Q&A with Mel Brooks
Q: How would you describe “Get Smart” to those too young to remember the series?
A: It’s an insane combination of James Bond and Mel Brooks comedy. It has a wonderful fusion and special effects and comedy, which is very rare. Usually, when you get big special effects pictures, sci-fi and things, there’s little or no comedy. Or it’s a domestic comedy and there’s not one special effect like “Knocked Up.” But very rarely do these things fuse and come out right.
Q: You were able to do it with “Spaceballs.” What’s the trick?
A: I’d say the trick is talent. Andreas Voutsinas said that to me when we were making “The Producers” in 1968 he played Carmen Ghia, the gay roommate of the very gay director Roger De Bris. I said, “How do these things work, Andreas?” And he said, “Or you got it or you ain’t.” I said, “You’re Greek, Andreas. We don’t start sentences with ‘or’ in America.”
But he was absolutely right. It’s talent. Either you got it or you ain’t. Give someone else the premise of “Blazing Saddles” and you’d probably get only the vulgarity. Only the farting scene. Give it to me and my cohorts and the engine is the prejudice against the black sheriff that drives the movie. So you’ve got to know how to do it.
Q: A lot of your projects have been getting remade recently. Do you go to them or do they come to you?
A: It’s all haphazard. Someone called me up and said, “They’re making a movie of ‘Get Smart.’ ” I said, “Oh, really? What are they going to call it?” They said, “‘Get Smart.’ ” I said, “That was wise.”
Because they did do a movie based on “Get Smart” about 20 years ago called “The Nude Bomb.” I said, “That’s foolish.”
Q: You didn’t have any say in the title?
A: No, not at all. I had nothing to do with it. They never even called me! This one, they called me from Day One. They said, “What do you think of this?” Or “What do you think of that?” And I’d say yay or nay.
It’s got a good director, Peter Segal. Wonderful director. The writers were great. The producers were young and aggressive and smart. But the brilliance is Steve Carell. To choose a guy who’s right in the Don Adams groove. You couldn’t get a better guy than Steve Carell. And yet he doesn’t do Don Adams. He does none of his delivery. He just does Steve Carell.
Q: It seems like the premise is strong enough to have multiple interpretations of Maxwell Smart.
A: It’s the earnest stupidity of organizations like the CIA. I would say honest and earnest stupidity. They want to do a good job. But they don’t hire enough [multicultural people]. They hire too many WASPs and they get too much white-bread thinking.
Q: And this was true back in 1965 as well as today.
A: Exactly! Buck Henry and I thought if we could just get some hip thinking, maybe a borscht belt comic. They didn’t want a back story for Agent 86, but I provided one. I said he works the Buffalo Lodge. And he’s a drummer in the band. And he also does the line, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I met a girl who was so skinny, the waiter said ‘Check your umbrella.’ ” They never used that back story. In my mind, I had a more protean, rich background guy. Rather than the Harvard-educated guy. Someone with street smarts.
And that’s the problem today with organizations like the CIA and the FBI.
Q: How do you feel that 40-some years later, the situation hasn’t improved as far as the CIA being out of touch?
A: It’s true. They’re still out of touch. In a strange way, they’re still kind of supermen, kind of SS troops: We’re blond and the best and everyone else should be incinerated. They argue about waterboarding! Is it right to shove water up a person’s nostrils? Or maybe we shouldn’t do it as much. Or maybe we should do half as much water up his nostrils. They just simply don’t see the picture. They don’t know right from wrong. That’s what makes a satire of these government bureaus really funny.
Q: Does “Get Smart” have a fan following in the spy community?
A: I once met somebody from the CIA who said they were very big fans. He said “I work for the Department of Transportation” Then he winked and said, “It’s really CIA.” I said, “OK, OK. Maybe there’s more money in transportation. You should go there.” He said all the CIA guys loved the show. I thought they’d hate it. Maybe they’re smarter than I thought.
Q: Do you want to upset them?
A: No. It’s not important to me what they feel. I’m not mad at them. My job is to go out and entertain the most people possible. The job is to make people laugh. I don’t have a mission. I don’t have a torch to burn. They’re fuel for me. I’m glad they’re dumb. It’s good stuff for me.
Q: When you’re pitching joke ideas to the makers of “Get Smart” is it intimidating for them? Do they humor you and then not use it?
A: That’s normal. That’s part and parcel of our business from day one. Where the powers that be, the producers, say, “Oh, love it, love it, love it.” And then you never see it again.
My son Max Brooks wrote for a couple years on “Saturday Night Live.” He said there were 18 writers, like puppies trying to get to their mother’s teats, trying to get one joke in. And the powers there would say yay or nay. Max had a million great ideas. So three years later, he had a great idea for a book, “The Zombie Surival Guide.” And when he asked whether he could take six weeks off to go on a book tour and he would come back, they said, “No, what do you love your books? Do you love your thoughts? Or do you love ‘SNL’?” And he said, that’s an easy one. And he left and went on his tour and he’s been happy ever since. He’s not one of 18 or 20 writers struggling to get one lousy joke onto a show. It’s awful.
He would sleep with a sleeping bag under the desk at NBC to be available.
Q: Was it like that back in the days when you were a comedy writer?
A: No. There were three of us. Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen and Mel Brooks in 1950 and we wrote the Admiral Broadway Revue, the precursor to “Your Show of Shows.” Three of us! With the help, of course, of the producer Sid Caeser.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sid Caesar as Sid Ceaser.
Q: Were the hours as grueling?
A: No. We were young and stupid. We just poured our heart out. I don’t know if we worked as many hours as the ‘SNL’ writers. We certainly gave it all we had. The strange thing was, we’d do the show on Saturday and on Saturday afternoon, we’d do a dress rehearsal with an audience to keep whatever we could in the show. The dress rehearsal was at one in the afternoon and it ran for an hour and a half. And then around 3 p.m. we’d begin rewriting the show. And we’d go on again at 7 p.m. and we’d have four hours of nonstop thinking and correcting and writing and rewriting. But we always had a pretty good show.
Q: You produced the 1986 remake of “The Fly” and your son wrote the zombie thriller “World War Z.” Is horror a Brooks family passion?
A: [Max’s] got a lot of comedy in him. But his real passion and love, I guess, is zombies. I’m more of a World War II geek than I am of a horror geek. That’s my avocation. Max is also. Max knows more about German and Russian submarines than anybody alive. The brilliance of Max Brooks is that he always quotes authorities at the back of his books that never existed. Like a Russian professor he made up that validates a story or character. He has maybe 200 “authorities” and he makes every one of them up. That’s so brilliant.
Q: Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone once seemed so ridiculous But now we have cell phones that could easily be shoes.
A: I guess Buck Henry and I actually invented the cell phone. We didn’t know we were doing that. We still haven’t gotten any royalties from that or the Cone of Silence. And I think they did a great job with the Cone of Silence in the movie. They super-teched it.
Q: Were you trying to predict future spy-tech with these gadgets?
A: I don’t know. I stole it from Dick Tracy. I think Dick Tracy had a watch that was a TV watch or a radio watch. And he communicated through this watch. I thought that’s too simple and too nice. Let’s put his communicator device in his shoe. And it worked.
We were very lucky to get Don Adams. Around one season on NBC and they cancelled it. For some reason they couldn’t find a proper replacement. And no one knew about the show, so they threw it on another season. And the second season it caught fire. They kept it for the run, and then in the last year CBS took it over.
Q: How difficult is it to Maxwell Smart stupid?
A: You want to be as smart as you can about being stupid. Peter Segal and the writers respect the audience. And I have always thought there were a lot of people in the audience were smarter than I was. I was watching “Blazing Saddles” with an audience and when they exploded, I thought, these people are as smart as I am. In writing comedy, I’ve never written down. I’ve always written as hard as I could.
Q: “Get Smart” was on all the four networks at one time or another.
A: I never knew that. Until you told me just now.
Q: If the movie is a hit, is the plan to take the sequels around to each of the different studios?
A: No. But that’s a good idea. I’m writing it down. I’m going to tell them to do that and I want a piece of the action.
Q: When you meet the public, which of your projects do you find yourself talking about the most?
A: “Spaceballs.” I don’t know why. They are always talking about Just Plain Yogurt and President Skroob. The young people see it. Older people will talk to me about “Blazing Saddles.” But little kids will always have a “Spaceballs” reference. In fact, we’re doing “Spaceballs” as an animated series. I’m doing two voices: Just Plain Yogurt and President Skroob who isn’t that far from the Bush administration.
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