returned to Brooklyn to start a career in business.

BROOKS: I was working for the Abilene Blouse and Dress Company, and my dream was one day to become a salesman. Everybody in my building - 365 South Third Street - aimed at some position - a salesmen, maybe a cutter, maybe a pattern maker, something in the garment center. I mean, we all aimed for Seventh Avenue.

MONTAGNE: Never to Broadway.

BROOKS: Broadway - but my Uncle Joe changed all that. If a cab came down the street without a driver, that was Uncle Joe because he was very short. And Joe was a good-natured cab driver, and all the Brooklyn doormen on Broadway, he would collect at 1 in the morning or so and take them back to wherever they lived. And the quid pro quo was in return they would give Joe tickets to Broadway shows that they were the doorman of. And Cole Porter had just opened his show - I think it was 1931 - and it was called "Anything Goes." So Joe got two tickets, and I sat up in the last balcony. But those songs (singing) all through the night, you're the top...

Can you imagine hearing them for the first time? All my dreams about being a salesman just replaced them with new dreams.

MONTAGNE: Those dreams took Mel Brooks, as he was soon known, to the resort hotels in New York's Catskill Mountains to try his hand at stand-up comedy on the Borscht Belt circuit.

BROOKS: The Jews used to flee, you know, go to the mountains in the summer because the city was simply too hot. They'd take up residence in these hotels, throw open the windows and say, breathe, breathe. It's $15 a day, breathe, they would yell at their families.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And I was...

MONTAGNE: So everyone was a comedian.

BROOKS: Everyone was a comedian.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of a typical Borscht Belt summer in Catskills joke.

BROOKS: Good evening, ladies and Jews (laughter). I met a girl yesterday. I met a girl. She was beautiful, but she was thin. This was a skinny girl, I got to tell you. She was so skinny, so thin, I took her to a restaurant, the waiter said, check your umbrella. That's how skinny she was. But I want to tell you - and I would just do that terrible - and I realized, gee, I could write better and more real material. And so I decided - I began writing my own material. And when I met Sid Caesar, I was ready to become a real comedy writer.

MONTAGNE: Sid Caesar was a comedic genius and a household name as host of a wildly popular variety show on TV.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Your show of shows, an hour and a half of top-notch entertainment.

MONTAGNE: In 1950, Mel Brooks joined Sid Caesar's "Your Show Of Shows" writing staff, which would, over time, include Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. After a few years, Brooks headed to Hollywood and eventually became known as the master of spoof.


MONTAGNE: He created the TV show "Get Smart" about a bumbling James Bond-like secret agent.


DON ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) Just a minute, chief. Isn't this top security?

EDWARD PLATT: (As Chief) Yeah.

ADAMS: (As Maxwell Smart) Well, shouldn't we activate the cone of silence.

PLATT: (As Chief) All right, Max. Hodgkins.

BRYAN O'BYRNE: (As Hodgkins) Yes, sir.

PLATT: (As Chief) Activate the cone of silence.

MONTAGNE: Mel Brooks took aim at Westerns in "Blazing Saddles." He put the laugh in horror with "Young Frankenstein." "Spaceballs" struck back at the force.


BROOKS: (As Yogurt) May the Schwartz be with you.

MONTAGNE: No matter the subject, you could always count on Mel Brooks for lots of jokes about Hitler, Jews, flatulence and curvacious women.

Is there anything you really, I mean, think you went too far?

BROOKS: On a few things, I think I was in bad taste. Maybe in "Blazing Saddles," but I don't mind it. I...

MONTAGNE: You mean the whole movie or just one moment?

BROOKS: No, no, the whole movie. The whole movie is in bad taste, but I like bad taste.

MONTAGNE: And it has won him an armful of awards - Emmys, Grammys, Tonys and an Oscar. His career spanned seven decades, 11 hours of which can be found on the new DVD set.

Is there any one thing, you know, that you think OK, you can just - if you just grab one moment off of it that is just really the most, the best or craziest or most precious moment?

BROOKS: I do a song with Ronny Graham called "Retreat" - that may be the best moment - about a cowardly general during the Napoleonic wars - (singing) retreat, retreat, drop your sword and run. The foe is near. Our chance is clear. Get out of here. Hooray for fear. We're done. Run away. Run away. If you run away, you'll live to run away another day.

And that song goes on. It's really - I'm very proud of that. There's a lot of stuff. I mean, it's just full of stuff. I can't - I mean, if you're a tasteless fool, you will adore this box set. Also I would - if I were you, I would bargain. It's a little too expensive now.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

BROOKS: I'd go to a store, like a Barnes and Noble. I would go to the store and say, can you do a little better? You know, can you - just a little better. Can you give it to me - I mean, it's $89. Can you give it to me for $79? I mean, it won't hurt you and it'll do me a lot of good. I mean, that's the way you bargain, you know (laughter)?

MONTAGNE: That is my interview a few years ago with Mel Brooks. And on this show, Steve, as you know, we laugh, we cry.

INSKEEP: Sometimes we laugh while crying, but go on.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow another favorite - the story behind an achingly beautiful recording of "Over The Rainbow."

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