Mel Brooks says his only regret as a comedian is the jokes he didn't tell
Brooks wrote countless edgy jokes over the years, but he doesn't regret any of them. He calls comedy his "delicious refuge" from the world. His memoir is All About Me! Originally broadcast in 2021.
Other segments from the episode on November 23, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mel Brooks, wrote and directed such hilarious film comedies as "Blazing Saddles," a spoof of Westerns; "High Anxiety," his comic homage to Alfred Hitchcock; "Young Frankenstein," his version of a classic horror film; and "History Of The World, Part I," his sendup of Hollywood spectacles. His film "The Producers" was adapted into a Broadway musical mega-hit that won a record-breaking 12 Tonys, including best musical. His latest project is his new memoir, "All About Me!"
Brooks is one of the few EGOTs, meaning he's received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. To top it off, he was a Kennedy Center honoree, received a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and a National Medal of Arts, presented by President Obama. I love his work, and I love talking to him, and I'm grateful his memoir provided another opportunity to have him on our show. We recorded the interview last week, and one of the things we talked about is what his life is like now at age 95.
Let's start with his most hilarious and intentionally tasteless song, "Springtime For Hitler." It's from "The Producers," which is about two theater producers who figure out a scheme to make more money from a flop than they could make from a hit. They stage a musical called "Springtime For Hitler," which is in such bad taste it's bound to be the flop their scheme requires. The title song is a big production number featuring singing and dancing Nazis. Here's the version from the 1967 film.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Germany was having trouble. What a sad, sad story. Needed a new leader to restore its former glory. Where, oh, where was he? Where could that man be? We looked around, and then we found the man for you and me. And now it's...
MICHAEL DAVIS: (As Lead Tenor Stormtrooper, singing) Springtime for Hitler and Germany. Deutschland is happy and gay.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) We're marching to a faster pace. Look out. Here comes the master race. Springtime for Hitler and Germany.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Mel Brooks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is such a great pleasure to have you back. And congratulations on the new memoir.
MEL BROOKS: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: In writing this book, what was the process of reviewing your life like for you emotionally - going back through the ups and downs of your life?
BROOKS: Well, it was a little crazy. Sometimes I'd be remembering a childhood episode, and suddenly I'd find myself crying. And I said, I mean, that's not like me. But you never know what's going to, you know - how you're going to be assailed and assaulted by memories.
GROSS: What made you cry?
BROOKS: Well, I think it was a happy moment, and I don't know why I cried. It was getting a box of chocolates after being run over by a car, a box of chocolates in the hospital. And I said - I remember saying, boy, it was worth it when I got that box of chocolates. And then for some reason, that made me cry. I mean, just thinking of this little naive kid who equated chocolates with heaven or something. It was just - I don't know. You never know. You never know.
GROSS: Well, you very casually mentioned getting run over by a car. You were roller-skating and in the street, and a car that you didn't see just kind of - one tire ran over your stomach.
GROSS: And I'm reading that thinking, oh, my God, like, that could have killed you.
BROOKS: Yes, absolutely. It knocked the wind out of my sails - I'll tell you that.
GROSS: Well, how - you know, how afraid were you? I mean, what a terrifying thing.
BROOKS: I was 8 years old. I wasn't scared at all. I just - it's just a thing that happened. I was practicing my eagle turn, and I think I must have had my eyes closed in order to feel the eagle turn properly, and then suddenly I was knocked down by this car. Luckily, it was kind of like a tin Lizzie, a very light Ford. And I remember being knocked down, and I remember the wheel, the left front tire, bouncing (laughter) on my stomach and then bouncing back again. And I remember saying, woof (ph) - you know, just a lot of air leaving me.
GROSS: So your father died when you were 2 of tuberculosis, and it wasn't until you were 6 that you realized other kids had fathers and you didn't. And you write, it was a brushstroke of depression that never left me. A lot of comics have dealt with depression. Has depression been something that you've dealt with over the years, beneath all the comedy?
BROOKS: Not so much. Not so much. When I'm asked what was the happiest time of your life - was it marrying Anne Bancroft? Was it winning the Academy Award? Was it writing your first sketch for Broadway for "New Faces"? I cut them off, and I say, I was the happiest - and to this day - probably the happiest in my life from 5 years old to 9. Those four years were blessed with running, Johnny on the pony, kick the can.
GROSS: Getting run over by a car.
BROOKS: Getting run over by a car, playing with my gang, you know, in the streets and just being free and careless and reckless and just a happy, happy child. So there was a lot more happiness than there was depression. There was a brushstroke, I said, just when kids in school talked about their mother and father, and I could only talk about my mother. But they'd say, from 4 to 9, I mean, what happened at 9?
GROSS: I was going to ask you that. Yeah. What happened at 9? Yeah (laughter).
BROOKS: And I would usually say, homework.
GROSS: Oh, right.
BROOKS: And homework - and I realized, they want something back. They don't let you get away with it. You can't leave school and then run in the streets and be reckless and wild and happy. They want something back. So they want an hour or so out of your life, a very important time, right after school so you could see your pals, your buddies. And that homework was the first realization that you had to give something back to the world to earn your space in it.
GROSS: You wrote that most of the kids in your neighborhood - and it was a largely Jewish neighborhood - grew up to work in the garment district in Manhattan, moving racks of clothes. My father worked in the garment district. What made you think you could carve out a different life, one in show business?
BROOKS: Well, it happened one fateful night when my Uncle Joe took me to see my first Broadway musical. And it was a Cole Porter, a wonderful show called "Anything Goes," starring Ethel Merman. And he knew the parking attendant in front of the theater, who actually got him the two seats, and we were way up in the second balcony. And when Ethel Merman sang, you know, "You're The Top," I mean, she was a mile away, and there were no mics in those days, and I told my Uncle Joe, boy, she's loud. I mean, that's how loud she was. That's how definite she was. She was amazing. But that show changed me and changed my life. And my hands stung from screaming and applauding so much after it was over.
And I remember going back in Uncle Joe's cab, and I remember saying, you know, as he was driving me back home to Williamsburg, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe, I want to be part of that show. I want to be in show business. I'm not going to enter the garment center. I'm not going to be pushing a rack of clothing to the post office. I'm going to write songs. I'm going to sing songs. I'm going to go into show business. And I knew it. And I never deviated. Of course, I took many different jobs before I finally, you know, got to do that. But I knew it then and there, formed, an arrow heading for show business.
GROSS: After you got out of the service, eventually, you got to write a couple of the first really big TV shows in TV history in the early days. And these were the Sid Caesar shows. It was "Your Show Of Shows," and before that - what's it called? - the "Admiral Variety Hour."
BROOKS: Admiral - very good, good for you.
GROSS: In spite of you being a writer on an incredibly successful show, you started getting anxiety attacks, like, bad anxiety attacks. And so, like, your showbiz dream is coming true, but there's so much pressure doing this weekly show that you're getting these anxiety attacks. How did you get through that?
BROOKS: Well, it was early on in the show. There was only Lucille, Mel Tolkin and myself writing all the comedy for an hour-and-a-half variety show that went on once a week. It was truly an impossible task. It couldn't be done. I don't know how we did it. But I started to get nervous, and I thought I wasn't holding my end up because Lucille and Mel were killing themselves to come up with enough material, and I felt I was falling behind. I couldn't manufacture enough, come up with enough comedy.
So I began getting very anxious, acutely depressed, nervous. And I would - I remember saying to Mel Tolkin, Mel, I'm vomiting between parked cars. I can't do this. I can't sleep. It's impossible. He said, relax, you're an animal. You're not a person yet. You're still from Brooklyn. He said, but you have the makings of a very bright human being. And he said, you need analysis. I said, what is that? He said, what - lie down on a couch, and you tell your troubles to somebody who figures out what's wrong with you and helps you. I said, that sounds pretty stupid. He said, no, it works. It works. I said, oh, is that Freud? And he said, yeah, that's the whole Freud.
So he sent me to somebody, the guy - Bronstein - didn't have room for me, so he sent me to a guy who was just starting, Klement Staff - S-T-A-F-F. I remember the name because he was wonderful. He filled me with courage and with a feeling of - that I really wasn't losing, that I was actually winning. And he actually had me ask Max Liebman for a raise when we moved to - from the "Admiral Broadway Revue" to the "Show Of Shows." So it was amazing, amazing. That was all Mel Tolkin getting me into psychoanalysis, which kind of saved me.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your songwriting process because I love the song satires in your movie, including the song "High Anxiety" from "High Anxiety" and, you know, "Springtime For Hitler" from "The Producers" and "The Inquisition (What A Show)" from "History Of The World, Part I" and "Jews In Space."
GROSS: So tell me something about your songwriting process. Like, when you would sit down to write a lyric, the lyrics were often, like, the parody of a genre, and it might be the parody of a film genre or of a song genre. So, like, would you, like, listen to a lot of songs of the period you were satirizing or, you know, read, like, books of that period to get, like, the language in your mind? Like, what would you do?
BROOKS: I think I get the words first, or at least the first - I remember in - when I was doing - it was 12 - "The Twelve Chairs," I wanted a title song that would say who these people are. They're - you know, they're - a lot of peasants, a lot of people, emotional people, were characters in the movie. But I needed a song to capture all of this emotional expanse of the movie. And I - it hit me. Hope for the best, expect the worst - I just had that. And then I got that second line - you never know what's going to happen so (singing) hope for the best, expect the worst, you could be Tolstoy or Fannie Hurst, no way of knowing - and I went - you know, I talked a lot about chance and about how you never know. You never know how your life is going to go. And I needed a tune, and I heard - I think I heard something from Brahms. But it also - Brahms had stolen it from some Hungarian tunesmith, and I loved just the basic (singing) bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah (ph). It fit my title. And from then on, it just flowed. It just flowed. It just - it was like Niagara Falls. It just flowed.
GROSS: I love that song, and I've adopted hope for the best, expect the worst as my motto.
BROOKS: I wrote a brilliant - I got to give - pat myself on the back. I wrote a brilliant release, my own tune also, the middle - the release - interlude between the choruses. (Singing) I met a man who made a fortune that was splendid. Then he died the day he went to go and spend it, shouting live while you're alive, no one will survive. Life is sorrow, here today and gone tomorrow. Live while you're alive, no one will survive. There's no guarantee. Hope for the best.
And it goes on. But that middle part I am so proud of - live while you're alive, no one will survive. That's a great, simple, profound, wonderful lyric. Thank you, Mel. You're welcome.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Mel Brooks after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mel Brooks. His new memoir is called "All About Me!" Let's hear another of his songs. This is from "High Anxiety," which he wrote and directed. He starred as a psychiatrist who's afraid of heights. In one scene, the psychiatrist performs a song called "High Anxiety". Mel Brooks wrote the lyrics. This performance is his homage to Sinatra.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH ANXIETY")
BROOKS: (As Dr. Richard Harpo Thorndyke, singing) High anxiety whenever you're near. High anxiety, it's you that I fear. My heart's afraid to fly. It's crashed before. But then you take my hand. My heart starts to soar once more. High anxiety, it's always the same. High anxiety, it's you that I blame. It's very clear to me, I've got to give in. High anxiety, you win.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I want to quote something from the book. You write, (reading) even though it seems foolish and silly and crazy, comedy has the most to say about the human condition because if you laugh, you can get by. You can survive when things are bad if you have a sense of humor.
I want to talk with you a little bit about being 95, which is what you are now. Are there things about aging that you can laugh at, that laughter is helpful at and things that you can't laugh about, about being 95?
BROOKS: Yeah, well, that's a good question. I don't have a ready answer for that, but I - it's true that, you know, I'm so grateful to be able to eat scrambled eggs and toast and - for breakfast and sometimes a roast beef sandwich for dinner. I'm so happy that I still have somewhat of an appetite. I'm having trouble sleeping. That's a problem. But otherwise, things are pretty good for being 95, and I'm getting around fairly well. And my basic - I don't know. My basic emotional attitude is still more positive than negative. I'm still saying - well, I'm still looking forward to talking to people, to meeting people, to having dinner with people, to - you know, and I was looking forward to FRESH AIR. I was looking forward to talking to you and - you know, and I knew it would be good because you're always so damn good.
GROSS: Oh, well, thank you (laughter). Thank you very much.
BROOKS: Well, I always listen to FRESH AIR when it's not even me. That's how much I love you.
GROSS: (Laughter) I want to get back to sleeping. When you're having trouble sleeping, what do you do? Do you read a book? Do you pace? Do you lie there hoping eventually you'll fall asleep?
BROOKS: I put on a sleep mask, and I put on the TV so that the light from the TV doesn't bother me. And I try to play a movie I'm not interested in so I don't follow the plot (laughter). I try to - you know? And unfortunately, Ben Mankiewicz ruins me because he plays so many - late at night, so many wonderful movies.
GROSS: I love Turner.
BROOKS: Yeah, and I do get Turner Classic Movies. And he does such a great job. He's part of my Friday - I have a Friday luncheon club. I've been away from it now because I'm afraid of the - you know, the autograph hounds, COVID bothering me, you know, so...
GROSS: Well, you used to have dinner with Carl Reiner every night, right? And so you must miss him a lot.
BROOKS: I miss him so much, every single night. And Carl was, you know - Carl was remarkable. He was a remarkable person.
GROSS: My guest is Mel Brooks. His new memoir is called "All About Me!" We'll hear more of the interview after a break. Here's a song from his film, "The History Of The World, Part I," in a scene about the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s, when those who didn't embrace Christianity, such as Jews, were interrogated and tortured. The infamous grand inquisitor Torquemada, played by Mel Brooks, sings the lead in a big song and dance number. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART I")
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) The Inquisition.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Let's begin...
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) The Inquisition.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Look out, sin.
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) We have a mission to convert the Jews.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jews.
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) We're gonna teach them.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Wrong from right.
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) We're going to help them...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) See the light.
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) ...And make an offer that they can't refuse.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) That the Jews just can't refuse.
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) Confess.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Confess, confess
BROOKS: (As Torquemada, singing) Don't be boring. Say...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last year with Mel Brooks after the publication of his memoir, "All About Me!" It's now out in paperback.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Being Jewish has always been part of your humor and kind of most dramatically in "The Producers" and production numbers like "Springtime For Hitler." You grew up pretty secular. Your grandmother was observant, but your mother, not so much.
BROOKS: Yeah. Right. We used to hide the ham from my grandmother. Thank God the tenements...
GROSS: Oh, the non-kosher ham. Yeah (laughter).
BROOKS: Yeah. Right, right.
GROSS: So what does it mean to be Jewish now for you at age 95? Have you become any more or less observant? And do you - is, like, religion something you want at this point in your life, or are you remaining as secular as you've always been? Is there any kind of difference to you?
BROOKS: No. Being afraid I'm going to die has not made me more religious. I'm still - I'm tribal. I love being a Jew, and I love Jewish humor, and I loved the - I don't know, the je ne sais quoi that the Jews - they have a wonderful attitude. You know, I guess it's called survival. But I was - never been - for instance, I was so glad to not drink Manischewitz wine anymore.
BROOKS: When Gene Wilder introduced me to Nuits-Saint-Georges one night at dinner at his house, I said, what is this? I said, is this wine 'cause I thought wine was just this tepid, kind of sweet...
GROSS: Like grape juice with alcohol in it.
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. That was Manischewitz. He said, no, this is a burgundy. It's from, you know, France. I said, wow. But Gene saved my life - no more Manischewitz. But actually, it has to do with - it really started with when the synagogues in Brooklyn charged money on the High Holy Days - not much, I think maybe $5 a family; it wasn't much - to keep the synagogue going. My mother simply didn't have the money. Therefore, we were very rarely in a synagogue because it cost five bucks on the High Holy Days, so - but I loved going to Passover dinners at my grandfather's house in Bensonhurst. I love the trappings of being a Jew.
GROSS: The culture...
BROOKS: The dinners. Yeah.
GROSS: ...The ceremonies, the jokes (laughter).
BROOKS: Yeah, the jokes, exactly.
GROSS: The jokes, the jokes.
BROOKS: The youngest of my male uncles was Uncle Lee. They were all Kaminskys, Lee Kaminsky. And Lee sat down near the children's table when we had Passover dinner. He was the youngest, so he sat down close to us. And then when my grandfather would read from the books in Hebrew and we didn't understand a word - but, you know, we were - we paid attention - Uncle Lee said, relax, I'll translate for you. And he was so good, so funny, so wonderful. When my grandfather would say, but I've never really - you know, going on in Hebrew, Lee would say, it's a high fly ball. Camilli (ph) gets underneath.
BROOKS: And he would just do a ballgame for us, and we would just be hysterical.
GROSS: What kind of reviews did you get from rabbis about your Jewish humor in - especially your more sacrilegious (laughter) Jewish humor in movies?
BROOKS: Boy, boy. When I did "The Producers," I got a thousand letters, mostly from rabbis and Jewish organizations. How dare you? It's the Holocaust, you know? And they were right, and they were wrong. And I would say, you're not wrong. You're absolutely right to take offense at it. But let me tell you this. If we're going to get even with Hitler, we can't get on a soapbox because he's too damn good at that. We got to ridicule him. We got to laugh at him. Then we can get even. And sometimes I get a letter back saying, maybe you're right, you know? It was OK.
GROSS: This is something kind of off-topic, but you've done some wild things, like, during your years, like pranking people in the studio when you were getting your start and, you know, a crazy outburst sometimes. So when you got, from President Obama - when you got your medal in the arts...
BROOKS: Wait a minute. When you got your medal...
GROSS: Yeah. Well, we were both there at the ceremony because you got a medal in the arts, and I got a medal in the humanities from Obama. And you were - as I recall, we were in, like, the - I forget which room it was, but it's the room where some ceremonies were. And the ceremony was being held there. And we were all seated, you know, waiting for Obama to come out.
BROOKS: I called it the yellow room because it was painted yellow. And I'd been there before. Here I am back in the yellow room. Yeah, right.
GROSS: When Obama gave you the medal and put it around your neck, you kind of like...
BROOKS: It was heavy.
GROSS: ...Drooped forward as if, like, this medal is so heavy I can't even bear the weight around my neck. Did you plan to do - was that spontaneous? Or did you think, like, I know what I'm going to do. When he gives me the medal, I'm just going to act like it's too heavy.
BROOKS: That's a good question. The truth is I didn't know what I would do. I wanted to do something. But as soon as I felt the weight, I knew I was right in dropping, falling and grabbing him for - nearly took his pants off...
BROOKS: ...Pulling him down with me. So it worked.
GROSS: I will say, you got a Kennedy Center honor from Obama, but you were offered one from President George W. Bush, and you declined because of the war in Iraq. How public did you want to be about that? How much of a public statement did you want to make about that? And how much did you just want to quietly decline?
BROOKS: I wanted to quietly decline. I didn't want to make a big deal of it. And I just didn't - I thought that pursuing that war in Iraq, I thought, was all wrong. I'd been a soldier myself. And I said, why are these guys going? Why do they - why? It just didn't make sense to me. And when I got the one from Obama, I asked - I said, can I get two? I turned the - last year, I turned the other one down. Do I - can I get two? And Obama said, one to a customer.
BROOKS: So it was very sweet. Yeah. Right.
GROSS: Are there any jokes that you wish you could take back?
BROOKS: No, not - I can't - not really. I would - not one would I take it back. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty upset about some jokes that I took back, that I didn't let go, that I thought, well, that's a little, you know, outside the pale. That's a little too, you know, risque, and I kept, you know? But there were plenty of jokes I should have just exploded with. And I said, maybe, that's a bit too much for the kids or whatever.
GROSS: Can you give us an example?
BROOKS: I can't. I could give you one, but it was just too dirty.
GROSS: Oh, too dirty.
BROOKS: Now you got to hear it, right?
GROSS: (Laughter) I got to hear it. Right.
BROOKS: Well, it had to do with Madeline Kahn going into Cleavon Little's dressing room after the show during "Blazing Saddles." And...
GROSS: And this is your spoof of Westerns?
BROOKS: Yeah, spoof of Westerns. And then she says something like, relax, you know? And then she says, oh, how are you - you know, you're - how are you built? Oh, you're - oh, how beautiful. Oh, how - you know? And the joke was something about - it's true. It's true, the way you're built, your people are built, you know? And it was too much. And she's - and he says, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Ms. Von Shtupp. You're biting my arm, you know? So...
BROOKS: So it was a big - it would've been, you know - today, I think, I could've gotten away with it, but never then. Yeah.
GROSS: So you took the arm part out of the movie?
BROOKS: Yeah. I took - I kept them in the dark. But I never did that joke.
GROSS: That is so funny. You hired Richard Pryor to be a writer on that film?
BROOKS: Absolutely. I mean, Richard Pryor was so good. And I expected him to play Black Bart, the Black sheriff. And then when Warner Brothers said, no, under no circumstances. We can't get any insurance on Richard because of the drug problems. And he's been in jail. And I said, OK. And I said to Richard, Richard, we're not doing this movie. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do it. And he said, nonsense, stupidity. We're going to do it. And you and I are going to find the right Black sheriff to play the lead. And the casting agents found this actor, Broadway actor. His name was Cleavon Little. And he flew out. And he auditioned for me. And I kissed him and said, you're the guy. And Richard said, we lucked out. We took a good bounce here.
GROSS: Did you remain friends after the movie?
BROOKS: Yes. We sure did, you know? And then he became ill. And it was very sad, losing such an incredible, truly incredible talent. I mean, he was the best stand-up comic that ever lived. That's saying a lot. There were thousands that were really good, but he was the best.
GROSS: My guest is Mel Brooks. He has a new memoir called "All About Me!" We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mel Brooks. His new memoir is called "All About Me!"
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So you were married to Anne Bancroft for many years until her death in 2005. Some people thought of you as opposites because she was, you know, like, a serious actress, and you were, like, a comic actor and writer. And, you know, so I'm just wondering - there were probably sides of both of you that the public didn't know about, like the more serious Mel Brooks and the more humorous...
GROSS: ...Anne Bancroft.
BROOKS: There you go. There you go. There was that whole other side of me that was maybe slightly, you know, well-read, intellectual, emotional and wasn't funny and was serious about life. And there was that whole other side of her, where she - I said, you're like a shortstop on the Yankees. You catch every ball, and you got pepper. You've got such pepper in the infield. And you're like a Jew mountain comic. And nobody knows that, you know? And they never knew the other side of her. They only - but there was that one side of her that was heavenly. It was sweet, and it was comforting, and it was supportive, and it was, I guess, so lovely it's indescribable. And I was very, very lucky. And I - if I believed in God, I would thank God every night for giving me Anne Bancroft.
GROSS: So I have one last question for you. You're 95 now. You've lived a long time. What is the meaning of life?
BROOKS: I haven't figured it out yet.
GROSS: You're 95. You've got to know. How else are we going to know if you don't know?
BROOKS: That's a very good question. And maybe in my second book.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter).
BROOKS: You know, history...
BROOKS: Yeah. The sequel, you know?
GROSS: Volume 2.
BROOKS: Volume 2, you know? The history of Mel Brooks, Part 2, you know? Maybe I'll figure it out. But so far, I haven't. But I don't want to get, you know, too close. In case the answers are negative, I don't want to know, you know? I want it to be up and at 'em and positive and fun. And I still love comedy. It's my delicious refuge from the world. You know, I hide in humor and comedy. I love it.
GROSS: You like being funny, and you like hearing people be funny?
BROOKS: And I love people being funny, even Henny Youngman.
GROSS: Oh. Take my wife, please. Yeah.
BROOKS: Yeah. Right.
GROSS: King of the one-liners
BROOKS: Even the bad jokes. But once in a while, there'd be a standard Borscht Belt comic that - like Myron Cohen. And there'd be a joke there. I said, my God, that's a good joke, 'cause usually they were just terrible. You know, my wife said, you never take me anywhere. I never go anywhere. I'd like to go somewhere I've never been. So I took her to the kitchen. You know, those kind of - those were the...
GROSS: (Laughter) Those jokes were so sexist.
BROOKS: Those were the jokes. And finally - but Myron Cohen thrilled me with some of his comedy. He said he went into a - he said, I went to a grocery store, and I said, I want - give me a quarter of a pound of lox. Give me some cream cheese. I want - then he stopped and said, salt - you got salt on every shelf in your store. I see red boxes of salt. Salt on the first shelf, salt on the second, salt on the - you've got a hundred boxes of salt. Do you sell a lot of salt? And he said, no, if I'll sell a box of salt a week, it's a lot. I don't sell a lot of salt. But the guy that sells me salt, boy, can he sell salt. And that's a brilliant idea from Myron Cohen, you know?
GROSS: Yeah, he did a lot of Yiddish humor, too.
BROOKS: Oh, yeah. He was wonderful.
GROSS: Did you get the punchlines? Did you know enough Yiddish to get the jokes?
BROOKS: No, I never knew. You know, it always - for me, it always - (speaking gibberish). Whatever. I never...
GROSS: Whatever, yeah (laughter).
BROOKS: I never knew what the punchline was - (speaking gibberish). It sounded good. It was a nice rimshot, but I didn't know what the hell they were talking about.
GROSS: And for people who don't know the difference, like, you're just making up syllables that sound vaguely like Hebrew or Yiddish - yeah (laughter).
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. I'm just mimicking.
BROOKS: Mimicking, yeah. Anyway, it's always good to talk to you.
GROSS: It's always good to talk with you. You've been so generous with your time. Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to talk with you. And thank you for writing your memoir.
BROOKS: Oh, please. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: And please send my regards to your son Max.
BROOKS: I will. I will. I intend to. And I intend to, you know, make a copy of this thing and memorialize it and, you know, send it to Max and everybody, send it to my pals and - you know? But a lot of people listen to FRESH AIR. Believe it or not, a lot of people listen to you. I don't want to scare you and inhibit you.
GROSS: (Laughter) I like the way you say, believe it or not, like...
BROOKS: Yeah. I know, right? Yeah.
GROSS: ...It's really hard to understand, but - it's incomprehensible, but (laughter) people listen to your show.
BROOKS: You know, you're one of the few I could do that with without hurting feelings 'cause you understand humor, and you understand comedy and its rhythms and how it works. You know. You understand it. You're great.
GROSS: Well, I love your humor. So it's (laughter) - you've made me laugh so many times over the years, and I'm so grateful to you for that. So it's been a pleasure talking with you, and I wish you all good things.
BROOKS: Oh, bless you. Thank you so much. Terry Gross, I love you. Thanks.
GROSS: My interview with Mel Brooks was recorded last year after the publication of his memoir "All About Me!" It's now out in paperback. Let's hear one more song. Mel Brooks co-starred with his late wife Anne Bancroft in the 1983 remake of the film "To Be Or Not To Be," set during World War II in Poland. They got to sing this duet of "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO BE OR NOT TO BE")
MEL BROOKS AND ANNE BANCROFT: (Singing in Polish).
GROSS: Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft from the film "To Be Or Not To Be." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review "The Addams Family" spinoff series on Netflix. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.