The below is an excerpt from ‘“You Talkin’ to ”: The Definitive Guide to Iconic Movie Quotes’ by Brian Abrams.
Though it’s true (it’s twoo! it’s twoo!) that Mel Brooks became comedy royalty after an impeccable run of game-changing hits with Gene Wilder—especially Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein—the Brooklyn-born rascal always took his funny business seriously. He constantly combed the desert for gags, thought up absurd cameos and sidekicks, and never ever accepted notes or direction from suits on the studio lot.
That also tracks throughout his stellar career’s uninterrupted torrent of jokes and one-liners, and oh so generous, Brooks was not just doing this for money. He was doing it for a shitload of money.
“Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Punctuality was not an attribute that secured Richard Pryor’s seat in the Warner Bros. writers’ room for Blazing Saddles. The thirty-two-year-old comic had been an erratic, often-inebriated force in showbiz, wandering in uncertain pursuit of creative rediscovery. The Nixon era saw his hiatus from the stage, while a revolutionary period in Hollywood allowed him to prevail in film. His ad-libbing on the set of Lady Sings the Blues expanded a passing cameo into a considerable supporting role. Contributions to the Blaxploitation screenplay for The Mack were nothing short of “caustic, furious, tough, sloppy, myopic, visionary, crude, and always, always real,” said director Michael Campus, and in late 1972, the five weeks Pryor spent co-writing a first draft of Mel Brooks’s outrageous Western would redefine parody itself.
His tardiness was not cause for concern on his first day entering the sixth-floor conference room at 666 Fifth Avenue. Neither was his unyielding cocaine habit. Writer-director Brooks, in the company of his extant writing staff (newcomers Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and, for a brief period, a dentist named Alan Uger), reiterated the broad strokes of the project for the benefit of the newly sworn-in member. Pryor, while nodding intently to Brooks’s direction, pulled out a locket and began snorting his mid-morning ration. “We were so innocent,” Steinberg recalled, watching Pryor invite his colleagues to partake.
“Brother Mel?” Pryor offered.
Brooks’s polite decline—“never before lunch”—relayed the same wit as that of any of his savvy Tonight Show appearances, and Pryor would reciprocate with equal agility. “He was such a meshugener but such a lovely person,” Bergman said. “You never knew which Richie was gonna show. He was never, like, a really hostile Richie. Just all over the place . . . One day he would show up dressed as the maid and started dusting the room.”
Pryor’s presence brought more than an inspired rawness. It granted implied permission to “run all the red lights,” as Bergman put it, and think up the most buck-wild ways to caricature American racism and make habitual use of an unspeakable racial epithet. Steinberg recalled “a rule that nobody took credit for anything,” following Brooks’s approach when writing for NBC’s Your Show of Shows, “where just a gang of us got together,” according to Brooks, “and whoever had an idea, we’d all run with it and help it and pep it up.”
Everyone went into attack mode on the slack-jawed townsfolk of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge. Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), abducting himself at gunpoint to avoid execution, was pure Pryor. The comedian also particularly relished the character of Mongo (Alex Karras), the ten-gallon- hat terror that eats beans with a serving spoon, and if you shoot him, you’ll just make him mad. “He wrote most of the Mongo stuff,” Brooks said of Pryor. “He loved Mongo. He came up with crazy stuff like ‘Mongo only pawn in game of life,’” adding a nonsensically profound dimension to an otherwise brainless beast. At that point in his career, Pryor hadn’t yet had the chance to explore the stereotype of a meatheaded yokel. Nowhere in a sold-out Vegas performance or one of The Mack’s dire subplots would you find Pryor conjuring countryfolk like Mongo—a brutal yet inexplicably philosophical aberration.
After a month or so, Pryor was tapped out and headed back to California. “He was like a pitcher,” Steinberg said. “You got five innings out of him.” Brooks, Bergman, and Steinberg continued to polish subsequent drafts, all three knowing that their rabble-rousing partner wouldn’t return. Unless, of course, those conference-room performances as Sheriff Bart meant that he’d end up in front of the camera when filming began in 1973, but Warner Bros. was averse to the idea of casting Pryor. Word had spread of his mercurial behavior on the set of The Mack (he stormed off after threatening the producer) and his reputed habit (Brooks: “He was a known sniffer”). The role of Bart went to Little, who turned out to be less of a casting pawn than the movie’s missing piece.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Frau Blücher “was not the kind of character to whom you apply the Stanislavsky method,” Cloris Leachman wrote in her 2srcsrc9 autobiography. The cagey housekeeper who oversees the mad doctor Frankenstein’s Transylvanian manor “mostly sprang full grown on the set” of Brooks’s farcical homage to all the marvelous Mary Shelley adaptations from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Highlights of said era, as the director recounted during a 1975 Tonight Show appearance, included “Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein, The House of Frankenstein, [and] Frankenstein’s Friend Murray.”
Independent of a makeup artist, Leachman applied that protruding melanoma below her lip and penciled those diabolical eyebrows onto her forehead. She tugged back her hair in a strict bun, and ingratiated herself to Brooks’s mother (also present on the Fox lot), whose knowledge of the German language informed the liebling’s Teutonic accent. Above all, Leachman was charged with keeping her harebrained frau mindful of the absurd yet disciplined reality within Brooks’s exquisite Young Frankenstein.
The actor had already proven versatile as the Oscar-winning forlorn housewife in The Last Picture Show and the cross landlady in the cherished sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She believed, upon reflection, “the most outlandish role” of her career was indubitably the one whose name’s simple utterance—which translates to “Madam Glue” in English—terrorizes any horse within earshot. Leachman clearly triumphed. As divulged in her memoir, dining out was never the same after playing Frau Blücher: “Even today I can go to my table in a restaurant and suddenly hear someone make that whinnying sound.”
The writing for Young Frankenstein had flowed between Brooks and his reliable collaborator Gene Wilder, to whom the Blazing Saddles director was forever indebted after Wilder agreed to join the cast as a last-minute replacement to play the Waco Kid. (The previously cast actor, Gig Young, suffered from delirium tremens, making his performance as the alcoholic gunslinger a little too genuine.) Wilder’s one condition upon arriving on the Western set was that Brooks consider the project that had been buzzing in his head. He shared a four-page outline, and his friend agreed.
Drafting the screenplay didn’t take flight until Brooks was in the editing room for Saddles, and Wilder stayed in town for a bit part in Stanley Donen’s whimsical The Little Prince. The pair met inside Wilder’s bungalow at the Bel-Air Hotel after their days wrapped up in the editing room and on set, respectively. Each evening, room service brought them a pot of Earl Grey tea, accompanied by a serving of cream, brown-sugar cubes, and a tin of round digestive biscuits. “Step by step, ever so cautiously,” Brooks explained in 2src16, “we proceeded on a dark, narrow, twisting path to the eventual screenplay in which good sense and caution are thrown out the window and madness ensues.”
“It’s good to be the king.”
History of the World, Part I (1981)
Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I is an absurdist, episodic romp that sweeps through the annals of humanity dating back to the cavemen, but it’s also a critique of power and the bumbling, narrow-minded dunces who’ve wielded it, from Emperor Nero of Rome to Tomas de Torquemada. No prominent figure gets more screen time than King Louis XVI, played by Brooks as a lecherous, womanizing monarch who enjoys shooting at peasants for sport. Each time the king gropes or lifts up the skirt of a beautiful lady, he smiles into the camera and utters his catchphrase: “It’s good to be the king.”
This literal wink at the audience epitomizes the character’s decadence and self-serving arrogance, but considering how Brooks breaks the fourth wall each time he says it, the line also works as an oblique nod to his own status as the reigning king of comedy. Meanwhile, the king’s catchphrase took on a life of its own when, in October 1981 (months after the film’s theatrical release), Brooks collaborated with music producer Pete Wingfield to record an early rap single called “It’s Good to Be the King Rap.” Released by the Philly soul label WMOT Records in 1982, the undeniably funky tune finds Brooks rapping in character as Louis XVI, spitting rhymes about his charmed life as the king of France (“In the alleys of Paris they was eating rats / But it was filet mignon for the aristocrats”) and his untimely demise (“They put my neck on the block, they took off my wig / And it occurred to me this was the end of the gig”).
The track received considerable airplay from New York’s beloved disc jockey Frankie Crocker on WBLS, and Brooks became a rap pioneer; he was the first white man to have a rap song break onto the Billboard charts. Back in the Old World, “It’s Good to Be the King Rap” sold more than a quarter-million copies in France and ranked second on the French singles charts. It even spawned a response track from Sylvia Robinson, cofounder of the trailblazing Sugar Hill Records (home of the Sugarhill Gang), who enjoyed a minor Billboard hit with 1982’s “It’s Good to Be the Queen” (same tune, different lyrics).
Brooks would return to the novelty rap trenches with the 1983 track “To Be or Not to Be,” aka “The Hitler Rap,” in which he drops bars in character as the führer. He later snuck the line “It’s good to be the king” into his 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The title of a notable 2srcsrc7 biography of Brooks? It’s Good to Be the King.
Excerpted from ‘“You Talkin’ to Me?”: The Definitive Guide to Iconic Movie Quotes’ by Brian Abrams, copyright ©2src23. Used with permission of Workman, a division of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.