Documenting the Funny Man: An Interview with Biographer Patrick McGilligan on Mel Brooks
By Matthew Sorrento, Film and Media Studies Lecturer, Rutgers–Camden
For me, it was Blazing Saddles (1974) – an instant favorite I saw on cable TV in the 1980s. My father accidentally saw The Producers (1967) on release, never thinking that a film so outrageously funny could be made. Other stories about discovering filmmaker Mel Brooks abound: first viewings of Young Frankenstein (1974), Spaceballs (1987), his Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety (1977), and others that have ignited a lifelong love of the director. The tributes of recent years, like the popular 2013 American Masters documentary, Make a Noise, cover Brooks’s many successes for those more familiar with his hit 2001 Broadway adaptation of The Producers, later made into a 2005 film. (His 2007 Broadway adaptation of Young Frankenstein was not such a success.)
With no substantial biography previously written on Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky, 1926), it was a fitting assignment for veteran film biographer Patrick McGilligan. His new book, Funny Man: Mel Brooks (HarperCollins) follows the author’s critical success of his previous title, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane (HarperCollins, 2015). In Funny Man, McGilligan provides a thorough and addictive account of Brooks. The fulsome details compose a fine moving image of a life, with an epic scope. And while readers will find much about the making of his films and career, McGilligan also details the less likeable Brooks, on the job and at home, that most of us hadn’t realized. The text is rich and well-researched, like the author’s previous work on stars Clint Eastwood and James Cagney and several directors, including Nicholas Ray, George Cukor, Robert Altman, and Alfred Hitchcock. Especially notable, in 2007 McGilligan published Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, about the pioneering early black filmmaker. A film adaption is currently in the works at HBO, with Tyler Perry attached to star.
I recently caught up with the author to discuss his new book.
Do you have a memory of your first Mel Brooks film viewing? My first, Blazing Saddles, ended up being my favorite. And my father, who passed down his love of Brooks to me, accidentally went to see The Producers on release, and it will always be his favorite movie (his other: Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?).
Probably I saw my first Mel Brooks films on campus being shown in 16mm at film societies during their heyday in the late 1960s/early 70s at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I ran one myself, with another, older student, Gerald Peary, who is nowadays a well known film scholar and documentary filmmaker, one of many nurtured at the UW. Probably I saw The Twelve Chairs (1970) first, as I’m not sure what our attitude towards Blazing Saddles might have been because, in general, we were/are left-leaning politically.
When did you first have an inkling to write extensively about him?
I was on the set of History of the World, Part I (1981), stringing for The Boston Globe (where I had used to work), and interviewed him briefly, and I saw him around Hollywood, frequently, in the 1980s when we lived in Los Angeles, often dining at favorite restaurants near 20th Century-Fox. So I’ve followed him all along, thought about him all along, and along with Robert Altman, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood, other books subjects of mine, he’s someone whose films were part of my life, more so than the Golden Age figures I’ve written about.
Were any of Brooks’s films a favorite of yours, and cause for repeated viewing for you? I have rewatched Blazing over and over again.
Today, Blazing Saddles is my favorite, and the only one I re-see on occasion, sometimes for film classes I teach. I think my book explains why I also think it is the best, with Richard Pryor’s contribution to a script that had so many other great talents involved, and all of those wonderful people – Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, not forgetting Cleavon Little – at their peak of discovery. The structure of it, the film-within-a-film, the critique of Westerns, I find brilliant, even before you get to the laughs. I have a stronger memory of seeing Where’s Poppa? for the first time and being taken aback by its zaniness; I think I also saw that at a UW campus film society screening. Carl Reiner is underrated generally, I think, and as a filmmaker.
One Brooks film I have a residual fondness, which not everyone admires, is Spaceballs; my kids adored it growing up, and I still find funny. But some film people think I’m crazy.
I love it, too! Though I saw it at an ideal age – as a preteen. Your discussion of Mel’s experience in the Borscht Belt theater circuit, which led to the start of his career, is fascinating. Would you say that the entertainment he was exposed to there shaped him more than his childhood in Brooklyn? How so?
I don’t think so. He is not really a stand-up comic in the traditional sense, and never was. He really is a Golden Age pasticheur in his filmmaking – borrowing bits from his favorite stars and comedians and films and weaving them together with his own panache. It is true there is something of the Borscht Belt and the stand-up style in “The 2000 Year Old Man,” but he and Reiner were really more comedic recording artists than a touring act. The book does its best to trace the many, many influences that go into (I am probably misquoting him but it is something like this out of his own mouth) “the marvelous pastiche that is me.”
You have covered lesser known lives, like Oscar Micheaux, and well-knowns, like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. What are the different
challenges for the two categories?
Well, each subject presents its own challenge. Hitchcock, for example, did almost nothing but make movies, so you are stuck with a sedentary creative artist and the filmmaking process and yet you have to develop an exciting narrative somehow. Fritz Lang was involved in the death of his first wife, consorted with Hitler and prostitutes, and ended up in America dressing like a cowboy and going to rodeos – so there is more action in his life story obviously, and the films are perhaps less good on the whole. Oscar Micheaux is a shadowy figure, and no biography had been written, so it was simpler than you think, absorbing previous scholarship and putting together the pieces that were missing. There had been no substantial biography of Brooks either, so much of it was virgin ground. Much of what I found out I had no idea of, starting out. To write the first or last major book on a subject is a deceptive advantage.
Mel reads like an underdog when breaking in with Sid Caesar in your book, and you detail how influential Your Show of Shows (1951-54) was to Mel’s career. It seems as if, in his later films, Brooks mainly advanced those type of skits with relaxed censorship restrictions. Can you comment?
Mel was indeed an underdog, “The Kid,” the schlepper, starting out with Your Show of Shows. But he was a natural for that series and successor series with Caesar, which thrived on movie satires; and you can find predecessor TV skits for most of what he did later on in his films. Plus he adored Caesar; that was a genuine mentorship (on Caesar’s part) and friendship (mutual). Later, Caesar fell on hard times, and Brooks paid him back with roles in Silent Movie and History of the World, Part 1, both of which recycle material that Brooks had been doing or writing dating back to the Your Show of Shows (and subsequent Caesar shows). Caesar led the way, no question, and Brooks learned lessons and filed away for the future.
Even so. I don’t find him particularly risque or pushing any boundaries, with the exception of Blazing Saddles. I don’t find him very “politically incorrect.” I know that is a maverick opinion.
Do you think it was a missed opportunity for Brooks not to appear onscreen in The Producers? He was already appearing on Johnny Carson and was known for “The 2000 Year Old Man,” his famous skit with Carl Reiner. I have always felt that Brooks’ overdubbed line, “Don’t be Stupid, Be a Smarty” in “Springtime for Hitler” steals the scene.
I would say the casting is perfect, as is. One of the things about the original film (not the musical remake) that stands up and is still striking is the rare casting and performances. Brooks takes a while to find his stride as a performer on screen, I think, and Young Frankenstein is one of his better films in part because, again, he is not in it – Wilder vetoed that – calling attention to himself, while the ensemble, which doesn’t need him, is superb. Even on talk shows, Brooks got better over time, even as he was repeating and honing familiar shtick or routines.
Speaking of The Producers, I see the Broadway version, and the ensuing film adaptation, as a letdown. Do you miss the more biting elements, like Kenneth Mars’s role and Dick Shawn playing L.S.D.?
To be honest, I miss them all – Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, too. They were indelible presences in the original film; taking nothing away from the talents of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, they are just not as good, partly because the novelty has worn off over time and we know what to expect. Kenneth Mars – yes – also sadly missed. And Dick Shawn’s role was rubbed out in the stage and remade musical film, whereas Shawn is jaw-dropping in the original film, his musical number – eschewed by Brooks for the stage version – one of the highlights.
It’s fascinating to read about Brooks’ choice to make The 12 Chairs after the success of The Producers. Even though Mel loved Russian literature, as your book notes, do you think the choice of film was too offbeat, and that Mel should have stayed broad right away?
I find The 12 Chairs to be a brave choice, and the attempt to film the novel was sincere. But this is one of the way in which Brooks’s bravery sometimes mitigates against his commercial instincts. The historical and political context of the novel was stripped away in favor of broad comedy and plotting. The performances, while strong, are also one-dimensional. I know people who love the film and think it’s one of Brooks’s best. I find it picturesque and flavorful but not very interesting or exciting. In my book I note that Kenneth Tynan held the same view and preferred the 1945 Hollywood version, It’s in the Bag, on which Alma Reville (Alfred Hitchcock’s wife) was one of the scenarists.
Would you say that individual skits comprising a feature, like History of the World, Part 1, was the best format for the revue-based Brooks? I wonder what other Western-themed ideas he could have fun with if he tried this approach in Blazing Saddles.
I think the jokey, skit-based format was what Brooks knew best and what came easiest to him and what, for a while, guaranteed success. In the end it became a trap for him. The films that have a little more story integrity stand up better as filmmaking. History of the World, Part 1 was popular at the time, but seems thin and uninspired today compared to Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. (And actually, it made much less money at the box-office.) Brooks’s strength and weakness is shtick, and he infuses even his remake of To Be or Not to Be with too much of it.
As gag-based writer, Brooks seems motivated to string them together more so than a constructing a complete narrative. Many claimed that Hitchcock was similar – in that he focused on individual visual set pieces, while needing help from a screenwriter to construct them into a narrative. You have done books on both – do you see a connection?
Hitchcock was a master constructionist, and a master at putting together individual set pieces in such a way that you didn’t question the plausibility of the continuity until after you saw the film and got up in the middle of the night to get a snack out of the refrigerator. There’s a slyness to the way he did it, and a cleverness that was also brilliance at times. North by Northwest plays as a comedy in part because of his self-awareness of the silliness of the construction. I don’t really see any similarities, except that for all filmmakers who also functioned as writers, construction was always the first problem of the script. Hitchcock was a master of construction; Brooks was hit or miss, even though, in interviews, he claimed construction as one of his strengths. His films are often pastiches with ramshackle construction, from my point of view. That doesn’t mean they can’t be very entertaining.
You reveal Brooks to be rather less appealing in his personal life, especially in regards to how he treated his first wife, Florence Baum, and his affairs with Eartha Kitt and others. After completing research, did you set out to make this clear in your book, to alter Brooks’ image as our beloved Jewish uncle? How should we regard Brooks in the MeToo era?
Off-stage, most comedians are driven and sometimes ruthless human beings whose round-the-clock determination to make people laugh and attain success makes then unlovable in private, in more than one case. (Jerry Lewis is another example who crops up in the Brooks book.) Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but my book humanizes Brooks; it doesn’t idealize him. The fact that he may have flaws and problems makes him a human being. It also helps to explain some of the flaws and problems of the films. The book is a struggle to understand his complexity, just as I say that it has been a struggle for Brooks to balance the positive and negative aspects of himself in his comedy and in his life. But I don’t think he fits into any MeToo frame of reference, and I don’t think it’s fair to hold him accountable to rules that didn’t exist in his era. Many men were like that with their wives and women. Too many men are still like that. But I don’t know of any MeToo lines he crossed, although the lines do keep shifting and expanding and conflating.
When you say “rules that didn’t exist in his era,” you mean his sexist behavior, in general, and not his cheating, right? I did mean to present his repeated womanizing and bragging about it in the workplace in this question.
Well, the word “sexist” may not have existed in the 1950s, but I take your point that it was “sexist,” regardless. In the book I do say that with Brooks you could never tell how much of it was boasting to keep up a manly façade, and how much of it was real. The divorce records show some of it was real, but the 1950s was a formative period in his life and after that came a happy marriage to Anne Bancroft and not much evidence of what you call his “sexist behavior.” I do note that, apart from a “ghost” collaborator or two who is not credited on the screen, there is not a single female scriptwriter involved in any of his films. There was only one woman writer in the room for Your Show of Shows and, later, for Caesar’s Hour. So it was a male ethos, no question.
His casual boasting about how many women he slept with over the weekend to colleagues – in front of Imogene Coca – comes to mind. After reading about his darker side, I’m starting to see his meaner moments onscreen, like those as the governor in Blazing Saddles (“You watch your ass!”), in a different light. Has this been like your experience, and did it motivate your writing?
I don’t think I use the word “mean” in the book. He does have a dark, angry side to his personality and character, however, and I would argue that the films need more of that, too often. His attempt to be warm and crowd-pleasing in many of his films (like Silent Movie or High Anxiety) makes those films less interesting to me, perhaps because I don’t find that persona as convincing or entertaining. As you know from reading my books, I try very hard to explain films through a biographical lens, which is another way of taking an auteurist approach; but at the same time, I try not to overanalyze.
Do you see Brooks as a parodist mainly? Some of his best work reaches pathos, and even gets tragic.
Which of them reaches pathos or tragedy?
I’m thinking of the strong emotive moments in Young Frankenstein. I want to say that the madcap structure coming together in Blazing Saddles has the same kind of emotional intensity for the viewer, though I know it’s not pathos or tragedy.
There are strong emotive moments in those two films especially, but overall I would tend to disagree. Brooks is mainly a parodist, and his starting point is almost always the parody of something. He definitely reaches for pathos or tragedy with To Be or Not to Be and Life Stinks (1991), for example, but in both cases – in my opinion – he falls short because he can’t let go of the easy yuks. The templates for those films – filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges – went for tragicomedy and nailed it because they were aiming higher, I think. Brooks often “aims low.” That doesn’t mean, I repeat, that he and his films can’t be very enjoyable.
You have detailed the lives of many – have you been encouraged to return to any of them? Also, do you relate to one the most? How so?
Gosh, that’s a difficult question. I’m not sure I relate to any of them personally or otherwise. The people alive in my own lifetime, people I have met or interviewed, I can relate to closest perhaps because I understand the context of their lifetimes. That said, the only book subjects I didn’t meet (off the top of my head) are Fritz Lang and Oscar Micheaux. I relate to the humanists and the artists and the politically committed left-wingers or progressives, most of all. They don’t have to be nice people close up. You’d be surprised if I said my favorite filmmaker among all the people I have written about is probably Robert Altman. I was reading David Picker’s autobiography the other day, for another project, and his chapter on Altman begins with something like, “I don’t care what anyone else says, Robert Altman was a prick.” And Altman was, or could be, a prickly person at times for many reasons. And there are a fair number of films of his that are almost unwatchable. But there is also constant experimentation, persistence of vision, excellence in all technical departments, surprising casting and compelling performances and a half dozen or more towering works, all of this done independently, from outside the Hollywood norm, often commenting on the Hollywood norm, with a modern sensibility that I am more attuned to personally than the so-called Golden Age that I didn’t live through.
What are you working on now?
The publisher would like me to keep secret about it a little longer. It’s a difficult subject, I’ll tell you that, with many challenges, and that appeals to me.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film studies at Rutgers University in Camden and is Co-editor of the journal Film International (Intellect Publishers; filmint.nu). He has book chapters forthcoming on NBC’s Hannibal, The Purge series, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, the latter to appear in his collection, David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)interpretation, co-edited with David Ryan, forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.