Mel Brooks starts quiet and gets louder. "Here I am, I'm Melvyn Brooks, I've come to stop the show." It's a song he used to sing, aged 14, on stage in the Catskills. "Just a ham, who's minus looks, but in your hearts I'll grow." He reprises it now, aged 78, in a room in east London where his show, The Producers, is in rehearsal. "I'll tell your dad, sing the songs / Happy little snappy tunes that roll along."
Brooks' arms start to twitch; he's doing window-washing movements with his hands.
"Out of my mind, won't you be kind and please love -" he claps three times; if he wasn't wearing beige he'd be down on one knee - "MELVYN BROO-OOKS!"
Brooks is a terrible old ham. A member of the cast brings him tea. "You're great, you're great," he growls. He has a queenly way of entering a room, eyes fixed forward, to discourage, one assumes, the approach of people on the periphery. But his voice is old Brooklyn. He says everything twice, for extra whimsy. How long is he in London?
"Coupla days, coupla days," he says, shaking his head and looking at the table as if it were an open grave.
The Producers is transferring to London from its much publicised success on Broadway, where it took more than $1m a week. There is a new London cast. Richard Dreyfuss plays Max Bialystock, the ogreish producer, with Lee Evans in the role of Leo Bloom - "a little, meagre caterpillar of an accountant," as Brooks puts it - who wanders into the path of "a big, blustering, animal of a man who screws little old ladies to get as much money as he can to do these stupid, silly plays. And into his office walks Leo Bloom, a little angel who says, 'You know, you can make more money with a flop than you could with a hit.' Bang!"
This is the condensed version. Brooks is an accomplished filibusterer. Once he starts, there really is no stopping him. His shtick, I suspect, is not unconnected to his shortness: he has the boom of a man making up for height with volume. When he walks, he slaps down his feet like a seal.
" ... and in the end Bloom says, 'Mr Bialystock, you've mistaken me for a man with a spine!' And he goes back to his office. Ha!"
Is he not tired of the story by now? (Brooks wrote The Producers as a film script in 1968). "I love this story. And then what happens is Bloom's boss, Mr Marx, says you are just a PA - a public accountant, a nothing and a nobody in the world. I am a CPA, a certified public accountant, a position that you would never, ever achieve. Mr Marx says, what's this? Do I smell the disgusting stench of self-esteem? You know, he's very Dickensian, this Mr Marx."
And Lee Evans -
"Lee Evans. He's taken to it like a puppy takes to the meadow. Romping. He has become Leo Bloom. He says to Mr Marx, 'You are a CPA - a certified, public ASSHOLE.' And everyone goes, 'Yeah'."
One of Brooks' favourite sayings is, "You either get it or you don't." It applies very much to his career. When Blazing Saddles, his satirical take on westerns in which a black sheriff is appointed to a redneck town, came out in 1974, it was accused in some quarters of racism. Its slapstick humour divides audiences along male/female lines; men tend to find the fart gags funnier than women do.
"It couldn't be made today, Blazing Saddles," he says. "No, because -" He breaks off suddenly and looks at me. "What's your last name?" he says. I tell him.
"There's an 'e' in that?"
Yes. And a "c".
"How fancy," he says. "I think that's the most you can do with Brooks, a 'c' and an 'e'. You could be my daughter - you never know - I've been around. Did your mother ever go to a bar in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow?"
No. So, Blazing Saddles -
"OK. Then you're probably not my daughter. You married?"
"I have a son!" He pauses. "Blazing Saddles is definitely not PC. You couldn't say the word 'nigger' now. You just couldn't say it. I was lucky, that the PC curtain didn't fall. It's killed a lot of good humour."
I'm struggling to keep up. Perhaps, I say eventually, there are words which shouldn't be used even in satire.
Brooks shakes his head. "You can deal with all of this stuff as long as your heart is in the right place. People just hear the word and you're condemned. There's a whole context here. The black guy's the good guy; we're trying to describe his plight." He shrugs. "You get it or you don't."
Brooks' Yiddish comedy routine has been criticised, too, for legitimising racial stereotypes. I ask him about his relationship with the Jewish community. He rolls his eyes elaborately.
"Oh, to this day, every picture I make I get criticism from the Jewish community." The Producers, particularly, has heaped trouble on him with its rendition of Nazi Germany as a camp musical, high-kicking stormtroopers and all. "I keep getting letters from little old Jewish ladies: 'You think Hitler is funny?'" He sighs. "You get it or you don't."
Brooks was also warned that The Producers might be construed as homophobic, since it makes fun of a certain kind of high camp. "They said the gay thing would come down on me hard. I said noooooo! The gay community will love it! I checked it out! I've done all my auditions, with all my gay friends and gay bars and gay places to make sure that I wasn't stepping on anybody's toe. They love it, they love it."
Brooks wears the success of The Producers on his sleeve. He practically shines with it. To have had such a hit, when American comedy, as he sees it, is going through a very bad patch, reaffirms his faith in himself. There have been flops along the way, notably Robin Hood: Men in Tights. But he is back now, and blazing. Brooks blames the decline of comedy writing in the US on reality TV. "It stinks!" he says. "Every mother son of them, every living one of them stinks. There isn't a good one. People say, 'Oh, dontcha like the one with the guy ba-ba-ba? No, I don't. I'm old-fashioned; I want entertainment. I don' t want to get lucky with somebody making a mistake. You know? It's very sad for comedy writers. Thousands of them working the counters at Macys 'cos they can't get a job writing."
I tell him my sense is that lots of people who might once have gone into sitcom writing are now going into documentary making. "Yes, I do think that's true. They beat the PC thing by doing documentaries. For instance, Michael Moore, whose film was good and bad. The film making was not that good, and it was what I consider too stacked against; a little too stacked. And you don't want to do that. You want the audience to make those determinations. You don't want to make that for them. He overplayed his hand."
Brooks was born in Brooklyn. When he was 17, he enrolled at a military academy in Virginia, in the hope of keeping out of trouble for the duration of the war. Then D-Day happened and Brooks was drafted as a private in the infantry. He had a near-death experience in Germany when a bomb hit his unit, which he cites, along with the writing of Springtime for Hitler, as his happiest hour. Crouched under a desk, debris falling all around him, Brooks says his character was forged. "I thought, OK: if I get through this I'll get through anything."
Brooks' family is originally from Germany. "My father was Maximilian. He was born in Danzig. So when the Germans attacked, I said, 'Wait a minute, we're German.' Then later, I said, 'We're German, we're German, we're German; but we're Jews. So forget that first part.'"
He named his own son after his father. Brooks talks about his son a lot. "I got to tell you something, my son put me on to Ali G." (Brooks loves it. "He's amazing. He plays everything straight. He has three characters, he has Ali G, who's this Lebanese person. And he has that Kazakhstan guy with a moustache. Then he has this fruity German queen. And he's always risking his life. He goes up to a guy at a redneck rural barbecue and says, 'You've never kissed a boy? You should try it. Amazing!")
Back to his son. "My son Max, Max Brooks. For the last couple of years he's been writing [a book]. He's 32, he's struggled all his life as a writer, voice-overs etc. He's always wanted to make his own money. He was in a movie that my wife Anne Bancroft and I did, called To Be or Not to Be. He was nine years old and played a little Jewish boy hiding in the basement. Good-looking kid." He takes a theatrical breath and continues. "So now, Max Brooks, he finishes the book and I said, 'Max, this is an exercise in futility! I admire your panache, but this is never going to get published.' The book he was writing was called the Zombie Survival Guide: a military manual. Dense. DENSE! With instructions and precautions about what you do when you run into a zombie." He shakes his head. "And my God, it got published and is now in its seventh edition."
Did he apologise to his son for doubting him?
"I said, Max, Max! You taught me a great lesson; a lesson I knew already, but I never really nailed it. And that lesson is, if you write something that you know well, from your heart and your soul, it will live, somehow. It may not live in your lifetime, but it will survive, if you write it from your heart and your soul. And you have a brushstroke of talent. It will live. You gotta read this book! It'd be nice if you mentioned it. Max Brooks; Maximilian Brooks."
We get up for photos. Brooks throws some manic, Hitleresque poses. "If you have to trip a little old lady or push a little old man to get a ticket, do it," he says, mid-caper. He prepares to leave. I hold out my hand. Brooks ignores it and grabs my face, cupping one hand either side of my chin. "You're great, you're great," he growls, and slaps out of the room, head high.
The Producers Opens at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on November 9 2004. For tickets, call 0870 890 1109.
Web : www.theproducersmusical.co.uk
The Producers,West End production
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David, New York (6/8/2005)