Mel Brooks: Make A Noise airs tonight on PBS as part of the American Masters series. It will debut at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
Robert Trachtenberg’s American Masters film about Mel Brooks begins and ends with images of screeching tires as a car, presumably ferrying Brooks to and from his interview with the director, careens around a back lot. This burst of chaotic energy must be meant to suggest the full-scale intensity of Mel Brooks the riffer when he’s at full spritz, but there’s little fresh spritzing included—far less than in the recent American Masters documentary on Philip Roth. Trachtenberg, who’s directed solid TV documentaries on Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, and George Cukor, as well as several episodes of the excellent TCM interview series Elvis Mitchell: Under The Influence, gets a little run over by his subject here. One thing that Brooks emphasizes in accounting for his success is the importance of timing, and, not for the first time, PBS’ timing here isn’t exactly cutting edge.
Mel Brooks: Make A Noise follows hot on the heels of last fall’s box set from Shout! Entertainment; the second of two interviewer-with-live-audience specials Brooks has done for HBO; Brooks’ sit-down with Marc Maron for his WTF podcast—which was immediately followed by Maron’s session with Carl Reiner, which inevitably covered much of the same ground—and even the release on DVD and Hulu of the legendary “How To Be A Jewish Son” episode of The David Susskind Show from 1970. Pieces from the box set and Susskind show are repeated here, and if you saw the HBO special or listened to the WTF conversations, this is your big chance, three months later, to hear parts of them repeated, more or less verbatim.
For most of his public life, Brooks has been making words dance for him, but the purpose of this show isn’t to give him a chance to offer fresh evidence of his verbal comic genius. It’s to recount his life story while cementing his place in pop culture history, and at 86, the story of his early years isn’t getting any fresher. Once again, young Melvin, playing a middle-aged man in his theatrical debut, flubs a bit of stage business, marches to the front of the stage, pulls off his gray wig and brings down the house by exclaiming, “I’m only 15, I’ve never done this before!” Return with us once again to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when Brooks, dressed as the character he plays in the movie he’s promoting, High Anxiety, tells Johnny Carson about how he worked as tummler in the Catskills, walking off the diving board to fall into the swimming pool while wearing a business suit and carrying two suitcases full of rocks. When Brooks and Reiner recall the time Brooks disrupted a rehearsal of Your Show Of Shows by sliding across the floor like a baseball player stealing home, the suspense is terrific: Will the story end, as it always has, with the show’s producer, Mel Tolkin, throwing a lit cigar at our hero? It does! When Brooks, in that HBO special last December, filled in the details of how Gig Young—who, as a dry drunk with the DTs, turned out to be a little too well-qualified for the role of the Waco Kid—was dismissed from Blazing Saddles, it was a new story to me. This is the third time I’ve heard it since then.
Granted, I’ve been gobbling up Mel Brooks anecdotes since my idea of a noir detective hero was Encyclopedia Brown. Might this show be of more use to someone who’s not already well-versed in Brooksiana? I’m not so sure. Make A Noise races through the days of Brooks’ apprenticeship in TV, skipping past such incidentals as his work in radio and TV commercials and the animated short The Critic—not the biggest part of his legacy, but supreme indicators of just how much pleasure could be had, under the unlikeliest of circumstances, just by inviting Brooks on board and preserving whatever popped out of his mouth. Brooks and others do discuss the 2000-Year-Old Man records, which are always held up as monuments of triumphant, spontaneous improvisation. (Not that it makes them any less funny, but the documentary includes one snippet that suggests Brooks may have had a few reliable, formulaic setups in his head, to help keep him from getting stuck. One of the best-known bits in recorded comedy is the 2000-Year-Old Man’s response when Reiner asks him how he felt about Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake: “Terrible.” Make A Noise includes a clip from a TV performance in which he does the same routine about the beheading of Marie Antoinette.)
American Masters is eager to get to the big stuff: Brooks’ ‘70s movie hits and then his later bombs, which are lingered on for the sake of a big-comeback story arc when the musical version of The Producers turns him into the Tony Award-garlanded King of Broadway. After all the recent attention paid to the partnership of Brooks and Reiner, it’s nice to see some acknowledgment of the lucky horseshoe in the pocket of Brooks’ movie career that was Gene Wilder. (Wilder, asked if meeting Brooks was an important thing in his life, likens it to when Moses met God: “I would say, when the bush caught on fire, it had some importance, yes.”) The clips included to show the greatness of Brooks’ movies are as erratic as, well, Brooks’ movies, and the running commentaries, both from collaborators paying tribute and from Brooks himself, share a common problem in that they insist on overstating how fearlessly outrageous the man has always been. (As in most Brooks hagiography, the interviews seem to have been done in an alternate universe where there’s nothing edgier, in 2013, than Hitler jokes.)
Brooks describes getting permission from Hitchcock and George Lucas before embarking on High Anxiety and Spaceballs, and nobody here is about to suggest that assuring your targets, in advance, that what you say about them is all in good fun is not the strategy of a true wild man. (If only there were anything in Spaceballs as funny and as vicious as the way Brooks depicts the creator of Star Wars, claiming Lucas gave him his blessing, but only under the condition that Brooks’ movie not produce any action figures, since that would be taking the bread out of poor George’s mouth.) Matthew Broderick inadvertently sums up the nature of Brooks’ outrageousness when he says the success of The Producers “felt like 1938, like Broadway was back.” At the time, there were people willing to make fools of themselves by claiming, in print, that there was something incredibly daring about a well-tooled, crowd-pleasing show that replayed the jokes of a movie that made audiences feel cultish and daring 33 years earlier.
Brooks is seen congratulating himself on having ignored the studio when it demanded he cut things like the scene of bean-scarfing cowboys farting around the campfire in Blazing Saddles, but the fact is, the movie got released. On the other hand, once Brooks drafted Richard Pryor to help work on the screenplay, he bowed to the studio’s wisdom when it refused to let him fulfill his promise to the true wild man Pryor that he would get to play the starring role. (Brooks defensively says here that “Richard approved of Cleavon Little” to take the role in his place. He does not appear to have considered the possibility that Pryor approved because he knew that, however well the movie did, nobody would ever look at it and think, “This is so much funnier than it would have been if Richard Pryor had been in it!”)
The most interesting parts of the PBS doc are those that touch on less familiar sides of Brooks’ talent, in particular his work as a film producer (The Elephant Man, My Favorite Year) and romancer of woman who should have been out of his league, such as his late wife, Anne Bancroft. (Bancroft, seen here in a clip from The Perry Como Show in which she throatily sings a song while fixing the camera with a steamy, challenging look that would have made Don Draper jump out the window and make a break for it, tells an interviewer that Mel seemed to be the only man in New York who wasn’t too afraid to ask her out. In a different interview she gets more specific, saying that she fell for him like a ton of bricks because “he looked like my father, and he acted like my mother.”) Richard Benjamin, who directed My Favorite Year, describes how Brooks taught him the fine art of asking a studio head for more money: Don’t schedule a meeting in his office where he’ll be distracted, ambush him in the hallway when he’s coming back from lunch, happy and sated, and slip it into the conversation after a few jokes. Benjamin drily notes that they don’t mention this in film school.) Make A Noise has the weird distinction of being the only documentary about Brooks in which the best stories are told by someone other than the subject, but it’ll lead you to the same conclusion as any of the others: That Mel Brooks’ greatest comedy creation remains Mel Brooks.