MINNEAPOLIS — Brooklyn-reared funnyman Mel Brooks may be one of the most celebrated and decorated figures in entertainment history. In December the comedian, actor, director, producer, screenwriter and composer added the Kennedy Center Honors sash to a collection of awards that includes an Oscar, a Grammy, three Emmys and multiple Tonys.
Yet Brooks is not about to slow down. His “Young Frankenstein,” based on his 1974 horror film spoof, is currently on tour.
Last week Brooks, 83, spoke about show business and the theater, a form that first hooked him at age 9 and that keeps him going after the 2005 death of his wife, Anne Bancroft.
Q. Why do you still do this?
A. It’s in my core. I go all the way back to (the premiere of Cole Porter’s) “Anything Goes.” My Uncle Joe drove a cab. His beat was the Broadway District. A lot of the doormen, box-office guys lived in Brooklyn. When he was done, Uncle Joe would take anyone who lived in Williamsburg home for free. For that, he would get a sandwich someplace or a couple of tickets to what’s playing. Well, this Cole Porter show opened, “Anything Goes,” in 1935. I was 9. It had Ethel Merman. Uncle Joe got tickets. He said, “Get in the back of the car. Lie on the floor.” I didn’t know what we were doing. He didn’t want to get stopped by the cops (for having a passenger while his off-duty flag was up). Well, I rode all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan like that, lying on the floor. I knew the hum of the grating of the Williamsburg Bridge.
I knew we were passing 34th Street because I could see the Empire State Building. And when the Chrysler Building came into view, we were around 42nd Street. He never had to look for parking. There were 12 cars in the area, no parking laws or restrictions. You just get out in the middle of the street.
Q. Did you have good seats?
A. We went up to the second balcony, and they were great seats. When Ethel Merman sang the title song and “You’re the Top,” I was just crying with glee. What is this? It was funny, heartwarming, touching. Many years later, when I got to Broadway, I knew that feeling again from the inside.
Q. Did you know what you were doing when you started writing for Broadway?
A. Heck, no. I was in New York writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” Marilyn Cantor, daughter of (singer/songwriter/comedian) Eddie, asked me to write a sketch. I said, “What’s a sketch?” She said, “What you’re doing.”
Q. And you once did a sketch of your favorite play?
A. It was a send-up of “Death of a Salesman.” I made it about a pickpocket who couldn’t pick pockets. He was trembling and nervous. Then he said, “Where’s my kid? I love my child. I live for that child.” Then the kid comes in and the father asks: “Did you steal anything today? Did you do anything criminal to please your dad?” He answers, “No, saw a couple of pennies.” Then the father says, “Where’s your report card?” The boy was kind of hiding it. He takes it out of his pocket. The father reads it: “A’s, A’s, A’s. You’re killing your dad!”
Q. Your early works on Broadway were not smashes. Your original musicals “Shinbone Alley” and “All American” ran for a month and two months, respectively. But you didn’t quit.
A. Well, I wrote this play called “Springtime for Hitler.” Nobody wanted to do it. Can’t have Hitler in the title. Finally, somebody said maybe it’s a movie. So I turned it into a movie. One day I ran into Sidney Glazier, who had just won an Academy Award for an Eleanor Roosevelt documentary. He said, “I haven’t got time to read it. Tell it to me.” When I got to the gay part, Carmen Ghia, he just exploded. He spat out his sandwich. So we made it into a film. And then, lo and behold, it’s the one to bring me lovingly back to Broadway. It won 12 Tonys. It broke all kinds of records. When I got to Broadway with that show, there were a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber things out there, but no musical comedy. We brought that laughter and joy back.
Q. “Young Frankenstein” followed “The Producers” and got mixed reviews.
A. Well, it’s a lovely show. And it got mostly good reviews. But there’s the New York Times again, saying to me, “Hello, get out of show business.” Very few people agreed with that review. But it’s natural to say it echoes “The Producers.” It’s the same team. But they said the same thing about Cole Porter, that he was copying himself. I’m sure they kicked the (expletive) out of Shakespeare, too. Time always wins.
Q You seem to have a German fascination.
A Since we did “The Producers,” these Germans work for me. You do the enemy. The Nazi armband and the bucket helmet create edginess. Same thing with the Monster in “Young Frankenstein.” You can’t reason with him. You don’t know if he’s going to choke you. I need peril and danger, literally, for the audience to be scared and worried. Then I give them joy, relief.