Culture

America’s Comedy King Still Thrives At 90

NOTHING is sacred when Melvin James Kaminsky hits town. Kaminsky, better known as director/producer/writer/actor/outrageous comic Mel Brooks, is showing up all over the country at screenings of his groundbreaking off-the-wall 1974 film Blazing Saddles, which the late critic Roger Ebert described as “a crazed, grab-bag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.”

When the movie ends and the lights come up — Mel is unleashed. He’s already played the Kennedy Center, and recently showed up in Philadelphia and Hartford.

Mel Brooks

For more than 60 years he has plied his trade turning out sidesplitting comedies that have skewered every cinematic genre and topic known to man:  Westerns (Blazing Saddles), horror (Young Frankenstein), sci-fi (Spaceballs), Hitler (The Producers), legends (Robin Hood Men inTights). Not to mention world history in The History of the World Part 1 in which he plays five roles — plus writing, producing and directing.  Even Alfred Hitchcock got the Brooks treatment (in High Anxiety.)

Along the way he’s picked up a bagful of prizes: Oscars, Emmys Grammys. The auteur director is known also for his five Grammy-winning comedy albums stemming from The 2,000 Year Old Man which got its start in l961.  

“Mel is involved in controlled madness on his movies,” observes actress Madeline Kahn, a regular in many of his movies.

John Trembler, producer of Brooks’s live performances, puts it this way: “I’m totally in awe of him. He’s a unique force of nature with the energy of a man half his age.”

Trembler notes that Brooks’s passion never wanes. “He likes to come to the theater at the beginning of the movie and sit in the wings and listen to the audience. Then he shakes his head in disbelief because they are still laughing 40 years later.”

I talked by phone with the peripatetic Brooks who amazingly turned 90 on June 28.

How does it feel to get back in the saddle when you’re pushing 90?
I never got out of the saddle.  I’ve been busy. I’m going back to my first love, which is live theater. I started in the Borscht Belt when we did three or four items a week in a musical revue, a play, then amateur night. I was always busy onstage doing something. Writing sketches beginning on Broadway in l952 in a show called New Faces with Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde and Carol Lawrence.  I still get goosebumps when a Broadway orchestra strikes up.

What can we expect when you go on stage?
I kind of talk a lot. It’s a wandering trip through my life. The story of a poor kid from Brooklyn. How I came to be. Stories of being in the Army (as a combat engineer in World War II Germany), hearing a German platoon singing across the river—and me singing back Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye (the Al Jolson song) to straighten them out. Stories about the TV show Get Smart, and with the incredible Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, writing Your Show of Shows with Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.

I understand making Blazing Saddles wasn’t a cakewalk for you?
I quit the film once. Richard Pryor was to be Black Bart the sheriff, but the studio said no. Richard was having drug problems and wasn’t a proven star. But he persuaded me to do it without him. He said he wouldn’t get paid if the movie was cancelled. He helped me find Cleavon Little and said, “I’ll be good and get the laughs—but there’s no way I would scare those rednecks shitless like Cleavon could.”

Tell us about that legendary campfire scene? 
Blazing Saddles allowed me to be the lovely Rabelaisian vulgarian that I am. I mean those cowboys farting around the campfire allowed me for the first time to really exercise my scatological muscles. So we had a bunch of guys eating a lot of beans and delivering a mighty symphony orchestra—music in the wind!

What about your Indian Chief speaking Yiddish. Surely another first for a Western?
I didn’t want to do the clichéd Indian sounds —Hi Yoyo— and that sort of stuff. I was thinking that no one knew Yiddish so why not use it. My grandmother used to speak Yiddish to me when I was a kid in Brooklyn. At early screenings I saw that when there are Jews in the balcony there’s thunderous laughter when the Chief speaks.

Mel Brooks

Did you mother Kate speak Yiddish.
No. She came from Kiev but spoke with an Irish accent.

Irish? 
No. She went to grammar school in New York in l915—and all the teachers and politicians spoke with an Irish accent. It stuck.

Talk about your smash hit Broadway musical The Producers, which came 34 years after the movie opened.   Like Chaplin, you lacerated and lampooned Hitler.
It’s part of my heritage. No Chaplin, no Mel Brooks. You learn from the greats of the past. In Great Dictator Chaplin plays this little Jewish barber who is mistaken for the Fuhrer. He is beautiful, doing that ballet with the balloon as the globe of the world.

So you borrowed a leaf from the Chaplin playbook?
Yes. When Producers first came out the critics said it was totally tasteless.  Peter Sellers, the genius English actor, loved it and out of his own pocket paid for ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen. And the film was saved. Before that you couldn’t get arrested.

What drives you at 90?
I’m always doing something. I just played the Kennedy Center with this show and now I’m doing other venues. I’m re-energized…up and flying…around the stage. It’s very important. That’s my fuel, the basis of my energy, the laughter that comes flying back.  Sometimes the energy is so big that if I wore a hat it would blow away.