Mel Brooks on the Russians.

Brad Darrach did a great Mel Brooks interview for Playboy back in 1975, catching Brooks at his peak; it’s long, but well worth it if you enjoy laughing. I’ll just excerpt a short bit in which he is unwontedly serious and surprisingly astute about Russian literature:

Brooks: Tolkin is a big, tall, skinny Jew with terribly worried eyes. He looks like a stork that dropped a baby and broke it and is coming to explain to the parents. Very sad, very funny, very widely read. When I met him, I had read nothing—nothing! He said, “Mel, you should read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gogol.” He was big on the Russians. So I started with Tolstoy and I was overwhelmed. Tolstoy writes like an ocean, in huge, rolling waves, and it doesn’t look like it was processed through his thinking. It feels very natural. You don’t question whether Tolstoy’s right or wrong. His philosophy is housed in interrelating characters, so it’s not up for grabs. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, you can dispute philosophical points with, but he’s good, too. The Brothers Karamazov ain’t chopped liver.

Playboy: What about Gogol?

Brooks: Now you’ve said it. Perfect. Comedy and humanity, and he knew what he was talking about. Dead Souls is a masterpiece. I love Gogol’s great eye for idiot behavior. Gogol said that life is so tragic, so stupendously sad that we’d better laugh a lot and enjoy ourselves. You either get a sense of humor going or you go under.

And then there’s this great bit about language:

When I was a little boy, I thought when I grew up I would talk Yiddish, too. I thought little kids talked English, but when they became adults, they would talk Yiddish like the adults did. There would be no reason to talk English anymore, because we would have made it.

Now, would you care for a Raisinet?


  1. Wonderful! I didn’t know he was big on Russian literature.

    But why chopped liver?

  2. J. W. Brewer says
  3. I see, thanks!

  4. One of Brooks’s lesser known films, The Twelve Chairs (1970), is an enjoyable slapstick romp set in 1920s Russia. (I’m not familiar with the novel it’s based on.)

  5. I remember loving the movie when I saw it in college, but the book is much better. (I could have sworn I’d written about it, but apparently not.)

  6. John Emerson says

    For me an alternative to “chopped liver” is “dog meat”, which I think is in poart a euphemism for “dog shit.”

  7. There are two Soviet film versions of The Twelve Chairs, both of which are funnier than the Mel Brooks version. I prefer the Zakharov film (1977) with Mironov as Ostap Bender, which I saw first. I think most film critics prefer the Gaidai version (1971) starring Gomiashvili. They’re both on Youtube if you’re so inclined.

  8. “Gogol said that life is so tragic, so stupendously sad that we’d better laugh a lot and enjoy ourselves. You either get a sense of humor going or you go under.”

    – where did Gogol said it? Does anybody have a quote?

    My impressions from Gogol were unbearable dark…

  9. Well, Brooks wasn’t quoting him, just giving the message he deduced from the books. But Gogol wrote “В комедии я решил собрать все дурное в росии и посмеяться над всеми сразу,” so I think it’s a fair deduction.

  10. I remember a quote that was mandatory for memorizing for all schoolchildren, «сквозь видимый миру смех и незримые, неведомые ему слезы». Um, I guess what I am trying to say, Mel Brooks got Gogol exactly wrong. Gogol did not attempt to provide some comic relief or catharsis among tragedy, for he did not have any to offer, he wanted to show tragedy (of his personal making) where his audience saw only entertainment.

    I was terrified of Gogol when it was requiring reading for 14-15 y.o. Soviet kids. I think what scared me was his total lack of empathy for his personages, and this was a tragedy of his personal making. Did I get it all wrong?

    Dammit. Now I will have to go back and re-read Gogol.

  11. @Map

    Oh dear, I must be terribly shallow. I just think of Gogol as uproarious.

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