A chat with the genius who brought us dancing monsters, the Schwartz, and the perfect fart joke.
In the early ’50s, you were a writer for Sid Caesar along with comedy gods like Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner. What was it like in the writers’ room?
Everybody could pick up a bat and hit a home run. It was an amazing place, but we still had to struggle to make sure Sid’s show was funny. Your Show of Shows was an hour and a half every week, and there were pantomimes, sketches, monologues, fake foreign movies…I don’t know how we did it! Nobody could do that now. No living writers could ever produce that and get real laughs, too. There were no fake laughs like there are today.
Is it true that The Producers was based on a true story?
When I was about 17, I worked for a guy—I won’t mention his name, because he has children and grandchildren—who used to make love to little old ladies on a cracked leather couch. He lived in his office, which was against the rules of the building. I was kind of his intern, because he never paid me much, but it was a thrill. I thought I was in show business! Anyway, he did what the characters in The Producers did on a very petty level. He’d raise maybe $1,000 more than he needed to put his production on, and then he lived on that money.
And the movie’s original title was Springtime for Hitler?
It was, yeah. I thought, What would send the Jews scurrying? I couldn’t use it, though, because I was told no one would put Hitler on a marquee. But the only time The Producers became a really big hit was on Broadway, as a musical. It never became a movie hit, ever.
Did George Lucas give you his blessing on Spaceballs?
He certainly did, but he gave me one incredibly big restriction: no action figures. He said, “Yours are going to look like mine.” I said OK.
Would you ever do a Spaceballs musical?
I don’t think so. It needs a big screen; it needs special effects. I do think Blazing Saddles would work onstage, though.
So can we expect a Blazing Saddles musical?
I’m thinking about it. I know there’s a great song in the Waco Kid explaining being black to the sheriff. “Why don’t they like me?” There’s a song in that.
Richard Pryor was one of the writers on Blazing Saddles. How was it working with him?
Oh, I’d known Richard since 1948 from dirty little clubs in Greenwich Village. We found each other. Comedy writers hang out with other comedy writers. Comedy is like a very strange disease. We know we’re afflicted, and we’re the only ones who understand each other.
Why wasn’t he in the movie?
I wanted Richard to be Black Bart, but I don’t know—he was doing drugs and they wouldn’t have him.
Do you think Blazing Saddles could get made today?
Never. The N-word alone would toss it out. But why not use it if these rednecks hated this black guy? How else could you express their hatred? “Oh, I hate that person of color.” It ain’t gonna work!
And it turned out to be your first hit.
People loved it. You know, I got an award at the Kennedy Center a few years ago, and President Obama said that when he was 12-years-old, he snuck in to see Blazing Saddles, and it was one of the great experiences of his life.
Do you have any favorite directors?
My favorites are dead, but if Judd Apatow makes a movie, I won’t miss it.
In your life, have you ever had any run-ins with the law?
When I was 9-years-old, I tried to steal a toy gun. I put it under my coat, and as I was leaving the store the manager grabbed me by the collar and said, “I’m going to call the police!” I didn’t know what to do, so I reached into my coat, pulled out the gun, and said, “Step back or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
So what do you think Hitler would say if he saw how you’ve portrayed him in your movies?
He’d say, “Dat guy is pretty talented, he does me good, ja. Spare him!”
"The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy" is on Blu-ray now.
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