Wednesday, December 01, 2021

What Do Mel Brooks And The Very Best Gradual Students Have In Common?


One of the things I've learned over my considerable number of years in the science geek business is that the very best gradual students*, those who have already looked at an hypothesis from every conceivable angle, will often listen patiently to my suggestions about what will make a good next experiment and say something like 'Yes, sure, we can try that.'  

Then, of course, they will immediately head back to the lab bench and do the exact experiment that they wanted to do in the first place.


It turns out that that is precisely how Mel Brooks dealt with meddling movie studio executives back in the day.

Here's the story according to Mr. Brooks, as told to Michael Schulman of the New Yorker recently:
...I’d learned one very simple trick: say yes. Simply say yes. Like Joseph E. Levine, on “The Producers,” said, “The curly-haired guy—he’s funny looking. Fire him.” He wanted me to fire Gene Wilder. And I said, “Yes, he’s gone. I’m firing him.” I never did.

After the screening of “Blazing Saddles,” the head of Warner Bros. threw me into the manager’s office, gave me a legal pad and a pencil, and gave me maybe twenty notes. He would have changed “Blazing Saddles” from a daring, funny, crazy picture to a stultified, dull, dusty old Western...


...He said, “You can’t punch a horse.” I said, “You’ll never see it again.” I kept saying, “You’re absolutely right. It’s out!” Then, when he left, I crumpled up all his notes, and I tossed it in the wastepaper basket...

Imagine that!

*A gradual student is a young whipper snapper chasing a PhD who keeps doing experiments until they gradually decide it's time to stop and move on to become a post-doctoral fellow, the next rung on the sci-geek ladder.



Danneau said...

This also sounds like a recipe for conjugal bliss (for the daring).

RossK said...


Ha! Hadn't thought of that, but now that you mention it...


NVG said...

Off Topic, but ..... If you want to see all of the photos regarding the current flood damage to our highways, and the repairing, there's nothing better than this:

More photos that the Press provides, and its free(????) to us .... taxpayers.

Scotty on Denman said...

Mel Brooks is wise, funny and ethical—even when he tells little white lies. Yes, sometimes when conascending upwards towards the person who signs the cheques (and reminds you in ways subtle and not) it’s best to just agree. They’re telling YOU to do it, meaning they probably won’t come check (and love the sound of their own authority coming out of their mouths which they do everywhere, anyway). I bet if Gene Wilder had been summoned to the meeting along with Mel, he’d a been fired: the boss, not Mel, woulda done that, and he woulda said “yes.”

But I have to relate what I told my lead hand when I gave my business over to him—a business which dealt with a lot of home-owners and contractors. I said: my boy, if there’s one thing you need to keep absolutely in mind, it’s the most valuable word you can have in this business—and it’s the word “No.” He’d seen me in action, the lesson he’d only half learned was that embellishment erodes the effectiveness of the short, sharp, definitive jab, “No!” One time we got back to his step-dad’s house for some well deserved beers after a long, hot day, and he said he was going to quit because he couldn’t condone the way I talked to a certain customer/home-owner we were working for. “I was just galled at how rude you were to that nice old lady, how short and abrupt—I just can’t stand for that. I quit!”

Okay, after I calmed him down, I explained: when it’s YOUR equipment and reputation on the line, with suppliers’ bills to pay and deadlines to meet and a contract to complete, sometimes the best word you have is “no.”
“Yeah, but do you have to be so rude?”
“With [this woman we both knew], if you start moving the terms of contract, even a little, it’ll never end, believe me.” And we sent him to bed.

When the job was completed, I hadn’t another contract for a few weeks so I suggested to our client that maybe she should hire my lead hand to do some work a siding contractor—the second or third one—had left unfinished. They both thought that was a great idea. So I saw him again about a week later at his dad’s place, and he said, “Man! I owe you an apology! That woman is an unholy [*&^%$##]! You’re absolutely right: sometimes the best thing to say is just “NO!” “ He’d gotten a new point of view.

I reminded him when I finally gave up the business. He thanked me and said, “I’ll never forget it.”

Mel Brooks has made some of the funniest movies ever filmed—I don’t know where to start, but “Blazing Saddles” has to be the funniest of all. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it and often waxed enviously how I wished I could write a screenplay consisting of nothing but fart jokes. But I know only Mel could ever do something that audacious (like he did with “Silent Movie”).

And, if the idea were pitched to him, I’m pretty sure he’d say...

RossK said...


Good point about the power of 'No'.

And as for pitches, agreed that it matters who's throwing and who's receiving...