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Mel Brooks: There's A Grain Of Truth In Every Joke

As told by film critic Roger Ebert, this is the story of how, while driving in L.A., Mel Brooks accidentally came up with the idea for the film ‘Life Stinks’. And how Brooks used his cachet – and the comedy – to bring awareness to the serious issue of homelessness.

When Sherman McCoy, the hero of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, took the wrong exit ramp into the Bronx, the result was a merciless flaying of New York's rich and famous. When Mel Brooks, the director of "Life Stinks," took the wrong exit ramp into downtown Los Angeles, the result was a warm-hearted comedy about the homeless.

"It all has to do with vacuums," Brooks was explaining the other day. "Your car has all of these tubes in it, and when they suck, it goes. And when they don't suck, it doesn't go, and my hoses weren't sucking that day and I had to get off the freeway, and I coasted for a block, and I was in Calcutta."

He could not believe his eyes. Homeless men and women drifted on the sidewalks like the ghosts of everyone who had ever walked those streets. He got out of his car to look for a telephone, and went for a walk instead. No one bothered him. In an alley, he found a woman named Molly who was living there.

"If she had been a little girl, you would have said she was playing house," Brooks said. "She had a little plastic cup and a little plastic saucer. This was where she lived. I talked with her. She wasn't crazy or anything. She said she had been married, and the marriage ended, and she started paying rent, and the rent went up, and she couldn't pay it, and she moved into a transient hotel, and then she moved out to the streets. She said the streets were cleaner and safer than the hotel."

That's what happens to a lot of people, Brooks said. The rent goes up. They're capable of holding a job and paying the rent up to a certain point, but then the rent goes up and they can't pay it, and they're homeless. And then of course they can't keep things together to hold a job, and it's hard for them to get mail or give an address, and they enter the vast invisible population of the cities. They are people who do not carry any keys because they have no doors to open.

We were having this conversation one evening before the premiere of "Life Stinks," the comedy inspired by Brooks' discovery of the homeless. A meeting room had been booked in the Four Seasons hotel, and it was stocked with food and drink and filled with all of the people Mel knew in town – from the exhibitors to the publicists to the journalists to his old pals.

Mel was sitting at a small table with a candle on it, talking about what some people have called the Reaganuts – the mental patients thrown out onto the streets of the big cities when the Reagan and Bush administrations closed halfway houses. Mel was asking why anyone had to go homeless when millions of square feet of empty office space fill every downtown. He held his hands to the heat of the candle. There we were, in the crowded room, the last liberal Democrats, warming ourselves at the flickering flame.

Because Mel Brooks is incapable of discussing any subject without turning it toward humor, however, he soon stopped complaining about the empty office space and started speculating about the difficulties of renting space in a building filled with the homeless.

"Let's say Prudential comes to have a look at a potential office suite. Or Citibank. What do you tell them? These will be your floors, here and here, and take our advice and don't give any loose change to your fellow tenants. It only encourages them. Oh, and we'll remodel and evict to suit."

Then it was time to go see "Life Stinks."

There are two Mel Brookses out in Hollywood, although the American public knows only one of them. We know zany Mel Brooks, the director of "The Producers," "The Twelve Chairs," "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "To Be or Not To Be," "History of the World -- Part 1," "High Anxiety" and "Spaceballs." Collectively, and in some cases individually, these are some of the funniest movies ever made.

The other Mel Brooks – maybe we should call him Melvin – is a Hollywood executive whose company produces some of the most prestigious movies around. This semi-anonymous Melvin's credits include "The Elephant Man," "Frances," "My Favorite Year," "84 Charing Cross Road" and "The Fly," although if you look under his name in The Filmgoer's Companion, you will not find any of these credits, because Mel does not give himself screen credit. He's afraid people will see the name and expect a comedy.

"Life Stinks" is a BrooksFilm, all right, a collaboration between Mel and Melvin. It is not a zany production. But it's not quite as serious as "The Elephant Man."

What it is – and this is surprising from Mel Brooks – is a sentimental fantasy with a lot of heart, some big laughs and an MGM song and dance number. The movie stars Brooks as a land developer who goes to live in an urban ghetto for 30 days, with no money or credit cards, on a bet (if he wins, he gets to buy the land).

What he discovers are soup kitchens, rats, cold, hunger, thirst and an amazing camaraderie with people like a fading but beautiful bag lady (Lesley Ann Warren) and an old-timer named Sailor (Howard Morris).

As he talks about "Life Stinks," a little seriousness creeps out. "This problem is staring us in the face, and it isn't going away," Mel said. "People should have a place to lay down their heads at night, and our society is too cheapskate to give them one. If you made a movie about the homeless, maybe nobody would come. But if you make the movie about a megalomaniac goofball, and put him in the middle of the homeless and call it a comedy, maybe somebody will come to see it."

He didn't hire the homeless as actors in his movie, Brooks said, "because a lot of them are delusional, and literally would not know the difference between reality and the movie. We used real actors. But we hired as many homeless as we could as helpers, odd-job people, things like that."

"What `Life Stinks' is all about, really, philosophically, in a nutshell is, `What are we worth?' We think our worth is what we've got, our bank account. The struggle that my character goes through is to discover that it ain't what you got, it's your goodness, your insides, your guts, your courage, your self-esteem, your dignity. But we don't think of it that way."

Except once in a while in a BrooksFilm.


Adapted from 'Taking the Off Ramp to Reality' by Roger Ebert (1991)




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