“Jesus Christ, I’m not an American Master,” says Mel Brooks. “I’m not even a Dutch Master! I’m not even a cigar.” The comedy icon is explaining his reluctance to participate in the career retrospective documentary for PBS’s ‘American Masters’ series titled ‘Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,’ airing May 20th (a DVD version of the documentary comes out the next day, on May 21). “I thought it was a little too much hubris,” he continues. “I don’t mind my work being appreciated, but I’m not sure about personal reward. I think ‘American Masters’ went behind my back and got my grandchildren and said ‘call your grandfather and tell him it’s a good thing, he’ll enjoy it.'” So, ‘Men’s Journal’ figured it was a good time to call the 87-year-old Brooks up and get some wisdom from one of the all-time entertainment greats. Here’s what he told us.
What should everyone know about women?
Avoid the short ones – there’s a hidden anger in them, and you never know when the heck it’s going to come out. Although there was a great exception to that – my mother was very good-natured, and she was about 4-foot-11. There may be other exceptions; I like Sarah Silverman, I don’t know how tall she is. She’s OK. Kristen Chenoweth, she’s very short, and she’s very talented. But you know, I haven’t seen her she may get very angry. All short women have a delayed fuse. Marry a taller woman: My wife was an inch or two taller than me; it’s a sign of security.
What should everyone know about money?
It’s no damn good. You know that’s what my movies are about, really? I had a theme: My movies are about love or money. Love or success. Love or society crowning you. I boil it down to love and companionship. That seems to be sacred and much more important than success. At some point in your life, you got to say, “I really can’t go after money. I got to go after other things. It’s important, and we completely lose sight of that. When you’re starting out, it’s fine, you want to make enough so that you can feed your family. It makes sense. But you get to when you’re just wasting your time and making a lot more than you need. These days, I’m Mr. Turn-down. I said, “I got enough. I got enough. I’m not going to sacrifice time, which, is a much more important commodity than money.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Around five years ago, Father John Frasier, who’s a Catholic priest said, “Get out of the Jew business and join us, the Catholics, because you’re not going to be covered after you’re done.” I never did leave the Jew business, even though I liked him very much. Jews can’t promise any afterlife. I think we say, “This is it.”
What did serving in the Army during World War II teach you?
Basically, to duck. Because the Germans were very good shooters. I was a corporal, I had eight men under me, every once in a while we had to go on patrol. It’s scary, but you got to do it. Being brave is being scared and worried and still doing it. Because if you’re just a wacko, a mashugana, a crazy guy, then you’re not brave, your nuts! But I was very lucky. I got over there sometime in February, and by May 8, the war was over. The only complaint I have is it was noisy. My ears turned brown and yellow because I would stick Camel cigarettes in my ears because the guns and the artillery make so much noise. Probably saved my hearing, even if it discolored my eardrums and everything – it took years for them to return to a normal color.
What’s the secret to a good joke?
It’s information. It’s the buildup. If you just go with the punch line, it’s not as funny as if you take your time and explain where you are, who is in the joke, and then how it explodes. Pacing is a matter of talent: You got it, or you ain’t. The Greek actor Andreas Voutsinas, from the ‘Producers,’ always gave me good advice – he’d say, “Or you got it, or you ain’t.” It was as simple as that. I would say to him, “We’re in America, Andreas. You can’t start things with Or.”
What do you do when you offend people?
Oh, you have to risk it. To hell with them. When I did ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ the war was not even cold. And the memory of being in concentration camps was still vivid for Jews. It was literally in bad taste. People like rabbis and would write to me and say, “This is execrable.” And I’d say, “You can’t bring folks like Hitler down by getting on a soapbox – they’re better at it than we are. But if you can humiliate them, ridicule them, and have people laugh at them – you’ve won.” I knew ‘Springtime for Hitler’ was perfect, I knew it was right. I said to my friends, they may have to catch up with me. I may be a little ahead the curve at this point and have to wait for some of the world to catch up with me.
But what’s the limit? When should someone be offended?
It’s true, there is a limit. You got to know the line. For me, it’s concentration camps. You know the movie ‘Life is Beautiful’ can’t be funny. The subject matter is not fertile, you can’t grow anything in that. It’s just ashes. So I have my limits. I use the N-word in ‘Blazing Saddles’. But it was to show how despised, hated, and loathed this black sheriff was. Without the N-word, you couldn’t have the story. You got to tell the truth.
What advice would you give to a younger you?
Forget about correcting your past. You learn from your past as you go along. You can’t say, “If I had. . . .” You say, “OK, all right. That was a mistake. I won’t do that again.” That’s how you learn.
After the Sid Caesar show ended, you were broke. What did that teach you?
It was really tough because I was used to living large. When I met Anne [Bancroft], I was spending her money. She’d give me money under the table. So one time we were at a Chinese restaurant, and I had a lot of wine, and I got a little drunk, and I left a five-dollar tip, and she whacked me across the face. She said, “What are you, crazy? You’re spending my money!” You think you’re looking good, leaving a big tip. Forget it. I laughed like hell, I hit the floor laughing.
What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
Estelle Reiner, Carl’s wife, she said, “Find someone who can stand you.” It’s true! You got to find someone who can stand you and your wackiness, and all your anger and your happiness. Someone who can stand you and enjoys you. Ann and I lasted 26 years together until she passed away.
What role does religion play in a man’s life?
That’s a tricky question. If you’re not indoctrinated into some kind of religion when you’re very young, then it can play very little. I’m rather secular. I’m basically Jewish. But I think I’m Jewish not because of the Jewish religion at all. I think it’s the relationship with the people and the pride I have. The tribe surviving so many misfortunes, and being so brave and contributing so much knowledge to the world and showing courage.
What did you learn as a child during the Great Depression?
We had very little in terms of hard stuff, like a nice apartment or good silverware or good food. There was my mother, and we were four boys. My father had died at 34. I was only two, but up until nine, I had the greatest life. Even though it was only fried eggs and beans on Friday night, it was great; I was happy. I’d be on the streets playing. You can’t do better than that. Then when I was nine, it all kind of crashed for a while because there’s a thing called homework. And I intrinsically realized, “Ah, so this is it. Nothing is free; they want you to pay. You got to pay to be in society. First you start with homework.”
How does a man find his calling?
A lot of it is luck. You find yourself in a job, and you love it, and you stick with it, and that’s your calling. I don’t think you stand on the top of a mountain and throw your hands up to God and say, “What is my calling?” I don’t think it works! You stumble on your calling. Whatever it is, whether you’re a ladies’ salesman in the garment center or a pit boss in Vegas or a comic, you need to be able to say, “I’m very comfortable doing this.”
How should a man handle regret?
Let it go! Don’t dwell on it. I would go to the racetrack every once in a while, and I’d start yelling, “It was by a nose!” I would go on and on, and then my racing buddy, Darrell Richard, who was on the ‘Donna Reed Show’ would say to me, “Leave it on the bus, don’t dwell on your regrets.” And he’s right. It’s hard not to, but don’t regret, just forget about it. Don’t take negative time, just take positive time.
What’s the key growing old, but staying young?
Be interested in everything. You don’t have to adore it. I don’t adore hip-hop, I don’t think it’s great music, but I’m interested, I listen. I like Norah Jones, Madonna, whatever – they’re good! I watch a lot of new films, I see everything. I still read, I like books, whether they are old books, new books. I’m interested – you gotta stay interested!
What role does courage play in a man’s life?
You got to be brave. If you feel something, you’ve really got to risk it. Quentin Tarantino does that, and I’m proud of him. Because a lot of stuff is just god-awful, but right next to it is something profound, poignant, and new. I like his taking chances with ‘Django’. He takes more chances then any filmmaker, and I do like it.
What role does vanity play in a man’s life?
You need it. It’s not such a bad thing. A brushstroke of vanity is good to add into the mix, to balance your timidity. We’re all blessed with a lot of timidity and a lot of worry and anxiety, and vanity is a good antidote. I don’t need a lot of it, but a brushstroke of it is a good thing. You got to root for yourself. Who the hell else is going to root for you if you don’t root for yourself? You gotta say, “Up, up with Mel! Mel’s the best.” And I’m not talking Gibson, I’m talking Brooks.