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

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

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.

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Could Classic ‘Hill Street Blues’ Series Survive Today’s TV Scene? James B. Sikking Reflects

James Sikking in character as Lt. Howard Hunter in

James Sikking in character as Lt. Howard Hunter in “Hill Street Blues”

In its heyday, there was no more powerful show on television than “Hill Street Blues.” But could the series that took us into the personal lives of cops survive in today’s TV world? The 26 Emmy-winning, envelope-pushing, career-launching drama is a touchstone of the 80s for many viewers — but early on in its life it held the distinction of being the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed.

We’ll soon be able to gauge this century’s consumer appetite for “Hill Street.” All 144 episodes are being released in a 34-DVD box set complete with commemorative booklet and other goodies by Shout! Factory April 29.

“When the ratings came out, we were devastated, absolutely devastated, because we thought we had a hell of a show,” recalls James B. Sikking — a.k.a. gonzo S.W.A.T. team leader Lt. Howard Hunter. “When we got this terrible rating, like 89th place out of 100, we thought, ‘Wow. Call the agent. We’ve got to go somewhere else to work.'”

What made the challenge all the tougher was that in its first season, “Hill Street” was moved from one timeslot to another, to another. “We were on every night except Sunday,” says Sikking. “We were getting mail saying, ‘Just let us know where it’s going to be on. We’d like to see it.'”

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that the series team was surprised when they received word of its renewal. “I kept saying, ‘How come they picked us up?'” Sikking says, “and hearing this word, ‘Demographics.'”

Statistics showed that the people who were watching “Hill Street Blues” were an affluent, well-educated crowd who in large part had left off watching television except for sports events. They were, Sikking says, what was “quite frequently called ‘the Esquire demographic.’ It was a demographic of people who read the New Yorker, who liked content. We were very high with them, exceedingly high. So NBC said, ‘We’re keeping you, and we’re going to find a spot for you and build around it.’ Because when you can get those people to watch, then you get to advertise Cadillacs, jewelry, fine wine, nice clothes. Then you get really high-paying advertisers. People forget the advertisers we had on the show.”

“Hill Street” climbed to No. 1 and helped NBC build one of its strongest schedules.

As for whether it could survive in today’s vastly different landscape, Sikking says, “It’s hard to say. ‘Breaking Bad’ did well — it was a good show. But it was such a different world 34 years ago with only three networks.”

Sikking, who was friends with “Hill Street” creator Steven Bochco for more than a decade before signing on to the show, says he and Bochco still get together. (In fact, Sikking went on to play father to Neil Patrick Harris’ precocious doctor in Bochco’s “Doogie Howser MD” series and he was among the stars of Bochco’s “Brooklyn South.”) They’re both promoting the box set although “there’s no financial advantage for either of us in this anymore. I’m proud of it; it’s a good show, and those seven years were a joyous time in my life,” he says.

The actor stays in touch with several of the other “Hill Streeters” as well.

But his main focus now is his four grandchildren. At 80, with a long and satisfying portfolio of dozens of films and TV shows, Sikking and wife Florine are enjoying their offspring’s offspring. He says, “We just came back from taking our nine-year-old granddaughter to Washington DC, to help her understand what America is — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the archives. Then we saw how the government works. We went to the House of Representatives. We saw the Lincoln Memorial. It seems to me that somewhere in the educational process we guarantee that a citizen child of America goes to spend three days, five days, a week, in Washington, D.C..”

Somewhere, Howard Hunter is smiling.

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Tom Green Likes Being Separate From the Pack

tom greenTom Green’s enjoying the latest permutation of his eclectic career — commuting back and forth each week between Las Vegas, where he recently started a four-month engagement at the Hard Rock Hotel, and Los Angeles, where he does his weekly live talk show on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV.

“I’ve toured around the world doing stand-up the last few years. So it’s kind of cool, it’s kind of nice to be able to have a little consistency as to where I am,” notes the funny man, whose global itinerary ranged from Australia to Afghanistan, where he entertained troops. Now, “I can do my interview show here in Los Angeles on Thursday nights and then we fly down to Vegas on the weekends and do my shows there. And it’s turning out great.

“I love playing in Vegas because you’ve got people from all over the world and you’re already accepted,” he adds. “It’s kind of a great mixture of people that come out to the shows and that makes it fun.”

His “Tom Green Live” was recently renewed for its third season. The show, which has a hip alternative vibe, devotes an entire hour to one subject, live and impromptu — a sort of homage to one of Green’s favorites, the late Tom Snyder.

“This show that I’m doing on AXS TV is what I’ve always wanted to do. With the long format interview I can get into really interesting conversations with my guests,” says Green. “You know what it’s like to get the opportunity to speak to really interesting people and pick their brain about things. To have time to let a guest actually speak and tell a story and get into detail is really exciting.”

Green’s talk with esteemed CBS anchor emeritus Dan Rather included shots of Wild Turkey and ranged from journalism and broadcasting topics to a demonstration of how Texans chew tobacco. “That was awesome,” says the Pembroke, Ontario, Canada-born personality, who rose to fame with his trailblazing and frequently tacky MTV “The Tom Green Show” that ran from 1999 to 2003.

Other recent guests include Dr. Drew Pinsky talking celebrity-obsessed culture — and a bunch of Green’s favorite comedian pals like Richard Belzer, Andrew Dice Clay, Seth Green, Norm MacDonald, Howie Mandel and Comedy Central’s The Workaholics.

“It’s really neat to have this interactive experience where viewers can call in on Skype and talk to the guests,” he notes.

Talking about Green’s wish list of guests for future shows — how about Mark Cuban himself?

“I’d love to interview Mark Cuban! He’s certainly a great guy to have running this network,” notes Green of the billionaire internet mogul, Dallas Mavericks owner and “Shark Tank” personality. He adds that Cuban has “really been supportive of what I’m doing. It was cool that he was able to see what it is that I’m trying to do and to step up and support me in a bigger way with this outlet.”

Green has made a habit of taking a path apart from the mainstream. He was all over the internet, doing his talk show from his living room, before many in entertainment were paying much attention to the immense possibilities of the medium. Then, when there was a mass rush to the web, Green did live stage shows for audiences around the world. Now others are going short on interviews — and he’s going long.

“I like to do things that are different,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always found success in sort of separating myself from the pack mentality things. My early show was very different. It was before reality TV and it was sort of opening a way to make a show nobody else was doing. I think it found success because it was different from what anybody else was doing. I think people are responding to this show for the same reason. We’re taking it back old school.”

Could he have done this show back in his manic twenties — or is the in-depth interview best served by 42-year-old Tom Green of today?

“Well, when I was in my twenties, interviewing was sort of secondary to the show which was more about pranks and out in the street stuff,” he responds. “Certainly being older and having a different perspective on the world, and probably being closer in age to my guests so I can relate to them more, is helpful. And just having been through more of life personally and understanding human beings a little bit more — how people think and how they want to be treated. And how to make a comfortable environment for them on my show and get the most out of people.

“Certainly being older in those regards has been helpful, and also in interviewing people. But, really, the internet show prepared me for this in so many ways,” he adds. “Having done so many shows and having had so many people coming to the house were I was doing the show. There were really no executives or television people overseeing it, so I was able to really experiment and learn a lot of things. I’ve had a lot of growth and learning in the last 10 years.”

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