Most people are afraid of death, but I really hate it! My humor is a scream and a protest against goodbye. Why do we have to die? As a kid, you get nice little white shoes with white laces and a velvet suit with short pants and a nice collar, and you go to college, you meet a nice girl and get married, work a few years—and then you have to die? What is that shit? They never wrote that in the contract. So you yell against it, and if you yell seriously, you can be a serious playwright and everybody can say, “Very nice.” But I suspect you can launch a little better artillery against death with humor.
Tolstoy writes like an ocean, in huge, rolling waves, and it doesn’t look like it was processed through his thinking. It feels very natural. You don’t question whether Tolstoy’s right or wrong. His philosophy is housed in interrelating characters, so it’s not up for grabs.
But I intend to rob him again someday, ladies and gentlemen, because robbing Howie is what I do best.
What can I tell you? Some critics are emotionally desiccated, personally about as attractive as a year-old peach in a single girl’s refrigerator. It’s easy to say shit is shit, and it should be said. But the real function of a critic is to see what is truly good and go bananas when he sees it.
The scene takes place in the dark. “Is it twue vot zey say,” Madeline asks him seductively, “about how you people are built?” Then you hear a zipper. Then you hear her say, “Oh! It’s twue! It’s twue! It’s twue!” That much is in the picture. But then comes the line we cut. Cleavon says, “Excuse me, ma’am. I hate to disillusion you, but you’re sucking my arm.”
Brooks: [...] Tolstoy writes like an ocean, in huge, rolling waves, and it doesn’t look like it was processed through his thinking. It feels very natural. You don’t question whether Tolstoy’s right or wrong. His philosophy is housed in interrelating characters, so it’s not up for grabs. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, you can dispute philosophical points with, but he’s good, too. The Brothers Karamazov ain’t chopped liver.
Playboy: What about Gogol?
Brooks: Now you’ve said it. Perfect. Comedy and humanity, and he knew what he was talking about. Dead Souls is a masterpiece. I love Gogol’s great eye for idiot behavior. Gogol said that life is so tragic, so stupendously sad that we’d better laugh a lot and enjoy ourselves. You either get a sense of humor going or you go under.
The worst thing was when a woman killed herself by leaping from the roof of a building at South Fifth Street and Hooper. It was a mess, terrible, they had a sheet over her, police cars all around. We all ran to see; it was like a neighborhood panic. Tragedy, everybody! Anyway, that night my mother had decided to work late, but I didn’t know that. So when I got to the body, I saw these shoes sticking out from under the sheet and they looked awfully like my mother’s shoes. God, that was the worst moment I ever experienced. I just stood there and the whole bottom fell out of my life. Then my friend Izzie made a tasteless joke: He said it couldn’t be my mother, because my mother was so heavy she would have broken the sidewalk. But you know, it helped a little bit, it really did. I said, “Yeah, that’s right. The legs are skinny.” It gave me a little hope, just a little. But oh, God, those hours while I sweated it out until I saw my mother! I ran up to her and threw myself upon her. “Why are you hugging my leg? Let me up the stairs!” Such relief! Incredible! It was a magic moment.
But I’m pretty sure my need to have my male characters come together and be close is not some sort of a sexual need I’ve displaced into these people. I think it goes back a lot further than sex. All the way back to my father, whom I never really knew and can’t remember. I can’t tell you what sadness, what pain it is to me never to have known my own father, who died when I was two and a half. All I know is what they’ve told me. He was lively, peppy, sang well. Isn’t it sad that that’s all a son should know about his father? If only I could look at him, touch his face, see if he had eyebrows! Maybe in having the male characters in my movies find each other, I’m expressing the longing I feel to find my father and be close to him.
Playboy: Hmm. And how did you direct Feldman as Igor?
Brooks: First I tried to find out where he was looking. His eyes stare in about 19 different directions. They look like hard-boiled eggs that somebody painted eyeballs on and didn’t paint them on right. So first I’d get in the path of his vision and try to signal him down. Then I’d say, “Marty, be very good.” He’d say, “All right.” And he was. After Marty, there will never be another Igor. They’ll have to retire the part. He’s it.
When I went to Yugoslavia, my hair was black. When I came back, nine months later, it was gray. Truly. To begin with, it’s a very long flight to Yugoslavia and you land in a field of full-grown corn. They figure it cushions the landing. The first thing they tell you is that the water is death. The only safe thing to drink is Kieselavoda, which is a mild laxative. In nine months, I lost 71 pounds. Now, at night, you can’t do anything, because all of Belgrade is lit by a ten-watt bulb, and you can’t go anywhere, because Tito has the car. It was a beauty, a green ‘38 Dodge. And the food in Yugoslavia is either very good or very bad. One day we arrived on location late and starving and they served us fried chains. When we got to our hotel rooms, mosquitoes as big as George Foreman were waiting for us. They were sitting in armchairs with their legs crossed.
The Yugoslav crew was very nice and helpful, but you had to be careful. One day in a fit of pique, I hurled my director’s chair into the Adriatic. Suddenly I heard “Halugchik! Kakdivmyechisny bogdanblostrov!” On all sides, angry voices were heard and clenched fists were raised. “The vorkers,” I was informed, “have announced to strike!” “But why?” “You have destroyed the People’s chair!” “But it’s mine! It says Mel Brooks on it!” “In Yugoslavia, everything is property of People.” So we had a meeting, poured a lot of vodka, got drunk, started to cry and sing and kiss each other. Wonderful people! If they had another ten-watt bulb, I’d go there to live.
Playboy: And Blazing Saddles was designed to hit ‘em over the head.
Brooks: No. Actually, it was designed as an esoteric little picture. We wrote it for two weirdos in the balcony. For radicals, film nuts, guys who draw on the washroom wall—my kind of people. I had no idea middle America would see it. What would a guy who talks about white bread, white Ford station wagons, and vanilla milkshakes on Friday night see in that meshugaas?
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