Mel Brooks Says His Only Regret Is the Jokes He Didn’t Tell

From a Terry Gross interview on headlined “Mel Brooks says his only regret as a comedian is the jokes he didn’t tell”:

As a child in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mel Brooks assumed he would grow up to work in Manhattan’s garment district. That’s what most of the kids in his working-class Jewish neighborhood did.

But everything changed when he saw his first Broadway musical — Anything Goes, starring Ethel Merman.

“My hands stung from applauding so much after it was over,” he says. “And I remember going back in Uncle Joe’s cab and I remember saying as he was driving me back home to Williamsburg, ‘Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe! I’m going to do that! … I want to be in show business!’ ”

It wasn’t a direct path. Brooks was drafted into the Army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, Brooks’ big break in comedy came when he landed a job writing for TV legend Sid Caesar‘s live variety show, Your Show of Shows.

Now 95, the filmmaker/actor/comedian is a member of the exclusive EGOT club, for those who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award. His film credits include High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, History of the World: Part 1, Blazing Saddles and The Producers, which was adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. He’s also the author of the new memoir, All About Me!

Over the course of his career, Brooks has told countless edgy jokes, but he doesn’t regret any of them.

“Not one would I take back!” he says. Instead, he says, it’s the jokes he optednot to tell that haunt him: “There were plenty, plenty of jokes I should have just exploded with and I said, maybe that’s a bit too much for the kids or whatever.”

Interview highlights:

On being a happy kid

When I’m asked what was the happiest time of your life? Was it marrying Anne Bancroft? What 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 … playing with my gang in the streets and just being free and and careless and reckless and just a happy, happy child.

On what being Jewish means to him now, late in life

Being afraid I’m going to die has not made me more religious. I’m tribal. I love being a Jew and I love Jewish humor, and I loved the je ne sais quoi that the Jews [have]. They have a wonderful attitude. I guess it’s called survival. …

The synagogues in Brooklyn charged money on the High Holy Days — not much, I think maybe $5 a family, to keep the synagogue going. My mother simply didn’t have the money, therefore, we were very rarely in a synagogue because it cost $5 on High Holy Days. But I loved going to Passover dinners at my grandfather’s house in Bensonhurst. I loved the trappings of being a Jew — the dinners, the jokes.

On the meaning of life

I haven’t figured it out yet. … That’s a very good question. And maybe in my second book, the sequel, … maybe I’ll figure it out. But so far I haven’t. But I don’t want to get too close in case the answers are negative, I don’t want to 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. I hide in humor and comedy. I love it.

On being 95

I’m so grateful to be able to eat scrambled eggs and toast 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 emotional attitude is still more positive than negative. I’m still looking forward to talking to people, to meeting people, to have dinner with people.

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