This interview originally ran in 2017. We’re re-running it in celebration of Mel Brooks’ 95th birthday.
In the exclusive club of EGOT winners—entertainers with an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony to their names—Mel Brooks is almost certainly the only one to stage a scene frequently described as a “symphony of flatulence.” (Though maybe there’s something in the Marvin Hamlisch oeuvre we’re overlooking.) The 90-year-old Brooks holds fast to the opinion that the movie that produced all that gas, 1974’s Blazing Saddles, is the funniest ever made, and he’s been gathering evidence on this hypothesis by hosting a cross-country series of screenings in recent years. Brooks and his film—a silly-smart, taboo-testing satire in which a black sheriff (Cleavon Little) and the hard-drinking, fastest gun in the West (Gene Wilder) outwit scheming bureaucrats and tyrannical cowhands, winning the hearts of a “twue”-hearted showgirl (Madeline Kahn) and the local yokels—make their next appearance at the Riot LA comedy festival, appearing at the Microsoft Theater on Friday, January 20. There’s supposedly another event of global import occurring that day, which Brooks discussed in a wide-ranging discussion with The A.V. Club that also touched on his headline-grabbing (but not pants-grabbing) interaction with the current president and his plan to prove, once and for all, that Blazing Saddles has more laughs in it than any other motion picture.
Mel Brooks: So, A.V.—I like that. You’re making fun of when we were in high school. So, you print? You’re talking to a caveman. So, it’s like online, which means that people with computers get it, right?
The A.V. Club: Exactly. People with computers or smartphones.
MB: What about me? I have a flip phone. Would I get it?
AVC: Can your flip phone access the internet?
MB: Oh, no no. No, I can barely get information or voicemail with my flip phone. Maybe I have it to protect myself from getting calls, from being in the mix, from being buzzed, from being too taken away from my black and white pictures, you know? From It Happened One Night, which is all I want to see. I only want to see It’s A Wonderful Life and It Happened One Night. I’m not into any other movies. And Random Harvest with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. Have you ever heard of that MGM movie? I want you to see it. You’ve got to see that movie.
AVC: What makes you recommend it?
MB: It’s a great story. It’s a simple, beautifully crafted story. It’s a story of a World War I, shell-shocked person, who was a captain, and he’s in an institution. And what happens is, they leave the door open to the asylum, to the institution. And he drifts out without realizing it. And he’s in the mix in this tiny little town, has my name in it: Melbridge. And Greer Garson sees him in a cigarette shop, and she sees that he’s hesitating and that he has trouble speaking about which brand of cigarettes because he’s been out of it for so long. She just takes him in her care, and she takes him into her theater, and she does an amazing—Harry Lauder. You’ve never heard of Harry Lauder; you’re too young. But there was a great Scotch comedian, a Scotsman who was able to sing and dance and do Scottish jokes, and she does an impression of him singing and dancing. [Colman] faints, she comes back to her dressing room, she puts him in bed, she gets a doctor, she gets some care for him. It goes on and on. Anyways, she kind of falls in love with this guy, and he needs her. She’s so necessary. She’s everything in his life. He doesn’t want to go back to the asylum. They go to some village somewhere, and she keeps doing shows and supporting them, just like [Brooks’ late wife, Anne Bancroft] did for me. After Your Show Of Shows was over, I leaned on Anne, and she supported me. And it was the great years. Maybe that’s why I liked this so much.
It’s 1942, [directed] by Mervyn LeRoy, whose house I bought when I made it with Blazing Saddles. I didn’t have any money. I was poor. But the first check with Blazing Saddles was like $340,000. It was amazing. I took it to Malibu, and I bought Mervyn LeRoy’s house, which was up for sale right on the beach.
AVC: Were you a fan of Random Harvest when you bought Mervyn LeRoy’s house?
MB: I am the No. 1 fan, me? No, I am not. Carl Reiner is the No. 1 fan. Carl Reiner sees it every other night. But I avoid the nights he sees it. And strangely enough, there is a photo of me as President Skroob in Spaceballs with my mustache that looks somewhat like Ronald Colman.
AVC: I’m looking at a picture of Colman right now, and I can definitely see how Skroob would—
MB: Look at me in Spaceballs! Look at President Skroob! You’ll see. I was aiming for Ronald Colman.
Anyways, tell everybody on January 20th, the inauguration of our new president, that there’s a chaser in it if they watch me at the Microsoft Theater that night.
AVC: How do you feel about the timing of this Blazing Saddles screening and the inauguration?
MB: It would have been better to have my own night, my own celebration, but I’ve done something here. I forget. I did Thousand Oaks. And that was very big and successful, so I’ve covered L.A., and it’s too big of a house. Although, if I might brag for a minute, I did, only two months ago, sell out and do the same “Blazing Saddles and Mel Brooks in person” at Radio City Musical Hall, and it was, believe it or not, sold out. Erik. Sold out. You can’t sell out Radio City Music Hall. It’s like 6,000 seats or something.
AVC: Had you ever played Radio City before that?
MB: No. Never, never. I mean, when I was a kid, I didn’t have the money to go there. It was like five bucks or something. But it was really, actually, seriously thrilling to be on the stage and to see this incredible, vast cavern filled with thousands and thousands of people.
AVC: What does that many people laughing sound like?
MB: It sounds like a 155mm howitzer blasting you back when you get a big laugh. The air, literally, from Radio City, blasted me back. I had to get my bearings and trudge back to the front of the stage where I could see some faces. But it was thrilling. There’s more warmth and true emotional feelings when I did my first HBO special with the same basic material at the Geffen theater. I was surrounded by 500 people, and you could see their faces, their reactions, and that’s emotionally more rewarding than Radio City Music Hall, where the word is “thrilling.” That was thrilling.
This is big stuff. I was thrilled recently when Obama put that medal around my neck. It’s the National Medal Of Arts. It’s very big. It’s very round. It’s very heavy. And he put it around my neck and held my shoulder. And then—I was kidding—I made believe it was so heavy that I dropped and grabbed him. Everybody thought I was trying to take his pants down. No, no. I have some measure of intelligence and taste, you know. But I like him. I met him before when I did the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009. I’m going to really miss him. Not because we have a new president, but because he was such a great president. He was such a great guy and such a human president, you know?
AVC: He’s so kind and warm and compassionate and an orator. That’s what we’re losing.
MB: Right. I grew up—I didn’t know Roosevelt was president. I thought it was arcane. I thought, that’s it. As long as you’re alive, he’s there. He’s our president. And I told my mother—when I was 4 years old and had a little flag and he passed the Grand extension of Brooklyn to go over the Williamsburg Bridge in an open car—I said, “Mommy, he looked at me and smiled. He saw me!” [Laughs.] I’m sure every little kid thinks that. So, Roosevelt was very important to me. Later in life, Eleanor Roosevelt was even more important to me. And then there was a long wait. I didn’t hear about any of the other presidents until Kennedy, and he got me. He was such a leader and so real. And then I didn’t care. I wasn’t mostly involved. I respected and was like, “That’s good. That’s bad. That’s good.” Clinton was good. That’s good. I really liked him. I knew him. Good. But I didn’t get that feeling—the Roosevelt, Kennedy feeling—until Obama, and then I really got it again. Our leader. Our father.
AVC: What was important to you about Eleanor Roosevelt?
MB: I learned a little bit about her after the war in the ’50s, and I really became attached to that figure, that person who is so wise and so caring. She was a great person, and she meant a lot to me.
I was a corporal during World War II. I was there, I was shooting, I was ducking. But, you know, I had eight guys I had to worry about. I was a real corporal, not a T5. Get that right. There are a lot of corporals that have a T underneath the two stripes. That’s bullshit. They’re technical people. They’re in offices—they’re hitting typewriters or they’re talking on a telephone. I was there with a rifle and a helmet in the mud, in the snow, ducking, crying. [Laughs.] I used to make [the guys in my squad] laugh. We couldn’t light a fire. It was against the law, because the Germans could see a fire. You had to be careful. So I would go out, and I would scream into the night air, [Feigns yelling.] “Okay, Ma! Okay, why don’t you call me up now! It’s after 10! Why don’t you call me up, so I can have some beans and franks and the radiator! And call me! Why don’t you call me now?!” And they used to crack up—half crying, half laughing, you know? My mother used to, at 10 o’clock, stick her head out the window and, “Come on up. It’s late!”
AVC: There’s that story about you singing Al Jolson to the Germans over the radio.
MB: I did. I did. I sang “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye.” I think I got applause. I think they said [In German accent.] “Yeah, good, ya ya ya.” They liked it. It was Christmas. They were singing some song like [Sings in German accent.] I heard it from the other side of the river. I took up a big bullhorn, and I aimed it from where I heard the Germans, and I sang, “Toot toot tootsie, goodbye / Don’t cry, tootie, don’t cry.” By the end of it they said, “Ya ya, very good, ya.” [Laughs.] They liked it.
AVC: Of all the films you directed, what makes Blazing Saddles the right movie to present in this way, with the screening and the talk afterward?
MB: Well, look, I made a lot of movies that I like. My personal favorites might be The Twelve Chairs or Life Stinks, but in all reality, it’s not important that I see them with a thousand-person audience. It’s critical, it’s so important, that I see Blazing Saddles with a big, big audience, because it deserves the laughter that it gets. It’s a brave movie. When you have lines in a movie like, “Okay, okay. We’ll take the niggers and the chinks but we DON’T WANT THE IRISH!” You know that deserves a big audience, you know?
There’s a guy named Bob Gazzale who runs the American Film Institute. And I’ve called him, and I said, “Look. I’m challenging [your list of funniest movies]. I’m challenging Some Like It Hot as the No. 1 funniest comedy in America. I think Blazing Saddles is the No. 1 funniest movie ever made anywhere at any time. There’s no movie that’s funnier than Blazing Saddles—even Big Deal On Madonna Street, which is one of my favorite comedies of all time. And we’ll prove it. We’ll put Some Like It Hot on, we’ll tape it with a big audience at the Chinese Theatre, and then we’ll put on Blazing Saddles, and we’ll count the laughs. And believe me, we will be 3:1 in laughter and screams. So, we’re going to do that in a month or two. He said, “Okay. You’re on.” And I loved Billy Wilder. I loved him.
AVC: You mentioned the bravery of Blazing Saddles. What was it like to be writing a comedy that tackled race relations at a time that was not so far removed from the civil rights movement? That had to feel like you were breaking some taboos there.
MB: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, we were. I had Richard Pryor, who was one of my best friends. We were kids together in the Village—he worked the Bitter End, I would do the Village Vanguard, and after that, we’d have a drink or a cup of coffee together and talk about the audiences. He was my friend since I was, like, 22 years old, and we really loved each other. He was by my side. I said, “Look. I won’t do [Blazing Saddles] unless you write it with me. I need a black guy to validate to say, ‘Yes, you can use the N-word here.’” I said, “I won’t say it.” So he helped write. Strangely enough, he fell in love with the character of Mongo.
AVC: Do you know why he gravitated toward that character?
MB: I have no idea. I think he liked the switch in Mongo, the turn of a bully into a good guy, where Mongo saw the light and became good. He liked that. And maybe—my own private thought—was that one day, maybe that a white man would not really see the difference between skin colors. Maybe that was in Mongo somewhere. But Richard was no help. Every time I said, “Should we use the N-word?” He said, “You must! Yes!” He never said no. I could have done it without him. [Laughs.]
I wanted [Pryor] to play Bart and Warner Bros. said, “No. He’s been arrested. Drugs. We can’t get the insurance. Can’t be in it.” I said, “Okay, I quit.” Then Richard said, “No, no, no, I have two more payments coming as a writer. Don’t quit. Make the movie, make the movie.” I made it because of him.
AVC: This is your first movie that parodied a specific style of film. What was that experience like and what did you take from it that you could apply to Young Frankenstein or High Anxiety and your other stylistic parodies?
MB: I saw that all the movie clichés were understood. Sitting around a campfire, swilling beans, farting—all the Western clichés helped the movie, worked for the movie. And I said, “James Whale and all the Frankenstein movies. Everything in those movies is going to work as a wonderful backdrop to help the comedy. All you gotta do is do it seriously as Frankenstein. Do it very seriously, and just at times twist it or break the fourth wall or tell the audience what you’re doing.” And it works. It’s been a career for me. I did it in Spaceballs. I sent it to [George] Lucas, and Lucas says, “You’ve done this seriously, but you’ve twisted it every time you wanted a laugh.” He said, “You’ve got my blessing.” Literally, he says, “I enjoyed the merchandising scene. It’s a very funny scene but you cannot actually do merchandising, because our characters look like your characters. And you can’t take that away.” And I said, “Okay, okay. You got that.” And now he’s building a big museum here.
AVC: There was talk about making Blazing Saddles into a stage musical. Is that still a possibility?
MB: I don’t know. It’s a good possibility. It’s almost a musical. There’s, like, six songs in it already. I could take “The French Mistake” at the end of Blazing Saddles and make that an incredible finale and just keep doing three or four big choruses of it. “I’m Tired” is a great song. I mean, I wrote it. I shouldn’t say that, but it really is. And the theme, [Sings.] “He rode a blazing saddle,” it’s great. I could do it all over the place. All I have to do is come up with three or four more songs, and then I’d have it. Because when you say musical comedy, you’ve got to have music. You’ve got to have plenty of good music. You’ve got to have beautiful gals and great dancing, and you’ve got to have Susan Stroman to give you these big, beautiful production numbers that she can do.
AVC: But who could do Marlene Dietrich as well as Madeline Kahn did?
MB: Erik, that may be my stumbling part. I don’t know if I could find anybody. I don’t think I could find anybody to do that. I don’t think I could. But you never know.
I didn’t know Madeline Kahn until I met her. Let me tell you a story. So Madeline Kahn comes, and she auditions. And I’d seen her in Once Upon A Mattress or something, off-Broadway, and I know she can do that German. She did it in her act. I know she’s the one. So she auditions, and she actually sings the song off the top of her head, a cappella. And she’s incredible. It’s incredible. She’s so funny. I said, “You’ve got the job, except for one thing.” I said, “Raise your skirt. I want to see your legs.” She says, “Oh, it’s that kind of audition.” I said, “No, no. You’ve gotta straddle a chair [like Dietrich in Destry Rides Again], your legs have to be good.” So she straddles the chair in my office, and she hikes her skirt up, and she shows her legs, and they are gorgeous. And I said, “Okay. You’ve got the job. I’m going to send you every change of script, and we’ll be working together.” And then she leaves, and I say to myself, after I remember her legs, I said, “Why couldn’t it have been one of those auditions?” [Laughs.] She was so beautiful. Why did I let her go? But anyway.
AVC: And how did Anne feel about this?
MB: Well, I never told anybody. I’m only telling you. Keep your mouth shut.
AVC: [Laughs.] Okay. The lips are zipped.
MB: But you can tell your customers. I don’t care.
AVC: Let’s talk about the “You know: morons” sequence. Bart’s first interactions with the people of Rock Ridge have not gone well. Jim’s trying to cheer him up, and the way Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder are blocked, Wilder is talking to Little from over his shoulder, and Little is looking into the camera. He’s staring directly into the heart of the audience while Wilder is saying words that could apply to present-day prejudices as much as those held by the citizens of Rock Ridge. Was it important to you to get that across with the way the actors were blocked?
MB: You’re very wise, because I said to Cleavon, “Don’t look at him. Just look out and think. Look at the camera and think. We’re busting the fourth wall a little bit, but you’re getting to your broken heart and the audience. And then Gene’s punchline is going to be better.”
Richard and I auditioned a lot of guys to be the black sheriff, and then this guy from Broadway, kind of a serious stage actor—Cleavon—comes on, and his timing was so damn beautiful. And we just looked at each other and said, “Wow. That’s the guy.” And Richard said, “He’s really black. This is so good. I could be Cuban. Look at my mustache. I’m coffee-colored. Give me a Spanish accent. I could be Cuban.” He says, “But this guy is black. He’ll scare the shit out of that town.” And Cleavon added so much class. The Johnsons were just crude. A bunch of shitheads, a bunch of rednecks. Cleavon really classed up the movie.
Another thing I’m really proud of: Instead of background music, I did foreground music. I got Count Basie and his band to play “April In Paris” and hit Cleavon off when he came in on that palomino. That was a stroke of genius.
AVC: What was it like setting up that orchestra stand in the middle of that prairie?
MB: Everybody thought we were crazy. We were in the Antelope Valley, and people came from every town around there, and they couldn’t believe it. We roped off, and they played. Of course, I used the original production, but they played. He had most of his orchestra there, and they played, [Hums the refrain from “April In Paris.”] It filled the desert with this crazy, big, beautiful big-band sound.
It’s the greatest movie ever made. I’m not saying it’s the best. It may not be the best movie ever made. But it’s the greatest movie. It’s as good as The Sign Of The Cross or anything Cecil B. DeMille ever did, you know? It really is big stuff, you know? It always works. I always watch it from the beginning. I find a seat in the back of the house, or if there isn’t one, I look through the curtains at the back, and I watch the audience, and sometimes they’re really a little crazy. Like the last time I saw it, at Radio City Music Hall, some guy stood up and said, “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes,” even before Slim Pickens said it on screen. It was hysterical. And they sang along with Lili Von Shtupp.
AVC: Throughout your career, you formed so many lasting creative partnerships, whether it was with Gene or Carl or Madeline. To what do you attribute that ability?
MB: You know what it is? I love and like a lot of people. Like you say, Gene: It’s really recognizing the exquisite talent in another person and saluting it. Like with Gene or with Madeline or with Carl Reiner, who has been my buddy for 50 years. We’re pals. We get each other. We understand. Madeline and I got each other. Gene and I literally got each other. And Gene said to me, “I’ll do Young Frankenstein on one condition. That you’re not in it.” [Laughs.] I said, “What the hell?” He said, “Because you break too many fourth walls, and I want this to be a little more accurate.” I said, “Okay, you got it.”
AVC: You can see that in his Blazing Saddles performance. He’s so locked in to playing Jim.
MB: Yeah, he’s so real. Yeah. And we had an ending. The first ending was, “So you’re off to other towns. Can I join you?” “Yeah, okay.” And then Gene said, “Could you write something a little more touching?” I said, “I don’t want anything too touching—it’s the last thing in the movie.” I said, “We’ve got a good ending. We’re going into the sunset—we end up with a limousine instead of horses. The ultimate fourth wall we break.” That night I got a pencil and a legal pad. I wrote and wrote and couldn’t get anything. Finally I wrote. I gave Gene the popcorn from the movie. He has it in his hands. And Cleavon goes by with his horse, and I wrote that Gene says, “Where ya headed, cowboy?” And then Cleavon says, “Nowhere special.” And then Gene says, “Nowhere special. Always wanted to go there.” So he says, “Okay. Come on.” So he gets on his horse. And that was better. I gave that to Gene, and Gene loved it. He said, “Oh, this is good. Yeah, this will work.” The only thing was, they fought at the car about who would go in first, and instead of doing another take, I said, “What the hell.” I let them have that fight at the door of the limo. I was a hundred miles away anyways. It was good, all good.
Give me another question, and then get out of my life, Erik.
AVC: [Laughs.] All right, all right. In your career, you’ve done so much to tackle very sensitive issues and find humor in pain and do a really good job of ridiculing hatred and ignorance, things that seem to be creeping back into the mainstream not only in America, but worldwide. What can comedians do to fight against that?
MB: Well, you know what, they can address issues. For instance, I didn’t know anything about those black women [in Hidden Figures], especially the math genius who John Glenn said, “I don’t give me the numbers.” That was really wonderful and eye-opening and mind-opening.
I can’t give you an open, honest answer now. As things come along—I know that that phony bologna speech that Sheriff Bart makes at the end of Blazing Saddles, I really believe it. “Wherever there’s injustice…” I believe in that shit. Wherever there is injustice, and if I can take a swipe at it, and still make people laugh while I’m doing it, you know I will.