Comedy legend Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS documentary airing May 20
Brooks may be working on a musical version of "Blazing Saddles"
He says the key to a good joke is to always refer to the human condition
Throughout his prolific career Mel Brooks has gone by many titles – actor, filmmaker, producer, songwriter – but comedy is the epicenter of his life, drawing together his early work on TV shows like “Your Show of Shows” and “Get Smart,” with his notable career in film with movies like “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles,” a few of which have been translated to the Broadway stage. Brooks, now 86, has won numerous awards and is presently one of only 14 people to receive the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony).
On May 20 PBS will premiere a documentary on Brooks, “American Masters Mel Brooks: Make A Noise,” a film directed by Robert Trachtenberg that chronicles Brooks’ career and lasting influence. The film, which recently premiered at The Paley Center in Los Angeles, where Brooks was joined by longtime collaborator and friend Carl Reiner, is an exhaustive look at the continually hilarious – and often moving – output of a filmmaker and writer who is largely responsible for the tone of contemporary comedy.
Brooks spoke with CNN at Brooks Films, a humble second-floor office in The Culver Studios in Los Angeles where the filmmaker still works, about what it means to have your life compressed into a 90-minute documentary. For Brooks, who keeps all his awards gathered on a table behind his desk, the film is a way to understand his own impact and to see that his story, which may continue with a Broadway version of “Blazing Saddles,” has been meaningful to so many.
CNN: What does it feel like to have someone create a film that recaps your entire life?
Mel Brooks: You know, it’s lucky I’m smart because I understand it. If I didn’t understand it I’d be very angry. Like, “You left out New York!” Big swaths of my life were completely left out, but it’s OK.
CNN: Had you worked with the director prior to this film?
Brooks: Yeah, he took some beautiful pictures of me and my friend Carl Reiner. Sweet, wonderful pictures. He’s just a great photographer. I had heard of him as a director, but I didn’t know what he had directed. I saw one thing he had directed and I said, “That’s the guy!” He did [an “American Masters”] on Gene Kelly. It was beautiful. It caught the essence of Gene Kelly.
CNN: As someone who tells stories for a living, do you have a sense of what your own narrative is?
Brooks: I had five aunts and one uncle on my mother’s side – just on my mother’s side. Uncle Joe was the only boy. This is crazy, but let me explain. If you were to try to do the story of Uncle Joe the cab driver, and the various celebrities or passengers he picked up, you couldn’t do it totally and correctly in an hour and a half. And that’s just Uncle Joe, a cab driver. So how are you going to do Mel Brooks? I made a movie in Yugoslavia! Wouldn’t that be an hour and a half if I just talked about “The Twelve Chairs” and how it came together?
CNN: When you look back over your career, does one film stand out as the one you’re most proud of?
Brooks: The only thing that really stands out is the miracle of the firstborn. That miracle is represented in “The Producers.” They actually encouraged me and gave me the money to make a movie. And it was born. Of course, it was killed almost in childbirth by The New York Times. Renata Adler, she stuck a half of a scissor in my neck and gave me one of the worst reviews. It was my first movie. But I was lucky. The newspapers were not that kind and I thought I’d have to go back and do television where I’d had success. But then the magazines, about a month later, came out and they saved me. And they saved my confidence in myself. I knew I could make a funny movie.
CNN: Do you feel like you were able to take on all the different film styles and genres in your work?
Brooks: No, not everything. I haven’t covered – which is a big swath of movies – a light, romantic movie comedy. Girl-meets-boy type. It was never a primary interest. I was always more interested in history or Broadway.
CNN: Is there something you still hope to achieve?
Brooks: I like the music in “Blazing Saddles” and I think it would make a good musical. It already has two or three musical numbers, so I’m thinking, maybe. If it keeps pestering me maybe I’ll write it. You write things out because they bother you and you just want to get rid of that thing in your head. So you create something to get rid of it.
CNN: There seems to be an agreement that your work set the stage for modern comedy – does that feel true?
Brooks: I think I’m the father of “Spamalot” and “Book of Mormon” [on Broadway]. Because for 20 years Broadway was serious. I loved “Anything Goes,” which I saw at 9 years old, and I liked “Guys and Dolls.” I just liked musical comedy and it wasn’t around. So when David Geffen bothered me morning, noon and night to make a musical of “The Producers” I said, “No, no, no, no, yes.” And I did it and part of why I did it was my duty to bring back the musical comedy.
CNN: Do you have any scripts sitting around that have never actually been made into movies?
Brooks: I think maybe two, of all the stuff I’ve ever written that I never pursued again to get made. They were done very early. Before “The Producers,” when I had no reputation, I did a script called “Marriage Is A Dirty Rotten Fraud.” It’s about a guy who gets divorced and the only way out of his big alimony payments is if his ex-wife gets married again. But she hasn’t met anybody and it’s been going on two years, all he’s got left in his life is a grapefruit plant. He has no money. Every penny he makes goes to the alimony. So he decides to make a fictitious character – he knows what she likes – and wear a beard and marry her and then disappear in a drowning accident or something and be off the hook. I never got it sold.
CNN: When you look back over your work, have you found that there’s something universally true of a good joke?
Brooks: Yes – I think its reference has to not be an incident, but a condition. I think a good joke always refers to the human condition, to how our dreams fall apart or how we expect something and it doesn’t happen. A good joke translates in human experience. Maybe not necessarily based on a movie or based on anything – it doesn’t have to parody anything. A good joke is a human event.
“American Masters Mel Brooks: Make A Noise” premieres on PBS Monday May 20 at 9 p.m. EST/PST. A DVD with bonus material will be available Tuesday May 21 from Shout Factory.