Mel Brooks on Comedy Legends Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder
The 41st recipient of AFI's highest honor opens up about his six-decade career, late wife Anne Bancroft and why he kept working with the same circle of actors: "You know what they're capable of, how high they can fly."
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why do you think Hollywood so rarely acknowledges comedy directing as an awards-worthy endeavor?
Mel Brooks: I have never been saluted as a director in my life. I am a comedy force: I'm a stand-up; I'm a comedy writer; I'm a producer. But I've never been saluted as a film director. They think comedy is frivolous. But real comedy has a lot to say about the human condition and said so beautifully over the years. [The AFI] is the first that said, "You're a movie director."
THR: Your first movie, The Producers, is 45 years old. Why do you think it still seems fresh?
Brooks: If you make something that makes sense, that is basically truthful about the human condition, it works -- it stays alive. If you're just doing things for laughs and not paying attention to human truths, it's not gonna last. Comedy should never be suddenly au courant. I never do political comedy because they keep changing the presidents, so you can't have fun with them.
THR: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained owed a debt to Blazing Saddles.
Brooks: I loved it. I love him; I really admire his bravery. But somebody has to tell him you cannot run Abraham Lincoln over with a Buick -- you've gotta stop somewhere in making up history. I mean, he had Hitler and Goebbels and Goring in Inglourious Basterds in some kind of movie house in Paris. It was crazy.
THR: A lot of the jokes in Blazing Saddles now would be perceived as politically incorrect.
Brooks: We used the N-word in Blazing Saddles because we had to show what Black Bart the sheriff was facing and what he was going through, and the struggle to achieve his vision of cleaning up the Western town and actually being liked by the citizens. But you need that -- you need all the forces that are against him -- and you gotta use the N-word.
THR: Do you leave space in your direction for presumed laughs?
Brooks: I had no idea the farting scene in Blazing Saddles would be that hysterical. I cut to the campfire; I cut to the plate of beans; I cut to Slim Pickens; I cut to the horses. I needed the cuts so that I could give the audience some rest from the relentless onslaught of farts.
THR: You're famous for working with the same actors, including Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman.
Brooks: It's so much better to have a stock company of players. You know what they're capable of, how high they can fly. You're not writing in the dark and then casting. I'm writing High Anxiety before it's a movie -- it's just an idea. And I know I have Madeline Kahn. I know how crazy I can go, and she's gonna nail it. Same thing with Gene Wilder, whether it was sad and touching or whether it was hysterical.
THR: Anne Bancroft was your wife and creative partner for 40 years. How did having her by your side contribute to your career?
Brooks: That was the yardstick for me; that was the gold. She had incredible taste. She knew what was really good, what was funny and what was unique and original. If it was tired or cliched, she let me know in no uncertain terms.
THR: What do you think of the state of comedy today?
Brooks: I thought when Richard Pryor died, that was the end of comedy. He was my favorite comedy talent. But we go on. Sarah Silverman is genuinely talented and funny. Where was she when I had Madeline Kahn, the greatest comedienne that ever lived? What I'm saying is that, somehow, they're born. They come along. It goes on. Never as good as my stuff, but pretty damn good.