The black and white clip rolled, and in short order the audience at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills was rolling in the aisles with laughter.
The segment was from “The David Susskind Show” and the guests were comedians David Steinberg and Mel Brooks, who each tried to outdo each other with jokes about their Jewish mothers.
The lights came up to reveal Steinberg and Brooks, comedy legends who 47 years later are still going strong, eliciting a standing ovation from the packed house Tuesday night.
“We didn’t get paid that night, just like tonight,” Brooks said as they began an hour-plus-long conversation as part of a series called Arts & Ideas running this fall.
The discussion ricocheted across the years and locations from the Russian Tea Room to the Universal lot, filled with anecdotes about legends including Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Zero Mostel, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Wilder, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Walter Matthau, Tony Bennett, Johnny Carson, John Candy, Leslie Nielsen and Cary Grant.
Steinberg reflected on his Richard Nixon material and how he hosted the first White House Correspondents Dinner, during which a heckler called him a “mucky.” Somehow after the event, the man ended up in an elevator with Steinberg and Chayefsky, who grabbed him and shouted, “It’s not a mucky, it’s a kike,” referring to the blatant anti-Semitism of the time.
“I say Nixon has a face like a florist, and the FBI follows me,” Steinberg remarked.
The two men waxed euphoric about the late Sid Caesar, who had hired Brooks to write jokes for the NBC series “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” paying him $50 a week before he moved on to host the revolutionary comedy series “Your Show of Shows ” in 1950. Joining Brooks in the writers room there were Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Mel Tolkin.
“You prayed for a comic to meet the material. Sid always lifted our material. He was a bona fide genius. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth,” Brooks said. “We did 39 90-minute shows a season. Now they do six and call it a series. It was hell and heaven. Pure talent.”
He related a story about walking down 57th Street with Allen, Simon and Gelbart when they encountered a group of nuns. “Neil said, ‘Mel, don’t’ — but I told the nuns to get out of their costumes, that the sketch was over,” said Brooks.
Steinberg related how he first met Brooks, in front of Carnegie Hall, and how hilarity ensued about a poster up on the building for an upcoming performance by the Stuttgart Ballet. “Nazis,” Brooks screamed, in Steinberg’s recollection. The two regularly started having lunch together — and Steinberg said Brooks would greet well-wishers at the table sometimes by standing up on a chair and singing — an act he imitated on the stage of the Wallis.
Topping that, Brooks got up from his chair and did push-ups during an anecdote about shooting “The Producers” with Mostel. “I knew he was Max Bialystock, but I had to convince his wife to get him to do it.”
Gene Wilder was easier to cast as Leo Blum in the classic 1967 film. “He started crying when I told him he got the role,” Brooks recalled.
Steinberg had the audience in stitches when he talked about directing a film with Reynolds in a huge opening scene with 300 extras. “I was told that Burt did his own makeup but was warned not to say anything, even though it was very brown and looked horrible on camera. Afterward, he asked me how he did. ‘If you’re playing a Pakistani, we got it,’ I told him.”
He also discussed hiring DeLuise to shoot a commercial for computers, which took place in a Catholic Church. “He kept blowing his lines and I had warned him not to curse in front of the nuns, who had asked to come in and watch the shoot,” Steinberg said. “But he blew them and he yelled out ‘your mother’s cock’ — and the nuns were in hysterics. So he did it again, and again.”
Steinberg also told a story about Matthau and his wife, Carol, who apparently liked to bicker in public. During a trip to Poland in which they toured the concentration camps, the arguments apparently continued. “Walter said, ‘You ruined Auschwitz for me’ to his wife.”
The conversation turned to late-night talk shows and how Brooks was on Johnny Carson’s first show with Tony Bennett, for which only audiotapes survive.
Luckily, in this digital age, there’s no danger of losing a precious second of video from these comedy legends.
(The Arts & Ideas series will continue at the Wallis with Ted Koppel and Paula Poundstone on Nov. 1.)