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Mel Brooks may be a born cut-up, but he’s nobody’s fool

By Michael Fox

mel brooksMel 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” premieres 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.

The former Melvin Kaminsky was two 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 mishigas, 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.” When Caesar’s run ended in 1958, Brooks found it difficult to find backers for his own work. 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.”

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. According to Joan Rivers, who is no idiot, Brooks is an intellectual who read the classics and was steeped in classical music.

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, but Bancroft seals the deal.

 

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