Mel Brooks is a charmer, a mensch and an intellectual. Who knew?
In his movies and TV appearances, Brooks came across as a man who’d do anything for a guffaw. Loud, shameless and aggressive, he all but challenged the audience not to laugh.
It scarcely needs to be said that with writing, directing and performing credits like Your Show of Shows (starring the great Sid Caesar), Get Smart, The 2000 Year Old Man (opposite Carl Reiner), The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Brooks almost always succeeded.
He was absurd, funny and absurdly funny. But Brooks’ manic intensity was also occasionally shrill and exhausting. Like a lot of comedians – Jewish and otherwise – who crave being the center of attention, he could appear pushy and unlikable.
That edge is rarely visible in PBS’ American Masters tribute, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, a fast-moving, thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half spent in the rambunctious company of a practiced performer. The 86-year-old Brooks may still be “on” every public minute, but at this point in his life it is gregariousness, not neediness and insecurity, that makes him shine in the spotlight.
Mel Brooks: Make a Noise airs Monday, May 20 on PBS.
A contemporary, anecdote-filled interview with the Brooklyn-born Brooks serves as both the spine of the program and its motor. Augmented with television and movie clips and pungent one-liners and recollections by many of his collaborators and admirers, the interview is itself a performance, a fact that Brooks endearingly acknowledges throughout.
Underscoring that quality, director Robert Trachtenberg frequently cuts away from straightforward tight shots of his subject to show us the set and the filmmaking apparatus. We see that Brooks is performing for Trachtenberg (and the crew) as much as for the camera (that is, us), and we grasp his personality in a more immediate and visceral way than is typically conveyed through sit-down interviews.
The former Melvin Kaminsky was 2 years old when his father died, and he confides that it was “a brushstroke of depression that really never left me, not having a father.”
His mother carried the ball, raising Mel and his three older brothers. Years later, when Your Show of Shows head writer Mel Tolkin convinced his cohorts to go into psychoanalysis, Brooks discovered he had zero issues with his mother (though other mishegoss, no doubt).
Whether it was she or growing up in Brooklyn that instilled a sense of identity, Brooks always knew who he was.
“I was never religious, but terribly Jewish,” he says. “I liked being Jewish.”
Brooks admits that he realized he was an attention-seeker as an adolescent, and took up drumming (hence the title of the program) as well as acting. But he quickly discovered that cutting up and making people laugh was where his satisfaction and success lay.
He made it to Germany with the U.S. Army during World War II, and upon his return launched his entertainment career in the Catskills. The new medium of television was a natural lure for Borscht Belters, and in 1950 Brooks landed a job as a writer on Your Show of Shows with talents like Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon.
He also worked on the star’s successor show, Caesar’s Hour. Though the ambitious Brooks coveted more autonomy, fame and money, he was well aware he was working with, and for, the best.
“That son of a bitch [Caesar] held me back because of his Promethean talent,” Brooks says, tongue only partly in cheek, “for eight or nine years.”
When Caesar’s run ended in 1958, Brooks found it difficult to find backers for his own work, and fell into a two-year depression. Then came the hit comedy LP, 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, proving there were plenty of laughs to be gleaned from a Yiddish accent.
“There is no Jewish kid,” David Steinberg asserts, “interested in comedy, for whom that isn’t a seminal album.”
A Jewish sensibility could be detected in Get Smart, the ’60s secret agent parody created by Brooks and the brilliant Buck Henry. Curiously, the American Masters program doesn’t invite its subject (or anyone else) to muse about what constitutes Jewish humor, or why Brooks’ brand was so popular.
For a guy who came out of the Catskills and the Golden Age of television, Brooks had no problem connecting with the acid generation. The Producers (1968) was brave and brilliant and (though panned by The New York Times) won Brooks the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while The Twelve Chairs (1970) displays a craftsmanship and soulfulness that are in short supply in the comedies of Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler, the supposed Jewish comic geniuses of today.
Both films featured songs written by Brooks, and one regrets that “Make a Noise” misses the opportunity to recall and celebrate Brooks’ talent as a composer and lyricist. (He’s acknowledged in passing for writing the songs for the Broadway musical adaptation of The Producers, but still.)
According to Joan Rivers, who is no idiot (even if she occasionally plays one in her stand-up act), Brooks is an intellectual who read the classics and was steeped in classical music. He certainly knew movie genres well enough to parody them in Blazing Saddles (co-written by four Jews), Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie and High Anxiety.
Various collaborators on those films, from Cloris Leachman to Barry Levinson, offer insights into Brooks’ approach to directing comedy. Viewers who haven’t seen these films since their original release will undoubtedly be inspired to revisit them.
To its credit, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise doesn’t impart the saccharine aftertaste of hagiography, in part because its subject isn’t content to call it a career and bask in compliments. He’s always hatching and developing projects, and the risk of failure and criticism is perpetual, even for a comic legend.
Furthermore, any inclination to romanticize Brooks is undercut by the brassy and sassy presence of actress Anne Bancroft. Brooks’ wife from 1964 until her death in 2005, she supplies (via archival snippets) some of the most acerbic and witty comments in any documentary you’ll see this year.
Brooks’ vast body of work speaks for itself, though a coterie of admirers is happy to add their voices. But Bancroft seals the deal: To be happily married to her for 40 years, he must have had not only a genius for comedy but a talent for people.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic.