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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.