Mel Brooks Talks ‘Blazing Saddles,’ Broadway and Battling the Blues With Laughter

mel brooks head shotMel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” is the funniest movie ever made. Just ask Mel
Brooks. He is quite certain of it, and of course, millions of us who can cheer
ourselves up some by dropping a line of authentic frontier gibberish agree. The
humor half-life of the comedy bits contained in the film is such that, 40 years
later, we still laugh at the mere mention of schnitzengruben or a laurel and
hearty handshake. Yes, 40 years. And on May 6, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
and Mel are commemorating the occasion with a 40th anniversary Blu-ray release
of the movie, complete with a new featurette, “Blaze of Glory: Mel Brooks’ Wild,
Wild West.” Sitting in his office, the esteemed funnyman takes time to talk
about how he got away with the comedy that scared the #@$! out of Warner Bros.
executives — and gives his thoughts about Twitter, late pal Mickey Rooney and
the power of laughter. What a nice guy!

Q: I wonder if you could get this movie made today. In the “Blaze of Glory”
documentary you talked about the number of times Richard Pryor said, ‘Use the
N-word here, use the N-word there. Use it twice there … ‘

A: Yeah, I didn’t want to use the N-word so much, but Richard forced me to. He
said something really interesting. He said, ‘You know, the N-word is used
properly in two basic ways: One is when bad people use it, and we’re sure they
are bad people because they use it. We don’t want them to succeed or prosper, we
want them to fail and we want the black guy to succeed because they used that
word. And the second use is as a term of affection among the brothers. It made a
lot of sense. I was going to use it three or four times, I ended up using it 16
or 17 times because of Richie.

Q: And you originally wanted him to star in addition to working with you on the
screenplay?

A: I wanted him to be Black Bart, to be the black sheriff. But Warner Bros.
wouldn’t do it. They said, ‘He’s been taking drugs and we don’t know. We don’t
want to take a chance.’ Two years later he was the No. 1 comedy star in the
country. But they wouldn’t do it. So I was going to quit, and Richard said,
‘Please. Direct the movie. Don’t quit. We’ve written a great movie here, said a
lot of wonderful things. If you leave, it just ain’t gonna be the same movie.’
So I said, OK. And when we were auditioning, you know, for our Black Bart, we
both saw Cleavon Little and we jumped in the air and said, ‘That’s the guy!’
Richard said something interesting. He said, ‘I’ve got a mustache, and I’m
coffee colored. I could be Cuban. But Cleavon is really black. He’s gonna scare
the s— out of the West.’

Q: You got a little emotional in the documentary, talking about the late,
wonderful Madeline Kahn. Is looking back on all this an emotional roller coaster
for you?

A: Oh no, it wasn’t a roller coaster. It’s really a resting place for sweet,
wonderful memories of what I did then and that life then. That wonderful plateau
of happiness in my life. You know, my wife [Anne Bancroft] was still with me,
still alive. Harvey Korman, Cleavon, Richard — all the people that left, you
know? It was a great, wonderful time in my life. I’ve gotten through many, many
battles with all these losses. I watch the movie and my heart sings. I love it.
I wrote it, and even so, I laugh a lot.

Q: Sure, and you had all these talented people bringing their best to the party
also, like Gene Wilder as The Waco Kid and Madeline Kahn playing Lili Von
Shtupp.

A: You know, [the American Film Institute] had a list of the 100 greatest
comedies, it was like five or six. I said, ‘What are you, crazy?’ It’s No. 1 all
the way.

Q: I totally agree. So, is it time for those questions again about Broadway and
‘Blazing Saddles.’

A: I think about it. I’ve got a couple of tunes. I’m thinking about The Waco
Kid and the Black Sheriff doing a duet, something like, you know, ‘You’re Just
in Love’ — you know, the Irving Berlin song? You don’t get it, you’re just
black. (Sings) Why do people hate me, why am I an outcast, why do they treat me
without any respect? And then the counterpoint would be, ‘Well, you’re just
black.’ A cute song for that.

Q: How far along are you? Is this something we can look forward to?
A: I’m toying with it. We’ll see. There’s no big rush. I’ve got a couple of
tunes in it already — one of them is the ‘Ballad of Rock Ridge,’ which is a
lovely song. And then Madeline’s great song: ‘I’m Tired.’

Q: Have you had your eye on anybody around today that could play those roles?
It would be hard to cast, wouldn’t it?

A: No. There’s always somebody, always somebody good that’s going to come
around. I won’t say any names now because I don’t know when I’ll finish it and I
don’t know when I’ll cast it. But it’ll be a new guy who rides into town with a
shiny badge, and that’s the guy, you know?

Q: “Blazing Saddles” had so much to say about racism. And now your son, Max,
has this graphic novel out about ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ — and Will Smith
snapped up rights. You must be so proud.

A: I am, I am! It’s a little-known fact about the 369th black regiment in World
War I that the American army didn’t want to use except as truck drivers and
cooks and bottle washers. The French took them in as a fighting unit and they
ended up winning the Croix de Guerre — they were an incredible unit. It’s a
beautiful book.

Q: Somebody told me that Carl Reiner says you have a Twitter account, but can’t
use it. Is that true?

A: The truth is, I don’t use it much. But I used it the other day to salute
Mickey Rooney. Once in a blue moon I use the Twitter, but I don’t use it too
often. People use it to say ‘I brushed my teeth. I think I missed one.’ You
know, you get a lot of gossipy nonsense, so I’m careful how I use it.

Q: What did you say about Mickey?

A: We were at the racetrack together. I posted the last picture he ever took.
You know, we’re going to miss him a lot. He was the complete talent. Nobody was
more talented, nobody, than Mickey Rooney. He could sing and dance exquisitely.
He could act — he could tear your heart out, as you know if you saw ‘National
Velvet.’ And he was funny and peppy.

Q: You’ve been quoted in the past that there might have been some anger in your
humor, having lost your father at two years old. Now, do you find that humor
helps you through this time that — well, I know I’ve lost some friends and it’s
hard to lose so many people in your life.

A: Humor can conquer over anything. Laughing blows the dust off your soul.

Q: What is on the front burner for you right now?

A: I have been a secret producer. I did about eight or 10 movies hiding my
name. Nobody knows I’m connected to them. They’re called Brooksfilms. They’re
very — there’s ‘The Fly’ with Jeff Goldblum, ‘The Elephant Man,’ there’s
‘Frances’ with Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer. I made ’84 Charing Cross Road’
with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft; ‘The Doctor and the Devils’ Jonathan
Pryce and Twiggy. That is my next project: I am putting them together in a box
set! And I’m finally taking credit for them with a little oval picture of me,
Mel Brooks. I was afraid to be associated with them because of my mad comedy.
Some of these pictures were quite profound and serious. They should be out in
two or three months.

Q: One more thing: What’s the best recipe for staying positive?

A: Thank God every time you wake up and realize you’re alive. OK, I’m up!
Things are going to be OK.