Mel Brooks and David Steinberg Trade Tales From Film and TV's Golden Years at The Wallis
The legendary comedians recall the early days of 'The Tonight Show,' TV's first great writers room and the "heaven and hell" of Zero Mostel.
Still spry at 89, Mel Brooks swapped jokes, memories and hilarious anecdotes with David Steinberg on Oct. 6 at the Wallis in Beverly Hills as part of the venue’s Arts and Ideas lecture series. “What do you want to hear?” Brooks asked the audience as the two took the stage. “Everything? I’ll give you half.” But he seemed to give it his all, sitting on the edge of his seat and addressing the sold-out crowd directly, even acting out stories about the early days of television, Zero Mostel, Johnny Carson and many other iconic figures over the decades.
While Brooks and Steinberg’s relationship dates back to the 1970s, the two worked together on the '90s sitcom, Mad About You, for which Brooks won three consecutive Emmys guesting as Uncle Phil. They first appeared together on The David Susskind Show (a clip of which began the evening), but that was after a lunch at New York’s Russian Tea Room.
"When I met him, he said, 'You know what’s behind you?' " recalled Steinberg about their first encounter. He turned to find a poster advertising the Stuttgart Ballet at Carnegie Hall. “Nazis!” he remembers Brooks yelling. “Nazis! They’re bringing them to Carnegie Hall!” This was soon after the success of The Producers, Brooks' breakout film starring Mostel and Gene Wilder as a pair of scheming Broadway impresarios who set out to make a flop musical with dancing Nazis.
Filming was a little rough in the beginning, with Brooks yelling, “Cut!” the first day on set, only to have the crew tell him, "You gotta say action first!" Of working with the legendary comedian Mostel, Brooks said, “Zero Mostel, heaven and hell. If Zero was in a bad mood, it was very tough to get him to do it. I said to him, 'I’m the director!' He said, 'I don’t give a shit.' " Wilder, on the other hand, was so grateful for the part that when Brooks gave him the news, he broke down in tears.
Working extemporaneously through the night, Steinberg and Brooks dug up chestnuts from their respective careers, but overlapped on The Tonight Show, which Steinberg hosted 12 times as well as guesting 130. Brooks revealed that he was there the first day Carson took over as host. According to him, the kinescopes were erased, leaving only audio recordings of the show, so the audience at the Wallis counted themselves lucky to witness his Indian Ichthyologist shtick firsthand, a bit he says no one’s heard since the show aired.
Steinberg recalled nervously completing his monologue his first time hosting, only to have Art Garfunkel, who was waiting backstage with Paul Simon, give him some annoying comic tips. So Steinberg returned the favor, critiquing the duo's hit song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water": “Y’know, I always thought it should be 'Bridge Over Meshugenah Water.' ”
Known in the '70s for anti-establishment political humor, Steinberg enjoyed a second career behind the camera directing sitcoms before landing his current Showtime series, Inside Comedy, an interview show in its fourth season.
After 70 years in the business, Brooks is still active (currently the voice of the grandpa vampire in Hotel Transylvania 2). His big break came with Sid Caesar's legendary Your Show of Shows in the early fifties, which featured soon-to-be household names like Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and Mel Tolkin. “The writers' room was heaven,” recalled Brooks. “Today, they do six, it’s a season. We did 39 hour-and-a-half shows. It was hell and heaven. I loved it.”
With a long list of credits to his name, Brooks' greatest success as a filmmaker came with The Producers, followed by Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, all three listed among AFI’s Top 100 Comedies. The 2001 Broadway musical adaptation of The Producers won him three Tonys and two Grammys, adding to his existing collection of an Oscar, a Grammy and three Emmys.
Halfway through the evening, Brooks confessed he was hesitant to come out and freeform his way through the night with Steinberg. “When he asked me to do this, I said, I don’t do shit like that,” Brooks told the audience. He later thanked them for their continuing support of the Wallis, adding, “The deep love in my life is theater, and this is a sacred place.”