Sunday’s New York Times included a big two-page interview Maureen Dowd did with Mel Brooks, who’s promoting the Hulu series, “History Of The World Part II.” I didn’t like the TV show (my review is here) and was similarly disappointed by Dowd’s piece, which offers nothing new about the 96-year-old comedy legend.
The problem is that Dowd asked Brooks about the same things every other interviewer has. What it was like in the writing rooms for Sid Caesar’s TV shows with Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and others. How strong Caesar was. Why Brooks keeps making fun of Hitler. His friendship with Cary Grant. An old comment from his wife, Anne Bancroft, about when she heard his key in the door and thought, “Oooh! The party’s going to start!” Brooks and best friend Carl Reiner having dinner and watching TV together every night after their wives died.
It’s not that those don’t elicit good answers from Brooks. It’s that he’s told those stories over and over and over again. So often, in fact, that I bet ChatGPT could crawl the web and come up with a Brooks profile that would look very much like Dowd’s.
Either Dowd took the lazy route or she doesn’t know enough about Brooks to delve into other aspects of his long career. She repeatedly scraped at the topsoil without digging any holes to go deeper.
I’ve written about this problem before. Just a few weeks ago, I expressed my disappointment about a Chris Wallace segment with Neil deGrasse Tyson. In 2018, I complained about Carol Burnett being asked the same old questions repeatedly. Later that year, after a similarly slim piece on Paul McCartney by Sharon Alfonsi on “60 Minutes,” I composed a list of ten queries that would have brought different responses from him instead of the same old anecdotes.
Let’s see if I can do the same with Mel Brooks. Here are ten questions Dowd — or anyone else who encounters him on his promotional tour for the Hulu series — could try if they were looking for new (or at least rarely explored) avenues to discuss with him:
- You’re known for outrageous comedies, but you’ve also produced some very serious movies like “The Elephant Man.” What drew you to that project?
- You and Buck Henry co-created the TV show “Get Smart.” How involved were you in writing and overseeing the show over its five year run?
- In 1963, you wrote and voiced an animated short called “The Critic,” which won an Academy Award. What was the genesis of that project?
- Speaking of “The Critic,” how has your relationship with movie critics been over the last six decades?
- Zero Mostel was well-known for ad-libbing and doing a lot of schtick when he starred on Broadway. Did you have a problem with him while directing “The Producers?”
- After the Broadway musical version of “The Producers” broke records for attendance and Tony awards, were you involved with any of the other productions of the show across the country and around the world?
- Did you and your wife, Anne Bancroft, give each other suggestions about movies or TV shows the other wasn’t directly involved in?
- How did you react when you saw Anne doing love scenes with other men?
- You cast Madeline Kahn in several of your movies. How did she make material that was good on paper even better on camera?
- One of the earliest credits on your IMDb page is as a window washer on “The Milton Berle Show” in 1951. Do you remember doing that?