Our interviewer this month is satirist Larry Siegel. A regular contributor to PLAYBOY for the last eight years, he has written prolifically for "That Was the Week That Was" and other TV shows, and is co-author of the smash hit revue "The Mad Show." He is also a congenital liar. For whatever it’s worth, he writes of his subject:
"Our paths first crossed many years ego on the Lower East Side of New York. I ran into him in an apartment on Hester Street. He was standing near an open window, and there was a look of sadness in his face. ‘What troubles you, my little one?’ I asked him. ‘I’m thinking of committing suicide,’ he said simply. ‘From the window of a basement apartment?’ I asked. ‘I was planning to jump up,’ he replied. I liked him immediately: his bright sense of humor; his way with a song; his big, shiny eyes. ‘You’ll go places,’ I told him. He did. Today you know him as Flipper. But what of Mel Brooks, the brilliant comedy writer and performer? Where does the artist end and where does the legend begin? Where does the legend end and where does the man begin? Where does the man end and where does the woman begin?
"For years the world knew very little about Mel Brooks. Often during the late Fifties I would trudge over to the UN Building, interrupting General Assembly meetings to inquire, ‘What does the world know of Mel Brooks?’ ‘Very little,’ said Dag Hammarkjold. ‘Not much,’ said Henry Cabot Lodge. ‘Eat,’ said Golda Meir. Then the now-famous archaeological team of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, while digging recently off Coney Island for the lost city of Bayonne, New Jersey, came across the historic Sandy Hook Scrolls, and the pieces of the story began to fall into place, not necessarily in order of importance: ‘Mel Brooks… 39 years old… short, slender, galvanic, ferretlike… 1932 ring-a-levio champion of Atlantic Avenue… 2000-year-old man opposite Carl Reiner… co-creator of TV’s "Get Smart" … two-sewer stickball hitter… author-narrator of the Oscar-winning short subject "The Critic"… writer for Sid Caesar and other comics… notorious hide-and-seek home sticker… 2500-year-old brewmaster for Ballantine Beer… married to actress Anne Bancroft… father of the Pony Express…’ and so on.
"Shortly after the discovery of the Scrolls, I was contacted by PLAYBOY. My assignment: Interview Mel Brooks. ‘Why me?’ I inquired. ‘He hates people,.’ I was told, ‘but maybe he’ll talk to you.’ ‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘How do I contact him?’ ‘It won’t be easy,’ PLAYBOY warned. ‘Oh, an unlisted phone number?’ I inquired knowingly. ‘Yes,’ I was told. ‘But there are additional complications. It’s with an unlisted phone company.’
"Undaunted, I rented a loud-speaker truck and drove through the streets of New York blaring out the name: ‘Mel Brooks!’ Though this ploy failed to locate him, I was to learn later that Brooks received 40,000 write-in votes in the mayorality election. I next considered skywriting a message to him, only to discover that Pepsi-Cola had a ten-year option on the sky. I complained to God about this arrangement, and even went over His head to Lyndon Johnson. All to no avail. Personal messages from me to Brooks then followed – on fences, in gutters, on rest-room walls, in public phone booths.
"Finally one evening, on the corner of Lafayette and Houston Streets in Manhattan, I was accosted by a dwarf named Fingerhut. Saying, ‘I am the only human being who has seen Mel Brooks in the past ten years,’ he handed me a slip of paper with a telephone number on it and disappeared into the night. When I got Brooks on the phone, I could sense by the way he began the conversation that he wasn’t overly anxious to talk to me. ‘Hallo,’ he said in a thick Russian accent. ‘This is Aleksei Kosygin’s residence. Mr. Kosygin is not in.’ For several weeks I continued calling him, until finally I wore down his resistance: He consented to meet me outside a hardware store in Mamaroneck that coming Shrove Tuesday. ‘How will I recognize you?’ I asked. ‘You’ll have no trouble,’ he said. ‘I’ll be dressed like Joan Crawford.’ I accosted him, but as luck would have it, it turned out to be Joan Crawford.
"One hour later, as I was being booked for assault down at the station house, who should show up – looking lovely in a pink picture hat, wide-shouldered woolen dress and spiked heels – but Brooks himself, arrested for loitering in front of a Chicken Delight stand two blocks from our appointed rendezvous. ‘I got hungry waiting for you,’ he explained. The following interview – interrupted by visits from our lawyers, friends, relatives, reporters and a PLAYBOY photographer – was rapped out in Morse code (Irving’s, not Samuel’s_ on the walls of our cells."
PLAYBOY: Mel, we’d like to ask you –
BROOKS: Who’s we? I see one person in the room. Not counting me.
PLAYBOY: By "we" we mean PLAYBOY.
BROOKS: In other words, you’re asking questions for the entire sexually liberated PLAYBOY organization.
BROOKS: By the way, how much are you paying me for this?
PLAYBOY: We don’t pay our interview subjects.
BROOKS: How about you. Mr. We? Do you get paid for this thing?
PLAYBOY: Well, yes. But that’s because we’re employed by PLAYBOY. With the help of the editors, we prepare the questions and conduct the interview.
BROOKS: I’ll tell you what. I’ll ask you questions. Let them pay me.
PLAYBOY: Mel, can we being now?
BROOKS: Fine, do you gavotte?
PLAYBOY: Let’s sit this one out. You’ve recently completed a series of radio commercials as Ballantine Beer’s "2500-year old Brewmaster." It’s a character quite similar to your famous 2000-year-old man, in that once again you jog satirically through the pages of history. But the big difference is: Now you’re peddling beer. Why did you sell out to Madison Avenue, like they say?
BROOKS: I decided that I had given enough of myself to mankind. After all, my definitive 12-volume series on enlightened penology was completed; my staff and I had UNESCO running in apple-pie order; and of course I had just come up with the vaccine to wipe out cystic fibrosis. So I felt I could afford to allow myself a few monetary indulgences.
PLAYBOY: Why Madison Avenue?
BROOKS: Frankly, they made me the best offer.
PLAYBOY: What were some of the other offers you received?
BROOKS: Well, Fifth Avenue offered me $4000 a week, Lexington Avenue offered me $3500, and the Bowery’s offer was insulting.
PLAYBOY: Why Ballantine Beer?
BROOKS: They gave me carte blanche. I had complete script approval. Although, truthfully, we never used scripts. My interviewer, Dick Cavett, and I started with a premise and then winged it. We made all kinds of tapes, but they used only the ones we liked.
PLAYBOY: Do you enjoy working with Cavett as much as you do with Carl Reiner on your 2000-year-old man records?
BROOKS: They’re completely different types. Dick is a bright, young, incredibly gentile person, and the juxtaposition of texture – the gentile alongside the Jew – is very effective. Farshtey? By the way, I’m spectacularly Jewish.
PLAYBOY: We would never have guessed it.
PLAYBOY: Is the Jew-gentile juxtaposition the only reason you like working with Cavett?
BROOKS: Of course not, dummy. Dick is a marvelous foil for me. He’s innocent and guileless, and he just aches to be cut to pieces. He reacts beautifully during the interviews, especially when I call him "company rat," "pusher," "marshmallow," "fluffy," "sellout."
PLAYBOY: The Brewmaster has a thick German accent. The 2000-year-old man has a Jewish accent. Why do you use dialects when you perform?
BROOKS: It’s easier to hide behind accents. Once you’re playing a character you have more mobility , more freedom. I suppose it’s also cowardice on my part. I can say anything I want, and then if people question me, I say, "Don’t blame me. Blame the old Jew. He’s crazy."
PLAYBOY: Aren’t you a lot like your old boss, Sid Caesar, in this respect?
BROOKS: Yes. When I began working with Sid on Your Show of Shows, I noticed that he always had trouble expressing himself as Sid Caesar. So I’d always try to provide him with an accent or a character to hide behind. Once in character, Sid is the funniest man in the world.
PLAYBOY: What made you decide to give the 2000-year-old man a Jewish accent?
BROOKS: It’s not a Jewish accent. It’s an American-Jewish accent. And in 50 years it will disappear. I think it’ll be a great loss.
PLAYBOY: You’re obviously proud of being Jewish.
BROOKS: Proud and scared.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about the current Jewish kick in American humor?
BROOKS: Unless Jews do Jews accurately, I consider the whole thing to be in questionable taste.
PLAYBOY: Then the character of the 2000-year-old man is never in questionable taste?
BROOKS: I don’t think so. He may be pompous at times; he may be a nut, but he’s always honest and compelling. And the accent is always accurate.
PLAYBOY: Why are so many top comedians and comedy writers Jewish?
BROOKS: When the tall, blond Teutons have been nipping at your heels for thousands of years, you fint it enervating to keep wailing. So you make jokes. If you enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?
PLAYBOY: Mel, you’re co-creator of Get Smart. Since it violates every standard of tested TV comedy – a bumbling anti-hero, far-out satire, and so on – why is it so successful?
BROOKS: Id’ say because of a bumbling antihero, far-out satire, and so on.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean by "and so on"?
BROOKS: What do you mean by "and so on"?
PLAYBOY: Well, we meant that the public could identify with, and yet feel superior to, a nitwit like Maxwell Smart.
BROOKS: That’s what I meant.
PLAYBOY: How does a clod like Smart differ from the bird-brained protagonist in situation comedies such as Ozzie and Harriet?
BROOKS: Guys like Ozzie Nelson are lovable boobs. There’s nothing lovable about Don Adams’ Max Smart. He’s a dangerously earnest nitwit who deals in monumental goofs. He doesn’t trip over skates; he loses whole countries to the Communists.
PLAYBOY: And standard situations comedies, on the other hand, deal with dull people in petty situations?
BROOKS: Right. And in their supposedly true-to-life little episodes, they avoid anything approaching reality. For years I’ve always wanted to see and honest family TV series – maybe something called Half of Father Knows Best. The other half of him was paralyzed by a stroke in 19423 when he suspected we might lose the War.
PLAYBOY: In Get Smart you’re obviously not striving for realism.
BROOKS: Of course not. We’re doing a comic strip. Smart is a dedicated boob whose heart is in the right place, but whose brains are in his shoes. We don’t pretend that Smart himself or the situation he’s involved in is plausible. It’s the broadest kind of satire. It succeeds because it’s bright, witty, refreshing – and lucky enough to be on opposite lower rated shows.
PLAYBOY: Did you have any trouble selling the series to NBC?
BROOKS: Plenty. ABC put up the original money to develop the thing, but when we took them our first script, they thought it was too wild. They wanted something more "warm and lovable."
PLAYBOY: What did they mean by "warm and lovable"?
BROOKS: Who knows? Maybe a nice mother in a print dress, with undulant fever.
PLAYBOY: Did you make changes for them?
BROOKS: Yes, we figured we’d try to make them happy. So we threw in a dog. But they didn’t like it.
PLAYBOY: Why not?
BROOKS: The dog was asthmatic.
PLAYBOY: Why did they object to that?
BROOKS: I suppose they felt we might offend some important dogs.
PLAYBOY: Do you think Get Smart will spawn writer comedy series in the future?
BROOKS: There’s certainly an audience for them. Somewhere between those who sop up the gelatinous, brain-scrambling nonsense of Petticoat Junction and the intellectuals who catch Basic Hungarian at SIX A.M. is a vast segment of the population that wants intelligent entertainment. Without morals.
PLAYBOY: You mean the public wants amoral TV?
BROOKS: No, I mean they want TV without little sermons. For years The Danny Thomas Show was doing the Ten Commandments. Every episode had a little message to deliver: Don’t lie, don’t kill your neighbor, don’t covet your neighbor’s wife, don’t uncovet your neighbor’s wife…
PLAYBOY: Living in New York, with a hit TV show being filmed on the Coast, you must be doing a lot of traveling these days.
BROOKS: I spend a lot of time in L.A. on business, but I also travel for pleasure. I just got back from Europe.
PLAYBOY: How did you like it?
BROOKS: I love it. Europe is very near and dear to my heart. Would you like to see a picture of it?
PLAYBOY: You carry a picture of Europe?
BROOKS: Sure, right here in my wallet. Here it is.
PLAYBOY: It’s very nice.
BROOKS: Of course, Europe was a lot younger then. It’s really not a very good picture. Europe looks much better in person.
PLAYBOY: It’s a fine-looking continent.
BROOKS: It gives me a good deal of pleasure, but it’s always fighting, fighting. I tell you, I’ll be so happy when it finally settles down and gets married.
PLAYBOY: So will we. Mel, most celebrities are asked questions like, "Where do you get your ideas?": "Are you as funny off stage as you are on?" and so on. What question, asked of you by the public, bugs you the most?
BROOKS: The one you just asked.
PLAYBOY: Any others?
BROOKS: "How’s your beautiful wife?"
PLAYBOY: How do you answer it?
BROOKS: I say, "Haven’t you heard? Her nose fell off."
PLAYBOY: Your wife, Anne Bancroft, is certainly beautiful, and a very talented actress as well. She’s also very successful. Tell us frankly, Mel, is she making more money than you?
BROOKS: Right at this moment she is. She’s not sitting for free interviews.
PLAYBOY: You sure know how to hurt a guy. Were you this salty with your ex-partner, Carl Reiner?
BROOKS: Saltier and peppier.
PLAYBOY: What kind of a guy is Carl?
BROOKS: Haven’t you hear? His nose fell off.
PLAYBOY: What’s he like apart from that?
BROOKS: Carl Reiner is really a 43-year old woman who worked in a canning factory in Alaska, canning king crabs, only the legs. Well, one day Carl was fired for singing Arabic hymns and –
PLAYBOY: Thank you. Before the interview started, we were discussing with you some of the funniest bits you’ve done with Carl. We wanted to quote from some of them here, but unfortunately they just don’t come off in print, with out the Jewish accent. Do you think it would work if we printed your lines in Hebrew?
BROOKS: I doubt it. It might confuse your readers to see at the bottom of page 65 the words "continued on page 66."
PLAYBOY: Mel, there’s a rumor going around that you invented the popular expression "pussycat" on one of your records.
BROOKS: I didn’t invent it. It’s an old Jewish-American expression. When anyone was dear and sweet, they would call him a pussycat. But I think I was the first one to use it in show business. In our first 2000-year-old man record, Carl asked me if I knew Shakespeare. I said "What a pussycat he was! What a cute beard!"
PLAYBOY: Have you thought up a new expression to replace "pussycat"?
BROOKS: Yes, I have. "Water rat." "Look at him. What a nice water rat!" You know something? It doesn’t work as well as "pussycat."
PLAYBOY: You’re right. Can you think of any other funny expressions?
BROOKS: "Confusion to the French."
PLAYBOY: What the hell is that?
BROOKS: It was a toast that Horatio Hornblower used aboard his flagship. It’s always been one of my favorite. Good old Horatio! What a water rat.
PLAYBOY: That still doesn’t make it.
BROOKS: I guess not.
PLAYBOY: In 1962 you wrote the book for a Broadway musical called All American. What happened to it?
BROOKS: We had an unfortunate stroke of luck. It opened in New York when there was no newspaper strike.
PLAYBOY: The critics didn’t like it?
BROOKS: Nobody liked it. The script was adapted from a book by Robert Lewis Taylor. It was about a European immigrant with a dream in his heart. In this dream – it should have been an attack.
PLAYBOY: We gather you’re disenchanted with Broadway.
BROOKS: Not really, but I learned something, and I’ll offer it free of charge to all would-be playwrights: Be very careful about selecting your director. Once he takes over, you’ve got nothing to say. The Dramatists Guild, your mother your aunt Sadie and God can’t help you. The director is the king – and in many cases, the queen.
PLAYBOY: Would you like to be a director yourself?
BROOKS: I’d love to be one. I think I’d be a great comedy director. As a matter of fact, I have just finished a screenplay called Marriage Is a Dirty, Rotten Fraud. I’d like very much to direct it.
PLAYBOY: Is it based on your own personal experience?
BROOKS: Is it based on a very important conversation I overheard once while waiting for a bus at the Dixie Hotel terminal.
PLAYBOY: What are the chances of a studio assigning you to direct it?
BROOKS: Very, very good. Well, let me amend that slightly: None.
PLAYBOY: What else are you working on?
BROOKS: Springtime for Hitler.
PLAYBOY: You’re putting us on.
BROOKS: No, it’s the God’s honest truth. It’s going to be a play within a play, or a play within a film – I haven’t decided yet. It’s a romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. There was a whole nice side of Hitler. He was a good dancer – no one knows that. He loved a parakeet named Bob – no one knows that either. It’s all brought out in the play.
PLAYBOY: Enough of Hitler. Tell us how "The Mel Brooks Story" began.
BROOKS: I was the baby in the family. My job was to keep everybody amused and happy, and I was always content to be the family clown.
PLAYBOY: What did you think you’d be when you grew older?
PLAYBOY: You didn’t make it, did you?
BROOKS: What do you mean? I’m five-seven. My three brothers are all shorter than I am. At family reunions they call me "Stretch."
PLAYBOY: What was the first funny thing you ever said?
BROOKS: "Lieutenant Faversham’s attentions to my wife were of such a nature I was forced to deal him a lesson in manners."
PLAYBOY: That’s pretty funny. Do you recall to whom you said that?
BROOKS: Very vividly. It was an elderly Jewish woman carrying an oilcloth shopping bag on the Brighton Beach Express.
PLAYBOY: What was her reaction to the remark?
PLAYBOY: Many comics and comedy writers seldom laugh at other people’s material. How about you?
BROOKS: It’s very hard to get me to laugh at a comic. What I want is something really funny. But how can I verbalize what I think is really funny? Now, Harry Ritz of the Ritz brothers – there’s someone who makes me laugh. To me he is the father of modern American visual comedy. He sired Caesar, Berle, Lewis, all of them. Jonathan Winters is another guy who can break me up.
PLAYBOY: But he’s a gentile.
BROOKS: I love gentiles. In fact, one of my favorite activities is Protestant spotting.
PLAYBOY: How do you do that?
BROOKS: It’s not difficult. First you look for a family, the members of which address each other as "Mother" and "Dad." What I mean is, the father calls the mother "Mother" and the mother calls the father "Dad." Not just the kids.
PLAYBOY: Are they easy to spot?
BROOKS: Oh yes, they’re always in a white Ford station wagon filled with hundreds of jars of mayonnaise and tons of white bread. Say, who’s that guy that just walked into the room with a camera?
PLAYBOY: That’s one of our photographers. He’s going to take a few shots of you to run with the interviews.
BROOKS: Should I undress?
PLAYBOY: It’s not for the gatefold, Mel. You’ll be shot fully dressed. But while we’re on the subject, do you think there’s a sexual revolution going on in this country?
BROOKS: Yes, I do think there’s a sexual revolution going on, and I think that with our current foreign policy, we’ll probably be sending troops in there any minute to break it up.
PLAYBOY: In where?
BROOKS: How do I know? We always send in troops when there is a revolution.
PLAYBOY: We hate to get personal, but, speaking of sex, why haven’t you asked us to introduce you to a Playmate or a Bunny?
BROOKS: Three reasons: It would be impolite; it would be beneath my dignity; and besides, I’m a fag. Anyway, the trouble with Playmates and Bunnies is that they’re too openly sexy and clean-cut. I’ve been taught ever since I was a kid that sex is filthy and forbidden, and that’s the way I think it should be. The filthier and more forbidden it is, the more exciting it is.
PLAYBOY: By those criteria, can you give us an example of someone you consider sexy?
BROOKS: To me anyone is sexy if they’re not obvious about it. A 71-year-old man in a fur collar and spats could be enormously sexy under the right circumstances.
PLAYBOY: What would be the right circumstances?
BROOKS: Well, if you’re in the moonlight, if you’re by a lazy lagoon – and if you’re a 71-year-old woman in a fur collar and spats.
PLAYBOY: People who know you say that you’re often brash, rude and brutally direct. Are they right?
BROOKS: That’s not true.
PLAYBOY: Sorry about that, Mel. We’ll never mention it again.
BROOKS: Please don’t, or I’ll kill you.
BROOKS: All right, I am often brash, rude and brutally direct. Someday I’m going to die and I don’t have time to toe-dangle around the periphery of hatred.
PLAYBOY: It is true that you’re always on?
BROOKS: No, I’m only on when the people I’m with are worth it. If they’re superperceptive. Or if they’re just good.
PLAYBOY: Which would you rather do – perform or write?
BROOKS: Performing is easier. Writing is more durable.
PLAYBOY: We usually wind up our interviews with a question like this one. What do you think will prove to be the most important legacy of our age?
BROOKS: Carl Reiner once asked me a similar question on one of our records and in jocular fashion I said, Saran Wrap. But I’ve become a lot more mature since then. I suppose I’ve also grown with the times.
PLAYBOY: So now what do you think will prove to be the most important legacy of our age?
BROOKS: Glad Bags.
PLAYBOY: One last question, Mel: We understand you’re living in a fairly old but comfortable New York town house –
BROOKS: That’s right. Would you like to see a picture of it? It doesn’t look anything like Europe.
PLAYBOY: Maybe some other time. One question is: How do you feel about the ban renewal and the destruction of beautiful old buildings and landmarks.
BROOKS: The way I see it, progress is progress. The old has to make way for the new. I understand there’s a renewal bill for people up in Congress right now.
BROOKS: Yes, they want to establish a new Federal agency called, I believe, the department of People Renewal. Agents from the department would be assigned to walk through the streets of our city inspecting old people. Those that look particularly tired and useless will have "Condemned" signs hung around their necks. The signs will say something like "This person is being demolished to make way for a modern, new baby."
PLAYBOY: That sounds rather heartless tearing down an old person like that.
BROOKS: Well, they won’t tear him down immediately. He’ll have time to see to his affairs first. Of course, he’ll have to do it with an X painted across his face.
PLAYBOY: Well, Mel, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.
BROOKS: I would have been much happier gavotting.
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