Skip to main content

Mel Brooks: 'I'm An EGOT; I Don't Need Any More'

The screenwriter, producer, director and actor, whose name has become synonymous with American comedy, talks about his penchant for spoofs and his decades-long friendship with Carl Reiner. Brooks is among a handful of people who've won Emmy, grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on December 27, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 27, 2013: Interview with Mel Brooks; Interview with Amy Schumer.


December 27, 2013

Guests: Mel Brooks - Amy Schumer

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. This week on FRESH AIR, we've been replaying what we feel would be some of your favorite interviews of the year if we'd asked you. Today we reach back into our 2013 archives and revisit interviews with comic Amy Schumer and comedian, writer and filmmaker Mel Brooks.

The Mel Brooks interview certainly is one of the favorite things I did for FRESH AIR this year. I love the guy and his work. On TV, he wrote for "Your Show of Shows" and "Get Smart." On film, he wrote and directed "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety" and "The Producers." And on Broadway, his musical version of "The Producers" broke the record for the most Tony wins.

When I spoke with Mel Books in May, it was when PBS presented an "American Masters" special on Brooks by Richard Trachtenberg's called "Feel the Noise." Here's the opening story Brooks tells in that special about his formative introduction to the Broadway musical.


MEL BROOKS: OK, I'm nine years old. Uncle Joe drove a taxicab. One day he said, hey Mel, I got two tickets to a brand new show called "Anything Goes." And he said, well, it's a musical, it's on Broadway, and we've got two seats, the last two seats in the last row of the second balcony. It's thrilling and Broadway theater, I'm nine years old.


ETHEL MERMAN: Why, it's Gabriel, Gabriel playing, Gabriel, Gabriel saying...

BROOKS: I couldn't catch my breath. There was Ethel Merman, no microphones, and she was still too loud, you know, and it was two miles away. One incredible number after another. I was literally crying with happiness.

BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BROOKS: David Bianculli, a pleasure to be here.

BIANCULLI: What I love about that is that you have so much enthusiasm in your voice, and I've always thought that you couldn't really do a great parody of something unless you understood and enjoyed it.

BROOKS: True. I loved Westerns as a little kid, and I loved horror films, and I had fun with them, but I also saluted the glory of the Western and the glory of James Whale's, you know, "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." And, you know, what does a little kid in Brooklyn have when it comes to art? It ain't much, but those movies that you got in, and we didn't have any money.

I was the baby boy of four - altogether we're four brothers. My mother lost her husband, I lost my - I was only two. And he died of tuberculosis. And we were really, you know, poor, I mean dead poor. So I cherished those movies because they really lifted my spirits and are indelibly engraved in my brain as important steps in my world education.

BIANCULLI: And what about, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whom you lampooned in "High Anxiety"? Those would have come a little later for you, but you clearly loved those too.

BROOKS: Much later, but I - I always thought, you know, that Alfred Hitchcock was the very best director who ever directed films. And I had the idea for "High Anxiety." I wrote a letter saying basically, dear Mr. Hitchcock, you know, I do genre parodies, and I - in my estimation you are a genre.

I don't mean that you're overweight. I mean that you - that you've done every style and every type of movie and that you're just amazing, and I would like to do a movie dedicated to you and based on your style and your work.

And he said - he called me, and he said I loved "Blazing Saddles." I think you're a very talented guy, and come to my office. I came to his office at Universal. And he told me to come back every Friday at a quarter to 12:00 because at 12:30 we would eat, so 45 minutes of work. And he would work on my script, on "High Anxiety," with me.

And he said, well, don't leave out this, and don't leave out that. He said, what are you going to do about "The Birds." I said, well, gee, at the moment I haven't included it. And he said, well, why don't you have them attack you with their - you know, with their doody. He said it's going to be funny. I said thank you, thank you, Mr. Hitchcock. I loved him.

He was colorful, he was sweet, and he saw the rough cut of "High Anxiety." And he got up and wiggled by me, never said a word. I said, oh my God - oh, I'm ruined, it's terrible. And he left, and 24 hours later a beautiful wooden box arrives placed on my desk.

It is six magnums of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1961, priceless, maybe the greatest wine ever made, including Rothschild or any other, and with a little note saying have no anxiety over "High Anxiety," it's wonderful, love Hitch.

BIANCULLI: "The Producers" I consider your masterwork, and you've worked it several very clever times. I want to start with the 1968 movie and play a fast clip and then ask you some questions about it. It's basically about an accountant who discovers that a producer could make a fortune with a flop Broadway show by raising millions for a program that's so bad it would actually close on opening night.

In the movie, in the original 1968 film, Zero Mostel plays the producer, Gene Wilder plays the accountant, and in this scene they're going through stacks of scripts looking for a really bad play, which the producer thinks he's just found.


ZERO MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) Touch it, touch it.

GENE WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) What is it?

MOSTEL: (As Max) Smell it. See it. Touch it, touch it.

WILDER: (As Leo) What is it?

MOSTEL: (As Max) What is it? We've struck gold, not fool's good but real gold, the mother lode, the mother lode, the mother of them all. Kiss it, kiss it.

WILDER: (As Leo) You've found a flop?

MOSTEL: (As Max) A flop, that's putting it mildly. We found a disaster, catastrophe, an outrage, a guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty.

WILDER: (As Leo) Let's see it.

MOSTEL: (As Max) This is freedom from want forever. This is a house in the country. This is a Rolls Royce and a Bentley. This is wine, women and song - and women.

WILDER: (As Leo) "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." Wow.

MOSTEL: (As Max) Wow, it's practically a love letter to Hitler.

WILDER: (As Leo) This won't run a week.

MOSTEL: (As Max) A week? Are you kidding? This play has got to close on Page Four.

BIANCULLI: That was Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the original movie version of "The Producers." When you won the Oscar for, I guess, Best Original Screenplay for "The Producers," you thanked Gene Wilder three times. Why did you do that?

BROOKS: Well because Gene, like Sid Caesar, in my life I've had a couple - well, Zero was magnificent, really, but Gene brought a certain something that was never before, was kind of creative comedy. And he worked tirelessly. He's really the nucleus, the brilliant key to the emotion of the whole piece.

BIANCULLI: Well, casting in a lot of your projects is so critical. So to jump to the Broadway version of "The Producers," how did you decide, or how quickly did you decide, on Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick?

BROOKS: Well, we already had Nathan right from the beginning. As soon as we thought of Max Bialystock, we thought of Nathan Lane, you know. And Nathan also thought Matthew was a great choice. Matthew was very, very good, talent, a good singer, he could do anything.

BIANCULLI: Well, here's an example of their chemistry. This is from the 2005 movie version of "The Producers" with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, just a fast clip when they're discussing the upcoming show, and Matthew Broderick's Leo Bloom asks how much money they should be investing in their own show.


NATHAN LANE: (As Max) Bloom, the two cardinal rules of being a Broadway producer are: One, never put your own money in the show.


LANE: (As Max) Never put your own money in the show! Get it?

BRODERICK: (As Leo) Got it.

LANE: (As Max) Good.

BIANCULLI: No matter how many times I hear that, it's laugh-out-loud funny to me.

BROOKS: And it's true, I believe it. I've never put my own money in the show, you know. I put my talent on the line, and my money I save for Saturday night restaurants.

BIANCULLI: Now, you watched them perform so many times and then did the movie. How did their onstage chemistry change or deepen over time from your perspective?

BROOKS: Good word, good word, good word, David Bianculli, good word - it deepened. It did deepen because they got to love each other more and more in terms of their characters feeling the emotion for each other. So when finally, you know, near the end of their first year together, when - we were in tears when Leo makes that speech in the courtroom about how much - how good Bialystock really is, and how much he loves him. And so it did deepen.

BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks, in a conversation from May. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to my May 2013 interview with filmmaker, comedian, writer and composer Mel Brooks.

"Young Frankenstein" came out the same year as "Blazing Saddles." The stand-down seen as Gene Wilder as the scientist and Peter Boyle as the creature singing "Puttin' on the Ritz," and I know that that was not your idea, that was co-writer Gene Wilder's.


BIANCULLI: So how long did it take before you figured out he was right? And then I have a question about what sort of direction you gave to Peter Boyle for that number - especially his singing.


BROOKS: Well, actually, you know, when Gene first brought it up to show the wizardry of this, you know, Dr. Frankenstein, coming up with this incredible creature and re-animating dead tissue, and not only does it move, does it walk and talk, but it also dazzles you with song and dance, you know.

I said I think we're tearing it, Gene. You know, we're going too far. We want some of the verisimilitudeness quality that was in the, you know, in the original James Whale movie, you know, which was serious and scary, and I don't want to lose the seriousness and the scariness of it just for silly comedy, you know, just for taking comedy too far.

And he kept pushing. He said no, no, it will show, demonstrate the doctor's ability to teach the monster. And finally he kept bugging me, and I said look, OK, I'm going to shoot it, and I'm going to put it aside, and we'll see whether or not it's useful in the main body of the picture, OK? And then when I saw it later with all the film that we had collected, I said, gee, it may be the best thing in the film.


BROOKS: I called Gene and I said you're absolutely right all the time, and I'm glad we're - it's in, totally, and I'm looking on the cutting room floor for any outtakes, you know.

BIANCULLI: And what direction did you give to Peter Boyle like how he - and was "Puttin' on the Ritz" always the first song choice?

BROOKS: Yes, always. Irving Berlin and I said, Peter, sing it from your heart. Sing it like it's a cry of love and freedom and everything you can think of that's good. And he did.

(Singing) Puttin' on the Ritz...


BIANCULLI: Well, here it is from 1974.


WILDER: (as Dr. Frankenstein) Ladies and Gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs, Damen und Herren, from what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I present a cultured, sophisticated, man about town. Hit it.


WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits?


PETER BOYLE: (as Monster) (Singing) Puttin' on the Ritz.

WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) Different types who wear a day coat. Pants with stripes or cutaway coat. Perfect fits.

BOYLE: (as Monster) (Singing) Puttin' on the Ritz.

WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) Dressed up like a million dollar trouper. Trying mighty hard to look like Gary Cooper.

BOYLE: (as Monster) (Singing) Super-Dooper.

WILDER: (Dr. Frankenstein) (Singing) Come let's mix where Rockefellers...

BIANCULLI: You know, I have to thank you.


BIANCULLI: I have to thank you for that scene. It may be one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema comedy.

I'm going to jump to the "2000 Year Old Man" now. You started this act at parties. You recorded an album. You won a Grammy. You went on from there. I figure before I ask you my questions about the "2000 Year Old Man," I'd give a taste. This is from you and Carl on the Andy Williams show from 1966.

BROOKS: Oh, good. I don't remember that. Let me hear it.




CARL REINER: Of all the discoveries of all time, what would you consider the greatest? Would you say it was the wheel, the lever, fire?

BROOKS: Fire. Fire. Far and away, fire. Fire is the hottest thing going. Fire, you can't beat fire.


REINER: Really?

BROOKS: Fire used to warm us and light up our caves so we wouldn't walk into a wall, so we would marry our brother Bernie.

REINER: That's right.



BROOKS: That's Satan's hell, fire. And cooking, oh, you can't be fire.

REINER: When did they first learn to cook with fire?

BROOKS: It was an accident. That was an accident, a chicken.


BROOKS: A chicken walked into the fire by mistake and over. (makes sound) And over. Burnt. Burnt up.


REINER: What? That chicken?

BROOKS: Yes. We didn't use him. We kept around the cave as pets.

REINER: I see.

BROOKS: We love to hear eh, eh. We loved that. So we took it out to give it the funeral, you know, bury it, because it was our pet and we all went...


BROOKS: Hey, that smells good.


BROOKS: So we ate them up and since then we've been eating chickens.

REINER: You know, I've heard this story, but I've heard that the animal that wandered into the fire accidentally was a pig.

BROOKS: Not in my cave.


BIANCULLI: That's Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in one of their...

BROOKS: I remember that.

BIANCULLI: ..."2000 Year Old Man" sketch. Do you remember how much of that if any was improvised?

BROOKS: Well, actually, when we were on television, we laid out the jokes. We laid out what we would do. When we made our first two albums, I said to Carl, don't tell me anything, nothing in advance, just hit me with questions than when I can't come up with a good answer, cut it.

When I come up with a great answer, keep it in. And that's the way we did our first two albums, you know, various characters and, of course, the "2000 Year Old Man" emerged as the leading comedy force in the albums.

BIANCULLI: Carl Reiner is widely and rightly acknowledged as one of the great straight men of all time, and working opposite him must've been a joy. But your friendship with him goes far past the projects you've done together, and now you're getting together almost every night to watch movies and have dinner. It sounds like such a nice thing to do.

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, it is. He's my best friend and, you know, we're like (unintelligible) tuck in bloom, we're joined at the hip. And he lost his wife may be a year or two years ago. I lost my wife maybe 10 years ago, so it's actually eight - to be exact. And we miss them, and they loved each other, too, so we can't find any other people that understand our ancient references, you know.

Now when you guys are watching movies together, just for your own enjoyment, and you're watching comedies, who and what, you know, gets you to laugh the most now?

Well, that's a tough question because if you say one name you're going to hurt somebody else's feelings. But, you know, I like the...

BIANCULLI: But without being exclusionary, what's the last one that you both watched together that made you both laugh? I'm not saying be inclusive, but what's the most recent one?

BROOKS: Well, I think "Wreck-It Ralph." We saw the cartoon, we liked it, with John C. Riley playing Ralph. I don't know if you the cartoon.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. No. I know that. The...

BROOKS: And we just loved, you know, Penelope played by Sarah Silverman. She's glorious.


BROOKS: And generally, she's one of the few new - you know, there's Amy Schumer come along too who is wonderful. But I mean, but there are people that come along that are really good and funny, you know, and Silverman was - we both love her.

BIANCULLI: I want to play one last clip. This is one that I absolutely adore. It's not a film that you directed. It's a remake of "To Be Or Not To Be" in which you and your wife Anne Bancroft play actors in Poland on the eve of World War II. And there's an early scene where you to perform a singing and dancing duet in Polish of "Sweet Georgia Brown." To me it looks like pure joy and...

BROOKS: It was. It was pure joy. It was pure joy, and "Sweet Georgia Brown" is one of Anne's favorite songs and one of mine. And, you know, and we'd often sing it together anyway and because I could do the harmonies and stuff. And with "To Be Or Not To Be" we said well, let's do that, and but we're in Poland, I suggested we do it in Polish.


BROOKS: You know, and just the only English we would do would be "Sweet Georgie Brown," you know, and it was - it worked. I mean, I think of all the rehearsals we did and the joy of finally being together, working on a movie together and being there every day. And, you know, so we saw each other for a period of three or four months 24 hours a day. And it wasn't bad. It was kind of beautiful.

BIANCULLI: If you don't mind me asking, this is a personal question not a cinematic one. Was there a secret to your marriage?

BROOKS: I don't know if there was a secret. I don't know what you would call a secret. I think we - from the first minute I saw her I fell in love, and it lasted until the day she died. That's something. That was the secret. I mean I just fell in love with her.

BIANCULLI: That was a pretty good answer. So thank you. Thank you very much, Mel. Congratulations.

BROOKS: Thank you, David. This has almost been fun.


BIANCULLI: Mel Brooks speaking to me last May. Coming up in another of our favorite interviews from 2013, one of the young comics Mel singled out as a current favorite, Amy Schumer. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

Another 2013 interview we're happy to repeat in this end of year look back is Terry's conversation with comic Amy Schumer. Her Comedy Central series, "Inside Amy Schumer," will return for a second season next year, and she's currently on a U.S. comedy stand-up tour that runs through the spring.

When Terry spoke to Amy Schumer in June, the first season of "Inside Amy Schumer" was just about to conclude. Her TV show is a mix of stand-up, sketch comedy and interviews. But her comedy persona on stage is that of an attractive, middle-class, educated, single woman who's a little slutty.

As her executive producer Dan Powell put it, she can say the most filthy, obscene things in the sweetest manner. She won't be sweetly obscene in this comedy with Terry, but it is an adult conversation about her comedy and there may be some punch lines that you won't want to explain to young children.

Here's an example of Schumer's stand-up comedy from the first season of "Inside Amy Schumer."


AMY SCHUMER: I'm a little sluttier than the average bear. I really am, a little sluttier. I can be honest about that. Like I'm no stranger to Plan B, I'll say that. I'm not like what is that, like I know what that is. It's the morning-after pill. You can take it the night before if you're feeling amped, you know, just like walk by a mirror, catch a glimpse of yourself in a new tube top, like whoa, pop, you can do that.

You feel like such a dirty whore buying Plan B. It is so embarrassing because it's over-the-counter, but you have to ask your pharmacist. And they know what you want, but they make you ask. They're looking at me; I'm like you see where my eyeliner is. Just give it to me.


SCHUMER: The staring contest. What, do you think I'm here because it's allergy season, really?

TERRY GROSS, HOST: That's Amy Schumer from her show "Inside Amy Schumer." Amy Schumer, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SCHUMER: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: My sense of responsibility as a journalist requires me to say you really can't take Plan B the night before, so...

SCHUMER: Oh yes, uh...

GROSS: I just want to make sure everybody knows that that's a joke and that they don't try that, so...

SCHUMER: It didn't even occur to me that someone would take that as actual advice. Wow, I should really have more ownership over that. But I like that that was one of the cleaner clips that you found to play.

GROSS: Yes, exactly, exactly. So I just have to ask you: Do you really think of yourself as a slut?

SCHUMER: I often wonder how attractive I am and how slutty I am. That's something I'm back and forth on. But I think I have been promiscuous, and I think a lot of women have. So I like to talk about it as a way to maybe make those other women feel less alone and less strange and dirty about their own actions.

GROSS: Tell us more how that became your comic persona.

SCHUMER: That wasn't on purpose. I started out very much set-up, punch line. And I think, you know, I started when I was 22 or 23 years old. So I've always been sexual. I've always been a sexual girl, but it just, it was coming out more and more in my stand-up. So it wasn't a conscious decision, but then I was getting ready to film my hour special for Comedy Central, and they said, you know, it's a lot of stuff about sex. Can you maybe mix it up more, maybe some racism or something else?


SCHUMER: And I said, well, I said why don't we just call it "Mostly Sex Stuff." And so it was kind of like a lazy decision, and that was really when I realized wow, this is, it is a lot of stuff about sex. But I didn't grow up hearing any women really delving into that side of themselves, and so I thought OK, maybe I can be this person for women and for men just to hear the woman's perspective in a, you know, a like less apologetic, honest way.

And I don't know if I'm going to veer away from that or what, but I've been trying to keep it pretty natural, just stuff I'm interested in talking about.

GROSS: So a lot of male comics talk about sex a lot onstage.


GROSS: More than your average female comic does. What did you take from that male approach to sex comedy, and what did you reject from it?

SCHUMER: Oh, I don't know that I could really generalize the male approach to comedy and sex, but I do know that I'll get offstage, and the club owner will be like that was a lot about sex. And they would never say that to a male comic, Dave Attell or Jim Norton would never get offstage and have a promoter of a theater or a club go over, like, you like to talk about sex.

You know, so it's just this - that was made such a - that there's such a stigma with being a woman who talks about sex, and there's just sort of no repercussions, I think, if you're a male comic that talks about sex. They wouldn't label you that way, I don't think.

GROSS: So you do talk a lot about sex onstage, and you do use the word vagina a lot onstage. Were you always comfortable talking about sex in front of a microphone and using that word? Because I think a lot of girls grow up feeling, like, so uncomfortable using any word that describes the sexual parts of their body.

SCHUMER: I'm glad you asked that. Yeah, I - well, one thing is my mom, other than - I have a joke where I say she - oh, I'm going to bring her to a soccer game because I want to show her what boundaries look like. I just grew up in a house where things weren't that taboo to talk about. And my mom when she was teaching us how to say our different body parts taught me how to say vagina the same that she taught me how to say ear.

I think she wanted us to be able to tell her if we were ever molested without being embarrassed. And so there wasn't this sense of shame, and I was running around naked to an age that probably wasn't appropriate and just never was made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of my body or think anything was wrong with me.

You know, and to a - probably to a fault because now if I do a photo shoot, and - I'm a comedian, but if any woman shows up to a photo shoot for a magazine, it's usually, you know, they sexualize it. And so they'll be like well, what about with your shirt off. And I'm like sure just because I don't think of that as a big deal. But as I'm getting older, I'm learning to put more value and value my privacy more of my body and some of my personal information.

I definitely am an over-sharer, and I'm trying to get better with that. As I'm becoming more well-known, I - it's more important for me to keep some of my information private.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actress Amy Schumer, and her show on Comedy Central is called "Inside Amy Schumer."

So you do some interviews in your shows, and in one set of interviews you're interviewing people on the street about whether they sext or not and whether they like being sexted. And I - do you ever do that?

SCHUMER: Do I sext? Oh, you mean have I ever sent like a sexual message to somebody over text?

GROSS: Yes, or a picture of yourself?

SCHUMER: Oh yeah, definitely. I - you know, now that I'm more well-known, I can't put my head in them.


GROSS: But now, I've definitely over the years, yeah, I've been in long-distance relationships, and it's definitely happened. Yeah, I have definitely engaged in sext messaging and received and sent dirty photos. What about you?

Who, me?


SCHUMER: Sorry, I just, I couldn't help myself.

GROSS: So one of your sketches ends up with - I forget whether you're sexting or what, but it ends with you turning on the end of like an old black-and-white like 1930s or 1940s movie where like the romantic finale is the kiss.



GROSS: And it's so chaste and romantic compared to all the sexting and everything. And do you think that that's the kind of split that you sometimes have in your own life of, like, doing all this, like, explicit stuff but loving, like, the romantic fantasies of, say, old 1940s movies?

SCHUMER: Yeah, I think so, and the scene where I'm sexting, I'm sitting there, and a guy doesn't know where he's catching you. He's like what are you wearing. And I'm sitting there, and I'm wearing a T-shirt with a cat on it, wearing a bonnet that says Downton Catty. And I'm eating pasta with my hands. And so I wrote that scene, and I thought what if I wrote back what I was actually thinking, which is, you know, he's like what do you want me to do to you, and I'm like tell me I'm safe in my apartment.


SCHUMER: Tell me what all the remotes do. And then also trying to navigate what does this guy want me to say. You know, like just I don't know. But yeah, like just, that girls - I still do want that romance and to be adored by someone, but then there's also this high demand to be super sexual, and that's being asked I think of a lot of women more and more now. I'm assuming with the younger generation, the sort of sexual demands are so much higher now.

And so I just - I think that scene is just showing a real girl just trying to navigate this new territory.

GROSS: I worry about those sexual expectations.


GROSS: You know, I think for some young women, the attitude is, well, now that we've all been through feminism, now it's safe to be sexual objects again and to learn how to strip for our boyfriends and become pole dancers.



GROSS: I mean, do you find that disturbing at all?

SCHUMER: Yeah, I think it's totally disturbing. I feel very lucky that I grew up before Facebook and before Internet porn. I - it's such tough territory to navigate now. And I'm just dealing with guys that came up on the end of it, where they just were exposed to it. You know, they're in their 30s, and some of them have a lot of trouble with it. And there's new addictions because of it and these new expectations on these girls.

Like I didn't feel any pressure when I was younger to be overly sexual because there wasn't that much exposure to it.

BIANCULLI: Amy Schumer, speaking to Terry Gross in June. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's June 2013 interview with comic Amy Schumer. We're replaying it as one of our favorite interviews of the year.

GROSS: So there's another sketch I want to play, and this is - this is a real girl thing. It's a sketch about how girls handle compliments from other girls. And this sketch starts with two girlfriends running into each other on the street, and Amy Schumer enters the scene a little bit later.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Oh my God, Bree(ph), you died your hair. It looks amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Bree) Oh no, you're just being nice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) No seriously, it looks great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Bree) No, I tried to look like Kate Hudson but ended up looking like a golden retriever's dingleberry. But you, look at your cute little dress.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Little? I'm like a Size 100 now. Anyway, I paid like $2 for it. It's probably made out of old Burger King crowns. I look like a whore locked out of her apartment.

SCHUMER: (as herself) Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Amy, hi. Hey. I love your hat.

SCHUMER: (as herself) Are you drunk? I look like an Armenian man. People are trying to buy carpets from me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Excuse me, when did you start working for NASA? You're weightless.

SCHUMER: (as herself) (Bleep) you. I'm a (bleep) cow. Indian people are trying to worship me. I sleep standing up in a field.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Fancy meeting you girls here.

SCHUMER: Of course I see everyone when I look like Susan Boyle's toothbrush.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Jessica) You look so pretty.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Ms. Jessica(ph), congrats on your big promotion beeatch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Jessica) I'm going to get fired in like two seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character)No.

SCHUMER: (as herself) I'm legally retarded. On my SATs I just drew a picture of a house on the first page and ate the rest.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Jessica) Lindsey(ph)...


GROSS: That's a sketch from "Inside Amy Schumer," and Amy Schumer is my guest. I recognize that, I really do.


SCHUMER: Well, good.

GROSS: That sense of, like, if somebody says something nice to you that you have to somehow answer it with a self-insult, with something like really self-derogatory.

SCHUMER: SCHUMER: Yeah, I think a lot of it...

GROSS: Why is that? What is that about?

SCHUMER: I don't - I have some ideas. I think it might be because we're afraid of jealousy from other women, or it might be from actual self-hatred, but I know that every girl I know does that. And - but I think that scene, it kind of - it went viral, you know, whatever that means. A lot of people watched it and responded to it. And especially women, of course, and they - everybody just recognized that behavior in themself.

And I think it has affected the women that have seen it. It's affected me because you catch yourself doing that. We just noticed we were doing it around the writers' office and to a ridiculous degree. We just thought let's shine a light on this, and we do that as much as possible on the show, but I'm glad that that one resonated with people.

GROSS: So this was women in the writers' office doing that?

SCHUMER: This - well, I mean, we all - every scene wound up being a big collaboration, but yeah, it was the women in the office doing it. The men, I've never noticed men doing that. I'll be like that's a great shirt, and then the guy will just wear that shirt all week.


GROSS: So if somebody compliments you now, instead of like putting yourself down - now that you're aware of this syndrome, do you just say thank you, how nice.

SCHUMER: I really tried but I still struggle with that. I still will catch myself. I do it. Yeah. But I think I probably do it half as much now that I - but there's a lot of my standup that I will say and then recognize that behavior in myself that I still do it. I think a lot of comedians do.

GROSS: One of the things you say in one of your stand-up routines is that every woman has probably been a little bit raped. What do you mean?

SCHUMER: Let's get into it, Terry.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, what do you mean by that?

SCHUMER: Most women I know, that I'm close to, have had a sexual experience that they were really uncomfortable with and that if it wasn't completely rape, it was something very similar to rape. And so I say it's not all black and white. There's a gray area of rape, and I call it grape.

And it's the guy you went home with in college, and you said no, and then he still did it. Or maybe you woke up, and it was somebody you were dating, and they were - you know, there's just so many different things that can happen. And so it's not always this, well, you're going to jail, you know, and that's it.

There's other stuff where it's like wow, it would be so - it would be so much work, and it would be such a life-changer for me to - for me to press charges or take any action against this person. But every girl I know has had some experience that is kind of like grape.

GROSS: Do you get a big response when you say that?

SCHUMER: Yeah, the women all laugh. And then the men look to see if they're allowed to laugh, and then they laugh. And I wondered when I first started that, and then when everything happened in Steubenville, I wondered oh, should I stop saying that. But it just really still struck a chord in people, and it was a powerful response of just yeah, that's true. It was just another yeah, this is something that happens.

GROSS: So are you at all concerned that making jokes about being, you know, quote, slightly raped will, like, diminish the importance of talking about rape and of taking it seriously?

SCHUMER: No, not the way I'm saying it. If anything, I hope it will raise more awareness and make people feel more comfortable having a conversation about it. If you listen to the whole - that whole joke, I say someone sleeping, that's a no. Because I say that at a certain age, men take a woman sleeping as a suggested no. And I say that's a no. And I say there's this other area, and I say everyone has been a little raped.

I think I'm bringing the conversation to the table so that people will feel more comfortable to talk about it. I'm in no way - my intention is not to minimize how serious rape is, and I don't think I'm doing that, and that's not the response that I've gotten to that joke. But I - and I do take more responsibility now over my material and the reaction to it, and I was especially careful with that, with that subject.

BIANCULLI: Amy Schumer speaking to Terry Gross in June. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianaculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's June 2013 interview with comic Amy Schumer. We're replaying it as one of our favorite interviews of the year.

GROSS: You've done some very high-profile roasts, like Charlie Sheen and Roseanne Barr - who she really complimented you at the end of that roast.

SCHUMER: I know. I started crying.

GROSS: Oh, seriously?

SCHUMER: It was so nice. Yeah. I was so moved by that.

GROSS: I think that was a first time I ever heard your name, in fact.

BIANCULLI: You don't think...

GROSS: You know, I turned onto the end of the roast and Roseanne Barr is saying: And that Amy Schumer, she was so funny. And I thought oh, Amy Schumer? Who is - I don't know who that is. Who is that?

SCHUMER: Oh, that's awesome. Roseanne plugged me and made you discover me. Yeah. That was such a special moment. And, yeah, I was really not expecting that. It's a roast, it's such, you know, everyone's claws are out, and then to get a compliment like that from someone I just grew up loving and thinking was so hilarious was...

GROSS: And from somebody who just had every insult in the books thrown at them in a comedic fashion.


SCHUMER: Yeah. I think the comedians really - that's such a place for comedians to shine. We just know that there's no venom and it's just we just appreciate each other constructing jokes. And I did my best to be careful. I'm more careful with women at those roasts, just I think just not to - I wouldn't want to say anything that would actually offend.

GROSS: Why are you more careful with women?

SCHUMER: There's just more territory that I feel like it's you can't say certain things to women. I think attacking a woman's appearance is - I just know how wounding that is and I don't think...

GROSS: Too much like daily life itself.


SCHUMER: Yeah. Yeah. Right. Exactly. Just too many people just every day will say something, just a backhanded compliment, or just a flat-out insult. And maybe they don't even realize that - they think it's something that you've accepted or, you know, and they'll just hand you a new insecurity, and I would not want to be someone to do that.

So I definitely, you know, said hard jokes but I wouldn't say anything about a woman's appearance that I thought might hurt her feelings.

GROSS: Have you said anything at a roast that you've regretted?

SCHUMER: No. I have not said anything a roast that I regretted. Yeah. No.

GROSS: You did say one thing about Ryan Dunn from "Jackass" after he died...

SCHUMER: I guess you regret me saying it.


GROSS: No. I have no position.


GROSS: I didn't even - I didn't hear the roast, I just, you know, read about it but...


GROSS: A lot of people were very offended by what you said. And you've said that you even got death threats afterwards.


GROSS: And that's kind of scary to think about - that you're at a roast where it's like your job to say really insulting things, but then people could get so angry that they threaten you.

SCHUMER: Yeah. That was really surreal. It was - the joke was I said: Steve-O, one of the "Jackass" guys, his friend - one of the other "Jackass" guys had just died in a drunk driving accident. And so I said: Steve-O, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend Ryan Dunn. I'm sure you must be thinking it could've been me. And I know we were all thinking, why wasn't it?

So the joke was sort of, I felt like, the formula of any roast joke. It takes something that you're not supposed talk about and then twists that into an insult. And I thought it was very typical and didn't see anything that was too much about that. I'm also used to playing with comics and just we go after each other so horribly.

One of my friends at the Comedy Cellar, you know, they post the lineup of what comedians are performing, and one of them works under an alias because too many fans show up. And the alias he chose was the name of one of our other friends who works there, his stepfather who used to beat him up.

Who used to beat him so, you know, just to mess with him. So we all just go after each other's jugular all the time, and I just didn't think that that joke was a big deal. I didn't think it was a joke about making fun of somebody who died. I thought it was a joke making fun of Steve-O. And, yeah, and then people's reaction to it, I was really surprised because that joke wasn't a big deal in the room.

At the actual roast, there wasn't a huge reaction to it. But the way it was edited, they cut to Steve-O and he looked so sad and I'm sure if I saw that I would've thought, oh, gosh, that was too much or something. But the way it happened in his reaction and, you know, I've spoken to him since. He's a friend.

I knew what my intentions were saying that joke and I just - I never felt like I'd made a mistake. And I'm not - I've made several mistakes in my life and I don't think I'm above it, but I don't think that was one of them. I stand by - I stand by that joke.

GROSS: When you were in high school you were voted Class Clown and Teacher's Worst Nightmare. I think this was in 1999. What were your reasons for being voted Teacher's Worst Nightmare?

SCHUMER: That was an award that I won. And half my teachers, like my English teacher and my history teacher were shocked. Because if it was a class I was really interested in I would just listen and be attentive and was a good member of the class. But if it was a class that I struggled or I felt wasn't, you know, like business law, I remember, those are the classes I would kind of act up in.

And I've always just - I would say the funniest thing I could think of. I still am the same way with - like the other day I was on an Amtrak train and the train broke down and so the conductor came back and he was talking to our car and he said, you know, the train was not working and we're going to switch trains. And people are saying, well, do you know what time - people were asking questions.

And I just raised my hand. I'm like who do you think is going to win "The Voice"? Just, you know, I just started asking the most unrelated, worthless questions.


SCHUMER: And it's the same stuff I was doing in high school. So it was just me making dumb jokes.

GROSS: So when you did this on the Amtrak that was recent?

SCHUMER: Yeah. That was probably a month ago.

GROSS: Weren't you a little concerned that somebody would go that's Amy Schumer and then tweet about it? And...

SCHUMER: I'm still...

GROSS: Yeah.

SCHUMER: I'm still not at all - I guess I'm in denial about that still. Like, I - people will call my name now and it scares - it just scares the life out of - I just (gasps). I gasp every time. I am not used to that at all. And, no, so that didn't occur to me.

And, yeah, that is true. I think that will hinder my being an idiot in public. I really do. And that is something I will really miss, you know, should this path continue. You know, there's always a chance that I will slip back into obscurity.

GROSS: Amy Schumer, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SCHUMER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Amy Schumer speaking to Terry Gross in June 2013. One of our favorite interviews of the year. Season two of "Inside Amy Schumer" begins next year on Comedy Central and in the meantime, Amy Schumer is spending the spring on a nationwide comedy stand-up tour.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue