The legendary comic provocateur has phoned me from his Los Angeles office to promote the just-released 40th anniversary Blu-ray of his magnum opus, "Blazing Saddles," but before he submits to an interview, he quizzes me about Moviefone's unique pageviews and other Web traffic statistics, about which he knows more than I do. Having concluded that Moviefone is well-trafficked enough for him to talk to, he says, "Ask away, Susman!"
"Blazing Saddles," which made serious satirical points about racism while also making cinema safe for fart jokes, is certainly one of the most influential comedies ever made. Brooks believes it's the funniest film of all time (followed closely by his own "Young Frankenstein"), and he's still upset with the American Film Institute for disagreeing with him. He's making his case for the film with the Blu-ray (which contains a new making-of documentary, among other extras), as well as by trying to drum up interest in a "Blazing Saddles" musical, which could storm Broadway the way his stage versions of "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein" did.
Among the worlds he still has left to conquer is stand-up comedy, at which he struggled half a century ago (though he notes that playing Greenwich Village clubs in the '60s afforded him an opportunity to rub shoulders with the great Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art painters of the day). Just this month, he began performing a one-man show at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles, which he says may turn into an HBO special.
Brooks's undiminished skill at telling hilarious, edgy stories was certainly evident in our interview, where he discussed the rodeo-esque preview screening that saved "Blazing Saddles," his role in bringing together the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder buddy-comedy team, how his own jazz drumming skills brought swing-band titan Count Basie into the movie, the infamous bean scene, and an encounter with Quentin Tarantino that shows just how far-reaching the impact of "Blazing Saddles" remains after 40 years.
Moviefone: What's new on the Blu-ray?
Mel Brooks: That's a good question. There's a great, great commentary by Mel Brooks. Just for that alone, it would be well worth the two bucks extra or whatever.
On television, there was no farting. It was just horses whinnying. And we show that, in the Additional Scenes. We show how stupid the television censors were about all the stuff that the head of Warner Bros. wanted me to take out, that I never took out.
Here's a great story. We had a screening at the Avco Embassy on Wilshire Blvd. here in L.A., and I said, "Let's really do it." We put a wooden railing outside, and we had about 20 cowboys tie their horses up there. In the lobby, we had a dozen steers, and they peed and shat all over the lobby. And we had tons of Raisinettes to sell you. I really did it up.
All the executives at Warner Bros. had seen the movie. And their head of domestic distribution, Leo Greenfield, God rest his soul, said, "Let's bury the movie. It's embarrassing. It's disgusting. We can't put the WB shield on this. Let's write off the $2 million budget. I've never done this before, but I beg you, let's bury this movie." And God bless him, John Calley, who's gone now too, said, "Let's have a screening."
Right from the first scene, they never stopped laughing. Me as the Jewish Indian, they went nuts. People were running up and down the aisles. Ted Ashley, who ran Warner Bros. at the time, took me into the manager's office, and he had a legal pad with notes, and he said, "Cut out the farting! That's out. Can't punch a horse. Can't hit an old lady! No sir! Can't use the N-word. Verboten! It's all out." He had 22 notes. And when he left, John Calley was with me, and I crumpled up the notes and threw them into the waste paper basket. We just went with the audience's reaction, which was stu-PEN-dous! The manager of the theater said he thought there was an earthquake, he'd never heard the place rock so much. And it went on to do exceedingly well.
The only thing that pisses me off is that the AFI, on their list of 100 funniest comedies, they call it No. 6. I think they have the Billy Wilder movie "Some Like It Hot" is No. 1. So I'm really pissed off about that. I think "Blazing Saddles" should be first, there should be five empty spaces after it, and "Young Frankenstein" should come after that. It's the funniest movie ever made in the history of celluloid film, in movie houses, and then in the history of $24 Blu-rays and DVDs. It is the funniest movie ever made in all the world. I know funny movies, so I know that "Blazing Saddles" is supremely the funniest movie ever made.
How did you come to hire Richard Pryor as the film's co-screenwriter?
He worked at the Village Vanguard in New York City. I worked at the Bitter End. We were both stand-ups, killing ourselves trying to get some laughs. We'd meet and have sandwiches and drinks later at Max's Kansas City. What a great place that was. Sitting to the right of us, Roy Lichtenstein. Willem de Kooning sitting behind us. Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, [Robert] Rauschenberg was there, all these great artists. We were all struggling.
He was an old pal. So as soon as I read the Andy Bergman outline, called "Tex X" -- Calley thought it sounded like blaxploitation, so I finally came up with "Blazing Saddles," and everybody thought that was a great title -- I knew I needed somebody to validate the N-word, and the only guy I trusted was Richard. Any other black guy might have said, "No, no, never use it" or "You can only use it here." I knew if the rednecks didn't use it, we wouldn't have the arc, the come-uppance, where the bad guys lose. They had to use it or the picture wouldn't work.
But Richard did too much. I think he gave me too many yeas instead of nays. Every time I asked him if I could use the N-word, he said, "You must! You have to! It's imperative."
Right from the beginning, I wanted him to play the sheriff. And when Warner Bros. said, "No, he has a drug habit. We've done some research. We can't get insurance on Richard Pryor, blah, blah, blah." Some bullsh*t. I said, "Okay, that's the end of me. I'm not directing this movie. I quit." And Richard said, "No, no, no! I didn't get my last payment! Don't quit." So I stayed, and together we looked at a lot of guys, and finally we picked Cleavon Little. Richard really picked him. He said, "Look at that guy. He is really black. He would scare the sh*t out of the entire West. And he's about the handsomest guy I ever saw in my life. Lili Von Shtupp would really go for him."
"Blazing Saddles," then, is the first movie where Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder are credited together, even though they're not both on screen.
I started it all. They liked each other so much. I moved from Warner Bros. to Fox and worked with Gene on "Young Frankenstein." That's when we talked to the people at Fox about "Silver Streak" for Gene and Richard Pryor. "Blazing Saddles" wasn't out yet. They hired him well before the success of "Blazing Saddles."
Let me tell you something. I've done comedy all my life. I'm pretty damn good myself. I just did a one-man show at the Geffen Theater, and I was sensational. But nobody in the world was better than Richard Pryor for stand-up comedy.
In the bean supper scene, where the cowboys keep farting and farting, how did you know when enough was enough?
When we did the farting scene, the first couple of farts, the audience was like, "What? What?" It took five or six farts for the audience to get it. And then they went crazy. We could have gone on for ten minutes, but I decided we had enough laughs and had to get on with the movie. So the first one or two are not funny. But then, slowly and surely, there's acceptance, and then finally, enthusiasm.
How did you land Count Basie for the fanfare scene in the middle of the desert, where Sheriff Bart arrives in his fancy new duds?
I called him. He was a very bright guy. I'd met him before. He said, "Did Buddy [Rich] teach you to drum?" I said, "Yeah, how did you know?" He knew that I was a drummer, so he trusted me. And he'd seen "The Producers," and he loved it. I explained the movie to him, and he said, "Sure." I said, "Do me a favor. Try to get as many band members, even if they're no longer with you, that we would know from the '30s and '40s." So he did. He got the whole company.
His most famous record was "April in Paris." He suggested, "Let's do 'Paris,'" and he did the exact arrangement. He didn't have to because we had the original recording. He was happy to be there, up in the desert. It was amazing. We hung out together for a couple of nights. We had corned beef hash and brandy. And chili. And Cleavon was good, too. I said, "Cleavon, help me out with the Count." He stayed and kept company with us every night.
You've said in recent interviews that political correctness would make it impossible to release "Blazing Saddles" today.
I was wrong because "Django [Unchained]" made it. I think [Quentin Tarantino] used the N-word twice as much as I did. You have to know how. I saw Tarantino at a restaurant the other day, and he said to me, "If it wasn't for 'Blazing Saddles,' I could have never made, 'Django,'" and I said, "Come on, you would have made it anyway."
Do you think it's possible to make a movie comedy that goes too far?
I just don't like movies that try to be funny and aren't. There are no rules in comedy about what to say. It's how to say it. If you say it well, you can say anything. That show "The Book of Mormon," that's strictly taboo, but they did it so well that you just have to fall down laughing and stand up and applaud. So it's how you do it.
Why did you stop making movies?
Nobody came anymore. You reach a point -- you're hot, you're hot, you're hot, you're lukewarm, you're chilling, you're cold, you're out. The last three movies I made did not bring in a lot of customers. I did a movie that I think is one of my best, called "Life Stinks," and the subject matter and the title sent people away in droves. I did "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," but I didn't star in it, which was a mistake. And I thought, "If I'm not going to be super-successful at this, I'm going to do something else."
So I went to Broadway, and I was super-successful. "The Producers" won 12 Tonys and was the biggest musical in 25 years to hit the boards. So I was up again.
And now, I don't know, I'm just treading water. I'm doing pretty good. Here I am, being a stand-up comic again, after being at the Bitter End 45, 50 years ago, doing the circuit as a stand-up comic. Maybe you'll see it on HBO.
If I work on "The French Mistake" from "Blazing Saddles" -- remember that? The Busby Berkeley number? If I make that a big production number, maybe we can work our way back to getting "Blazing Saddles" on Broadway. It would make a very funny and very entertaining show.
I've never really gone away. I've found places to be famous again, to be successful again, to make a living again. I've never slunk away from show business.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for WGAw