20 Mel Brooks
His humor brings down Hitler, and the house
`I was never crazy about Hitler," says Mel Brooks. Who was? But even now, more than 50 years after the fall of the Third Reich, the man who masterminded the extermination of more than 7 million people is still handled with care, as if the magnitude of his crime demands no less. Brooks had the guts, and gall, to realize that the simplest way to demolish Hitler was to mock him.
"If you stand on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you never win," says Brooks, 75. "That's what they do so well; they seduce people. But if you ridicule them, bring them down with laughter--they can't win. You show how crazy they are."
Thus was born Springtime for Hitler, the ersatz musical that serves as the crux of The Producers, Brooks's tale of a larcenous Broadway producer determined to stage the worst show ever and abscond with the cash when it fails. In Brooks's mad vision, chorines decked out in SS regalia goose-step while trilling "Springtime for Hitler and Germany! Winter for Poland and France!" A Hitler Youth type chirps: "Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!" And the chorus croons: "We're marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the Master Race!"
"Well! Talk about bad taste!" huffs a matron in the mythical audience. That's exactly the point. Since the 1930s, when the young Melvin Kaminsky would crack up his Brooklyn schoolmates, Brooks has had a passion for poking society in the eye. When the movie of The Producers debuted in 1968, many critics panned it as crude. But the film is now considered a classic, and when the stage version opened on Broadway earlier this year, it was an instant hit, sweeping the Tony Awards. It also sparked fresh complaints about its gleeful mockery of Nazis, Jews, and homosexuals.
"There are always holier-than-thou guys," says Brooks. "It's like, `I care about those poor Jews and you don't.' " Brooks, who is Jewish, saw the results of Hitler's handiwork firsthand, while serving in the Army in Europe in World War II. "I didn't see the camps, but I saw streams of refugees. They were starving. It was horrible." Brooks attacked that horror with the only weapon he had--his wit.
"The angrier he is, the funnier he is," says Carl Reiner, the writer and comedian whose many collaborations with Brooks include "The 2,000-Year-Old Man" routine. "He will say things you can't believe, but you realize it's the absolute truth." New York Times critic Frank Rich says Brooks's success is proof of the deep discontent with the "pasteurized fare" of pop culture. But Brooks is no shock jock in the Howard Stern crotch-kicking mode. "I know when something just isn't nice," Brooks says. When making Blazing Saddles, he relied on one cowriter, black comedian Richard Pryor, to let him know when using the "N" word was too hurtful. And Brooks closely read his gay colleagues on the Broadway Producers to make sure the limp-wristed jokes inflicted laughter, not pain.
Brooks uses comedy to expose life's horrors and expunge pain. "There isn't a subject that's taboo." One of the biggest laughs he ever got, he says, was for a bit he wrote for the 1950s hit Your Show of Shows. A man shakes his father's ashes into the East River, only to have them blow all over his coat. Where's your father? "I'd have to say Rand Cleaners on 79th Street."
Born: June 28, 1926.
Personal: Married to actress Anne Bancroft; four children.
Favorite book: A tossup between Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol--it's very funny--and Robinson Crusoe. I reread that every year.
Passion: RKO movie musicals of the 1930s.
Mel Brooks: My Hero
" As far as songwriters, I've always been a fan of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin; those guys mean a lot to me. And you could pick anyone from the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s--the Benchleys or Dorothy Parker. They were bright, they were cutting, they were witty. "
This story appears in the August 20, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.