During the time I was writing my weekly newspaper column – between 1968 and 1970 – I decided to move to New York to become a comedian. That was a mistake. Or I didn’t give it enough time. No, it was a mistake. Probably. Yeah. No. I don’t know. Maybe. Forty years later and it’s still, “I’m not sure.”
While in New York, I got to interview two iconic comedy geniuses – Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. The following – which I will divide into two parts because it’s long – is the column I wrote after my memorable encounter with Mel.
Uncharacteristically bold, I had called Mel Brooks’s office several times, receiving secretarially delivered rejections for my request for an interview on each occasion. Sometimes he was busy. Sometimes he had a cold. Sometimes he was in France. There was always an excuse. But I never gave up. I had his number (I don’t remember how I got it), and I just kept trying.
This two-parter concludes my columnal archive trek down Memory Lane, which I believe was a street my grandparents used to lived on. Though I can’t remember for sure. I have several other columns that seem worthy of reviving, including the Woody Allen interview. If you’re curious about early Earl writing efforts for whatever reason – maybe you’re a new writer and you want to see how bad you can start out and still be good later – let me know. My copies of the columns are aging, and the words are starting to smudge off the page into oblivion. So it’s now, or at least soon for this, or never.
Okay. An interview with Mel Brooks. Circa 1970.
You know who I met today? Mel Brooks. He’s the guy who helped create “Get Smart” and just won an Oscar for “The Producers.” This afternoon, I phoned his office to see if I could interview him. I had done this several times before, and the answer had always been “No.” Not from Mel himself. From an employee. But there could easily have been a small, Jewish man behind them, going, “Tell him ‘No.’”
I’m steadying myself for a new shipment of rejection when I hear Mel Brooks’s actual voice on the other end of the phone.
“Where are you?” he asks.
“I’m at a phone booth in Central Park.”
“Come over right away.”
“Really? How come?”
“I used to be you,” replies Brooks, referring to my status as an aspiring comedy writer.
”How did you like it?” I inquire, instinctively the penetrating prober.
“I didn’t know any better. I loved it.”
“I’m coming over right now, okay?” At the same time I’m telling him, I’m also giving my legs notice to warm up for a fast walk.
“I can’t wait,” All this excitement. He must think I’m somebody else.
So I run quick over to West 56th Street to “A&M Productions” and I sit on a blue couch with my feet buried in a deep orange carpet. That’s the Waiting Room. Sitting in a glass-covered hole in the wall is a real Oscar. I figure it’s for “The Producers” but it turns out to be for a documentary called “The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.” Later, Mel tells me his Oscar is sitting on top of the television at his mother’s house.
Mel hangs up from a phone call, comes out and takes me into his office. He’s wearing a blue suit and a tie. He sits down and immediately starts talking.
“First, I was a drummer in The Mountains. But I kept dropping the sticks. The band leader says, “Maybe drumming’s not for you.” Then the comic got sick and I went on. I came out and said, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’, and a woman at the front table says, ‘Oy, English!’ I did jokes like, ‘The room was so small, the mice were hunchbacked.’ The boss of the place, Pincus Cohen says, “Maybe comedy’s not for you.” Then I went in the army, and the sergeant says, “Maybe the army’s not for you.”
Well, I’m still dazed from “Come over right away”, but I don’t remember asking him about drumming or the army. In my head, I had only one question: “When’s he gonna throw me out?”
“I volunteered for the army so I could go to college, become an officer and not die. Then, after D-Day, they sent me to France and Belgium and on the first day of my war, we were surrounded by Germans. ‘Battle of the Bulge.’ I shot at fleeting gray shadows in the distance. If I hit any, I hope they were Germans.”
“How did you become a comedy writer?” I asked, neatly picking up the thread. Suddenly, he became aware of my presence in the room. Before, he was just talking and I happened to be there.
“I don’t do these interviews anymore. Used to be, a guy’d call me up from Brooklyn College. I’d say, ‘Sure, come over. We’ll talk.’ They’d ask me, ‘How did you become a comedy writer?’ and I’d say, ‘First, you gotta walk backwards for a year and a half. Then sideways…’ But now I’m too busy with myself to bother with that. I have to spend time with my three children from a former marriage and a wife from a present marriage. Why I’m bothering with you, I have no idea.”
“Did you ever really want to be a performer?” I asked, trying to inject some coherence into the conversation. I admitted to him that I’m trying to do some performing, but that, so far, every time I go on stage, moss starts growing on my tongue and my cheeks fill up with marbles. He nodded an “I know” nod.
“A comedian starting out is a loser,” he encouraged. “The natural thrust underneath his comedy is hostility. Polite hostility. That’s comedy. But when the hostility takes over, then it’s no longer comedy. It’s felonious assault.”
He mentally develops the idea further as he throws a brass egg in the air and catches it. “Then there’s the difficult transition when you become a hit. Everybody starts taking you in, and a lot of your reason for being a comic is gone.”
“Did you like performing?” I asked. Mel had done some solo stuff and then, after his eight-year writing assignment for Sid Caesar, an old Catskills crony, he teamed up with Carl Reiner and produced a series of brilliant “2000 Year Old Man” routines. That’s what I was asking about.
“Tell them...‘For a while there, it was great.’ How’s that?”
“We did all the big shows – ‘Hollywood Palace’, ‘The Timex Special’, everything. The best think I may have ever done was the first ‘2000 Year Old Man’ record. It was the most natural, easy thing I had to do. All ad lib. We cut out the stinkers and kept the good ones. No, I never played clubs. Why not? How many Cuban busboys can you talk to in the kitchen waiting to go on?”
“What do you think the human world thinks of performers?” I asked. I knew what my mother thought, and I wanted to find out how typical she was.
“No matter what you do and how well you do it, at best, you’re a jester and people feel they have the right to shout, usually affectionately, “There goes that nut!” or smash you on the back on the head and say, “I love you, you dopey monkey!”
“That’s a slight humiliation for an adult with children. To them, you’re a Zoo Person, unfit for anything else. They encourage in you the thought that you couldn’t do a regular thing. It’s gotten harder and harder for me to perform. My need for that is not a fierce as it was.”
“What replaced it?” I asked.
I think I’ll stop here. The rest of my Mel Brooks interview tomorrow.