Mel Brooks’ fingerprints are all over Conan O’Brien’s absurd brand of comedy — can’t you see Richard Pryor loving Triumph the Insult Comic Dog? — and the famous funnymen’s mutual respect is evident in a recent sit-down for Conan’s Serious Jibber-Jabber web series. (The full chat hits TeamCoco.com on Monday.)
EW got Conan on the phone to talk about his admiration for Brooks and what he learned during their hour-plus talk. (The Serious Jibber-Jabber tagline: “Conan O’Brien talks for a long time with interesting people.”) We also nabbed an exclusive preview clip below, in which Brooks explains why Pryor didn’t star in Blazing Saddles and how they were free to “go nuts” with the script.
Check out our interview and the clip below:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve sat down with Mel on your show before — but what was it like to have a more in-depth interview with him like this?
CONAN O’BRIEN: The whole reason Jibber-Jabber came about was because for 20 years, I’ve been having these nine-minute, sometimes 12-minute conversations with people, and there are times when they leave when I think, “I wanted that to keep going and going and going and going.” And then there have been times when I’ve been a guest on Charlie Rose when I’ve thought, “I really like that there’s no audience here,” especially when you’re a comedian, because you can get into a different rhythm. There’s no way comedians can talk without listening for the audience, and even me as an interviewer, there’s always some part of me that’s listening to make sure that they’re OK and they’re still there. I would do Charlie Rose’s show and think, “This would be good, but I’d like to someday do my version of it.”
And then, thanks to the Internet, we not only have pornography 24/7, which is the first thing to mention, but … I love American history, so it started with me just talking to Theodore Roosevelt historian Edmund Morris. I had read all his books, and I had him on the show, talked to him for eight minutes about Theodore Roosevelt, and thought, “Goddamnit, I want to talk to him some more!” So we set up this little set, and we did it, and it was really fun and everyone kind of walked out of the booth and said, “That was really good.” Even people who that’s not their thing, they said they really enjoyed it.
Then I started talking to people like Jack White, I got the Simpsons writing room together from when I was on The Simpsons, and people like Martin Short, then Mel Brooks, and everybody asks the same question when we start it: “Why are you doing this?” They all ask the same thing. And even Mel Brooks said it. He said, “Why are you doing this? You have a show. Everything’s good.” Mel seemed kind of nervous about it, and he said, “There’s no audience. What are we doing with no audience?” And I said, “You’re going to love it.”
Mel is the eighth Jibber-Jabber I’ve done, and he starts talking, and we start talking back-and-forth, and then you completely forget that this on camera. I think even he forgot this was on camera. And an hour and 20 minutes later, I wrapped it up. I could have kept going; I just thought, “We need to get this man water. We need to keep him hydrated.” [Laughs] And it’s my favorite one, because it’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s one of my favorite conversations I’ve had in my lifetime, and we have it on camera. It’s all about making them comfortable, so I tell them upfront: Look, this is a labor of love. So if you say something that you’re not comfortable with, tell us and it comes out. No one has ever asked to take anything out. And I doubt anyone ever will. But they know that it’s a safe place, and they know that it’s really coming from me just really wanting to find out about them.
And what’s nice is it’s not a booking commitment. … Let’s face it: Not every talk show host, every night is talking to the person that they handpicked as one of their favorite people in their world to talk to. It’s just not how it works. Any time you see me on Jibber-Jabber talking to somebody, it’s because I would walk over hot coals to talk to them. There’s no obligation. This is not a moneymaking scheme. [Laughs] “Wait till we get these Jibber-Jabbers into Europe! These things are gonna sell like hotcakes!”
And what I like is that I leave and I feel like I’m using a muscle that I haven’t gotten to use. I walked out of the Mel Brooks one, and he had a great time, and I sent him a note the next day that just said, “That was the best night I’ve had since my honeymoon, and it lasted longer.” And then he wrote me this really funny email back, and he was like, “I was considering legal action, but I’ve decided not to, I had such a good time.”
What’s nice for me is I think this is something a younger generation — there’s so many people that are into comedy now. You don’t have to be 55, 65, 75 to like listening to Mel Brooks. He’s so relevant to younger comics. There’s so many kids that grew up on Spaceballs that don’t even know about Young Frankenstein. And he talks about that. He talks about shuffling through an airport and 14-year-old kids yelling, “Spaceballs rules!” That’s how they know Mel Brooks. You don’t even have to be a 20-year-old comedy nerd.
What I was blown away by was this guy, born to a single mom, Garment District, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and he’s quoting opera, he’s quoting Goethe, he’s completely self-made and self-educated, and he knows about wine, and he really knows about the world, he really knows about everything. And I feel like that’s a great lesson for younger generations of comedians to see, is it really helps to know about as much as you can for your comedy. So that’s why I was really excited about this one.
You mentioned how Mel has influenced today’s comedians, but how has he specifically impacted your comedy?
I asked him about it in the interview. I said, “Who are your influences?” And he mentioned a few influences, and the second one I think he mentioned was the Marx Brothers. And I jumped in and said, “That’s what I get from your comedy that really spoke to me. It’s relentless.” There’s a relentless nature to Mel Brooks. When you look at all of his stuff, he keeps coming at you. And that’s what I got from the Marx Brothers too.
If you look at Duck Soup, it just gets more and more and more absurd, and they never stop, and it takes your breath away. And I always wanted to pack my show — in the early days of the late-night show, we were always putting in three times as much comedy as anybody else and trying all kinds of stuff. I just wanted it to have a relentless quality to it. And it probably wasn’t for everybody. But I just thought, “This is what speaks to me about him.” He’s there to amuse and entertain you and he’ll try anything, and it’s a really fun quality, and he’s not too cool for school. His comedy’s never looking down at you; he’s down in the mud with us.
I never liked the kind of alpha-male comedy, which was, “I’m the cool guy in the room and I’m sh–ing on everyone else.” I was always averse to that. I always wanted people to understand, “I’m here with you. I get it. I’m insecure. And I’m worried about my own status at this exact moment, and let’s try to get through this together.” And I think there’s a real quality of that with Mel Brooks, too, which is really sweet. It was one of the most fun experiences I had had in a while, and it’s what I love about Jibber-Jabber and the web in general. We all complain about it, we all complain that there’s a lot of crap out there and the bar has been lowered, but there’s so much positive if you’re willing to embrace it. You can find all kinds of ways to express yourself. I couldn’t have done this five, 10 years ago.
We have a clip from your interview where Mel talks about how much freedom he had while writing Blazing Saddles because he thought no one would ever see it. And it obviously turned out to be a comedy classic. Do you think that freedom is what made the movie so great?
Whenever you look at a movie like that, you have to remember the context. It’s very hard to describe, if I’m talking to someone who’s 22 today, it’s hard for me to tell them what it meant when Steve Martin first showed up, because they like Steve Martin, they respect Steve Martin, and they know he’s funny. They say, “I know, I know,” but they don’t understand in 1977 what Steve Martin — he took the air out of the room. You didn’t think anybody could be that funny when Steve Martin showed up. It was breaking every single rule, and I think Mel Brooks, when Blazing Saddles came out, it had that same kind of feel.
It’s something we talk about in the interview, is how he loves to break the fourth wall. I think he breaks the fourth wall in every movie. In the interview, he says he didn’t do it in Young Frankenstein, and I said, “Well, you kinda did, because Marty Feldman looks right to camera at one point.” He’s like, “Yeah, OK.”
You talk about that relentless quality of Blazing Saddles … when you saw a guy punch a horse, which you probably couldn’t even get away with today — forget the N-word — but he punches a horse. And then the campfire scene. It keeps going and going and going. He doesn’t care, he’s throwing everything in plus the kitchen sink, and he has everybody run onto another set of another movie and then the bad guy runs off the lot, which is actually right where I am right now. So whenever I see the end of Blazing Saddles, I always wait for that part, because Harvey Korman’s running past the gate that I drive through every morning, and he runs across the streets, hops in a cab, and says, “Take me off this picture.” And goes to Mann’s Chinese Theatre. [Laughs]
There’s a kind of comedy that you write in a room with comedy writers, we’re always pitching stuff that makes us laugh until we cry, until we realize, “Well we can’t really use that.” It’s too much, and you have to pull it back. And sometimes it’s good, and sometimes you’re right, that it was too much. But you can tell that whole movie, they thought, “Let’s just go for it.” They got way too silly. That ending they probably wrote really late, they were giggling, they wrote it, God knows who was on what, and then they actually made it! [Laughs]
That was what was so different about it. When that movie came out, it was a paradigm shift. It’s not too many years later that Airplane! comes along. I don’t think you can have Airplane! without Blazing Saddles. And then once Airplane! comes along, you’re off to the races.
Mel also talks about why Richard Pryor wasn’t cast in the film’s main role. How do you think that might have changed the movie?
You wonder how it would have been different. And obviously, Cleavon Little is so likeable in that role, and you wonder with Richard Pryor: How would he have played it? Would there have been more menace? Does it work if there’s more menace? Maybe it doesn’t work. We’ll never know. He might have been great too. It’s like when you think about who was supposed to play Rick in Casablanca and it didn’t quite work out. [Editor's note: There's a rumor that Ronald Reagan was set to play Rick, but Snopes says it's not true.] I can’t remember; I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who was supposed to do that role.
Yeah, that sounds right.
I think it could have been great.
Conan O’Brien’s Serious Jibber-Jabber interview with Mel Brooks hits TeamCoco.com on Monday.