A New York Times Interview With Actor and Director Mel Brooks About Books and Writing

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “How ‘Dead Souls’ Taught Mel Brooks What Comedy Writing Could Be”:

What books are on your night stand?

You may be surprised to learn that on my nightstand is a book called “The Art of Cooking Omelettes,” by Madame Romaine de Lyon. It’s an incredible cookbook with hundreds of French omelette recipes. I’m a bit of an omelette connoisseur, and every night before I go to sleep I love dreaming about which omelette I’ll have for breakfast the next day.

When I was writing the musical of “The Producers” for Broadway with my wonderful collaborator Thomas Meehan, we’d often meet for brunch at Madame Romaine de Lyon’s restaurant in New York. A lot of “The Producers” musical was actually written while Tom and I were having a jambon, fromage and tomate omelette (ham, cheese and tomato). They were always perfectly cooked, slightly browned on the outside and soft and runny in the middle. The French call that baveuse. I call it heaven.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

The ideal reading experience for me is when I’m reclining in a lounge chair under the cool shade of a huge umbrella on my back porch in Santa Monica, Calif. It’s very peaceful and allows me to really get lost in a book.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

If you’ll permit me, let me be a proud father and say that one of the writers I admire is my son Max Brooks. He is the author of several great books including “The Zombie Survival Guide,” “World War Z” and “Devolution.” (By the way, they’re best sellers. So it’s not just me bragging!)

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

If you’ll permit me, let me be a proud father and say that one of the writers I admire is my son Max Brooks. He is the author of several great books including “The Zombie Survival Guide,” “World War Z” and “Devolution.” (By the way, they’re best sellers. So it’s not just me bragging!)

What books, if any, most contributed to your artistic development?

I could name influential authors like Thomas Hardy, Henry Fielding, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Molière and a hundred others who all had an impact on my writing. But there is a whole other group of great writers who are not always recognized as such because they didn’t write books — they wrote lyrics.

My artistic development was influenced by so many great lyricists. A few that come to mind are of course Cole Porter with “You Do Something to Me” (Do do that voodoo that you do so well), Irving Berlin with “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Before the fiddlers have fled / Before they ask us to pay the bill / and while we still have the chance / Let’s face the music and dance), Yip Harburg with “Over the Rainbow” (Where troubles melt like lemon drops / Away above the chimney tops / That’s where you’ll find me), Ira Gershwin with “S’Wonderful” (‘S marvelous / You should care for me / ‘S awful nice / ‘S paradise / ‘S what I love to see), Alan Jay Lerner with “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (Lots of chocolate for me to eat / Lots of coal makin’ lots of heat / Warm face, warm hands, warm feet / Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?), Oscar Hammerstein II with “Ol’ Man River” (I gets weary, an’ sick o’ tryin’ / I’m tired of livin’ and I’m scared of dyin’) and Irving Mills with “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing / Doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah). Maybe not recognized among the most famous lyricists is Irving Caesar, who wrote “Tea for Two” and together with George Gershwin the unforgettable “Swanee” — in the middle of which there is this little genius run of letters spelling out “dixie” (D-I-X-I-E-ven though my mammy’s waiting for me / Praying for me, down by the Swanee).

There must be hundreds of brilliant lyrics that could all be called great poetry. I’ve only chosen a few that appeal to me and that influenced my own writing, but I thought it was necessary to recognize what a talent it takes to write unforgettable lyrics.

Who are your favorite comic writers? Your favorite memoir by a comedian?

By far my favorite comic writer and memoirist of all time is the irreplaceable Carl Reiner. He was the greatest straight man that ever lived, and straight men never get as much credit as the other comics but they are so incredibly valuable. He wrote several memoirs and I even helped him with the title for one of them, “Too Busy to Die.” They’re all chock-full of great show business memories and replete with wit and wisdom.

What writers are especially good on the entertainment industry?

One of the best that comes to mind is Gay Talese, who wrote for The New York Times and Esquire magazine in the late 1960s and ’70s. His 1966 article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is a bit of a masterpiece. It captures the good and bad of Sinatra, as well as the unknown. I’m not alone in my appreciation: The author Mario Puzo called Talese the best nonfiction writer in America.

I also really enjoyed my interviews with Kenneth Tynan, who wrote a wonderful book about people in show business called “Show People: Profiles in Entertainment.” It covers in brief, brilliant sketches five wonderful entertainers: Ralph Richardson, Tom Stoppard, Johnny Carson, Louise Brooks and the aforementioned me, Mel Brooks (which I unbiasedly think was absolutely the best).

What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?

I loved reading Gary Giddins’s two-volume biography of Bing Crosby, “A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940” and “Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946.” They are so good I even toyed with the idea of making a movie of them myself. There was only one major problem: Where do you find another Bing Crosby to play Bing Crosby?

Do you count any books as comfort reads or guilty pleasures?

I think “Robinson Crusoe,” by Daniel Defoe, is my comfort read. I must have read it over a hundred times, and it never fails me. Our hero meets and conquers every challenge that comes his way, never losing faith in his ability to survive. When I read the last page and put the book down I always feel great. Defoe delivers the exact ending that you were hoping for.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh? And the funniest book you ever read?

One of the funniest books I ever read is called “The Twelve Chairs.” I liked it so much I made a movie of it! The book was written by two young Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, and it’s a crazy picaresque adventure set during the turbulent times immediately following the Russian Revolution. It seems the matriarch of an aristocratic Russian family sewed a fortune in jewels into the seat of one of her dining room chairs to hide them from the authorities. When her son-in-law (who has been demoted from marshal of the nobility to clerk) finds out he goes crazy. He teams up with a scoundrel and they set off on an amazing chase all through Russia to find out what happened to the chairs. It was already so hilarious and cinematic on the page that with very few changes I just moved it to the screen. If you haven’t seen “The Twelve Chairs,” you have missed a beauty.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

The genre that continually draws me to it is history — both biographies and historical fiction. “The Diary of Samuel Pepys” is an incredible look at real day-to-day life during the British Restoration period in the 1600s from the bubonic plague to the Great Fire of London. I also absolutely loved reading two of Walter Isaacson’s great biographies: “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” and “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” Just recently I finished a wonderful trilogy on Winston Churchill by William Manchester and Paul Reid called “The Last Lion.” It has everything you ever wanted to know about Churchill’s feelings while he was leading his country through the most perilous times. You’ll find that in any recent account of Churchill’s life they all have the same memorable salute from Churchill to the R.A.F.’s courage during the Second World War: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

A couple of years ago I came upon the Thomas Kydd series by Julian Stockwin. Even though they’re historical fiction, the stories lean on real events like Horatio Nelson and the British naval battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars. Stockwin’s description of what comprises a British man-o’-war during that era is stunning in its detail. From stem to stern, he describes each and every sail from the topgallant through the main sails all the way down to the flying jib. Every time I am in London I like to go to Trafalgar Square and celebrate Nelson’s victory there by sitting on the steps of the National Gallery and reading a Thomas Kydd novel.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

When I was a young fledgling comedy writer working for Sid Caesar on “Your Show of Shows,” our head writer was Mel Tolkin, real name Shmuel Tolshinsky. I really looked up to him. (By the way, I was 5-foot-7 and he was six feet tall.) He was a bona fide intellectual, thoroughly steeped in the traditions of great Russian literature. One day he handed me a book. He said to me, “Mel, you’re an animal from Brooklyn, but I think you have the beginnings of something called a mind.”

The book was “Dead Souls,” by the magnificent genius Nikolai Gogol. It was a revelation. I’d never read anything like it. It was hysterically funny and incredibly moving at the same time. It’s like Gogol stuck a pen in his heart, and it didn’t even go through his mind on its way to the page. It truly raised the bar of what I considered to be important writing. It was a life-changing gift, and I still read it once a year to remind myself of what great comic writing can be.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was more of an outdoor kid than a reader as a child. I would have much rather been in the street in Brooklyn playing stickball than staying inside and reading. But a couple of children’s books I read back then still stick with me all these years later. Namely “Black Beauty,” by Anna Sewell, and “Lad: A Dog,” by Albert Payson Terhune. Quite a triumph for those authors to keep a busy kid on the move inside his apartment reading, but their skillful telling of these adventures fully captured my young imagination.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I was lucky enough to live this question in my own life. At one point during the ’60s every Tuesday night I had a standing dinner with friends at 17 Mott Street in Chinatown. We called ourselves “The Chinese Gourmet Society.” The first writer at the table was Joseph Heller, author of the unforgettable “Catch-22.” The second was Mario Puzo, whose masterpiece was “The Godfather.” And I foolishly and humbly submit that the third great writer at the table may have been me.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

If truth be told, for some reason I never did get around to finishing “Mein Kampf.”

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