Mel Brooks has been entertaining audiences for more than five decades. A master writer, actor, comedian and producer, he came from humble beginnings in Brooklyn to become one of the most celebrated comedic minds of our time.
His signature hit might be The Producers, a 1968 comedy he later adapted into a stage musical — which he then eventually adapted back into a movie. But there's much more on his resume; in fact his ingenuity and flexibility have made him one of the few people who've won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.
Now, die-hard fans and the uninitiated alike can survey his career via a multimedia box set — The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy — featuring little-known scenes, interviews and a CD featuring his songs and comedy clips.
Brooks talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about getting started in showbiz, writing Catskills comedy, and the mix of "very good and very bad things" selected for the set.
On his introduction to show business
"I was working for the Abilene Blouse and Dress Co., and my dream was to one day become a salesman. Everybody in my building, 365 South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, aimed at some position: salesman, maybe a cutter, maybe a pattern maker, something in the garment center. I mean, we all aimed for Seventh Avenue. We never thought we gonna go by or past Seventh Avenue.
"But my Uncle Joe changed all that. If a cab came down the street without a driver, that was Uncle Joe because he was very short. And no matter how many telephone books he sat on, you still couldn't see him. Joe was a good-natured cab driver, and all the Brooklyn [theater] doormen on Broadway, he would collect at 1 in the morning or so and take them back to Williamsburg, wherever they lived.
"In return, they would give Joe tickets to Broadway shows that they were the doormen of. And Cole Porter had just opened his show — I think it was 1931 — and it was called Anything Goes, which is just currently playing [again]. So Joe got two tickets, and I sat up in the last balcony, and there was Ethel Merman, just really bawling it out and she was incredible. ... All my dreams about being a salesman in the garment center went — just replaced them with new dreams."
On whether he thinks there's ever been a time where he's gone too far
"Honestly, on a few things I think I was in bad taste. Maybe in Blazing Saddles. But I don't mind it. ... The whole movie's in bad taste. But I like bad taste."
On the collection and his favorite moment
"I do a song with Ronny Graham called 'Retreat.' That may be the best moment. About a cowardly general during the Napoleonic wars: 'Retreat. Retreat. Drop your sword and run. The foe is near, our chance is clear. Get out of here, hooray for fear, we're done! Run away. Run away. If you run away you'll live to run away another day.'
"And that song goes on. It's really — I'm very proud of that. There's a lot of stuff! I mean, it's just full of stuff. If you're a tasteless fool, then you'll adore this box set.
"If I were you, I'd bargain. It's a little too expensive now. I'd go to a store, like a Barnes & Noble — I would go to the store and say, 'Can you do a little better? ... I mean, it's $89, can you give it to me for $79?' "
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Mel Brooks is a comedian who makes the unthinkable very, very funny - like a musical about Nazis.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PRODUCERS")
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Springtime for Hitler and Germany...
MONTAGNE: He also gave us cinema's most famous campfire scene, composed almost entirely of cowboys sitting around farting.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLATULENCE)
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLAZING SADDLES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) How 'bout some more beans, Mr. Taggart?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Mr. Taggart) I'd say you've had enough.
MONTAGNE: And he brought us "The History of the World, Part I."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I")
MEL BROOKS: (as character) (Singing) The Inquisition, let's begin, the Inquisition, look at sin, we have our mission to convert to the Jew.
MONTAGNE: Along the way, Mel Brooks made a lot of people laugh and cringe at the same time.
BROOKS: I'm just vulgar really. I'm very proud of having bad taste.
MONTAGNE: And now the actor, director, writer and all-around funny guy is putting his taste on display in a new boxed set titled "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy."
BROOKS: It's just a mixture of some very good and very bad things that I've done.
MONTAGNE: Well, the one nice thing about this collection is it's not entirely chronological but it does have some things...
BROOKS: You said the right words. Renee.
BROOKS: You said the right words, because it's anarchy.
MONTAGNE: It is something of a scrapbook of his work in all its demented glory - commercials, TV shows, interviews, songs. The thing is, Mel Brooks never intended to become a comedian. He was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1926. He studied psychology in college and served in the Army during World War II, deactivating land mines. After the war, he returned to Brooklyn to start a career in business. That's when he took a speech class and made this recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
BROOKS: My name is Melvin Kaminsky. Today is February 24, 1947. Of course, I really don't know what I'm doing and...
MONTAGNE: He's trying to improve his diction by reading some poetry and Bible verses.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
BROOKS: Surely there is a vein for silver and a place for gold where they find it. Iron is taken...
MONTAGNE: Young Melvin thought it would help him come across as more business-like.
BROOKS: I was working for the Abilene Blouse and Dress Company, and my dream was to one day become a salesman. Everybody in my building, 365 South Third Street aimed at some position: salesman, maybe a cutter, maybe a pattern maker - something in the garment center. I mean we all aimed for Seventh Avenue.
MONTAGNE: Never to Broadway.
BROOKS: Broadway. But my Uncle Joe changed all that. If a cab came down the street without a driver, that was Uncle Joe, because he was very short. And no matter how many telephone books he sat on, you still couldn't see him. And Joe was a good-natured cab driver, and all the Brooklyn doormen on Broadway he would collect at 1:00 in the morning or so and take them back to wherever they lived. And the quid pro quo was in return they would give Joe tickets to Broadway shows that they were the doormen of. And Cole Porter had just opened his show - I think it was 1931 - and it was called "Anything Goes," which is just currently playing. So Joe got two tickets, and I sat up in the last balcony, and there was Ethel Merman, just really bawling it out, and she was incredible. But those songs - all through the night, you're the top - can you imagine seeing - hearing them for the first time? All my dreams about being a salesman, I just replaced them with new dreams.
MONTAGNE: Those dreams took Mel Brooks, as he was soon known, to the resort hotels in New York's Catskill Mountains to try his hand at standup comedy on the Borscht Belt circuit.
BROOKS: The Jews used to flee, you know, go to the mountains, in the summer because the city was simply too hot. They'd take up residence in these hotels, show up in the windows and say breathe, breathe, it's $15 a day, breathe. They would yell at their families. And I was...
MONTAGNE: So everyone was a comedian.
BROOKS: Everyone was a comedian.
MONTAGNE: Give us an example of a typical Borscht Belt summer in Catskills joke.
BROOKS: Good evening, ladies and Jews. I met a girl yesterday, I met a girl. She was beautiful but she was thin. This was a skinny girl, I got to tell you. She was so skinny, so thin, I took her a restaurant, the waiter said check your umbrella. That's how skinny she was. But I want to tell you - and I would just do that terrible - and I realized, gee, I could write better and more real material. And so I began writing my own material. And when I met Sid Caesar, I was ready to become a real comedy writer.
MONTAGNE: Sid Caesar was a comedic genius and a household name as host of a wildly popular variety show on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS")
SID CAESAR: You show of shows, an hour and a half of top-notch entertainment.
MONTAGNE: In 1950, Mel Brooks joined Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows"'s writing staff, which would over time include Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. After a few years, Brooks headed to Hollywood and eventually became known as the master of spoof.
(SOUNDBITE OF "GET SMART" THEME MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: He created the TV show "Get Smart," about a bumbling James Bond-like secret agent.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GET SMART")
DON ADAMS: (as Maxwell Smart) Just a minute, Chief. Isn't this top security?
EDWARD PLATT: (as Chief) Yeah.
ADAMS: (as Maxwell Smart) Well, shouldn't we activate the cone of silence?
PLATT: (as Chief) All right, Max. Hodgkins?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Hodgkins) Yes, sir.
PLATT: (as Chief) Activate the cone of silence.
MONTAGNE: Mel Brooks took aim at Westerns in "Blazing Saddles." He put the laugh in horror with "Young Frankenstein." "Spaceballs" struck back at the Force.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SPACEBALLS")
BROOKS: (as character) May the Schwartz be with you.
MONTAGNE: No matter the subject, you could always count on Mel Brooks for lots of jokes about Hitler, Jews, flatulence, and curvaceous women. Is there anything you really, I mean, think you went too far?
BROOKS: Honestly, on a few things I think I was in bad taste. Maybe in "Blazing Saddles." But I don't mind it.
MONTAGNE: You mean the whole movie or just one moment?
BROOKS: No, no, the whole movie. The whole movie's in bad taste. But I like bad taste.
MONTAGNE: And it has won him an armful of awards - Emmys, Grammys, Tonys and an Oscar. His career spans seven decades, 11 hours of which can be found on the new DVD set. Is there any one thing, you know, that you think, okay, if you just grab one moment off of it, it's just really the most, the best or craziest or most precious moment?
BROOKS: I do a song with Ronny Graham called "Retreat" - that may be the best moment - about a cowardly general during the Napoleonic wars - (Singing) retreat, retreat, drop your sword and run. The foe is near, our chance is clear. Get out of here, hooray for fear, we're done. Run away. Run away. If you run away you'll live to run away another day - (Speaking) and that song goes on. It's really - I'm very proud of that. There's a lot of stuff. I mean it's just full of stuff. I mean, if you're a tasteless fool, you will adore this box set. Also, if I were you, I would bargain. It's a little too expensive now. I'd go to a store, like a Barnes & Noble - I would go to the store and say can you do a little better? Just a little better? Can you give it to me? I mean it's 89, can you give it to me for 79? I mean, it won't hurt you; it'll do me a lot of good. I mean, that's the way you bargain, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: That's Mel Brooks, and that box set is called "The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: And this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.