At 86, Mel Brooks still looks like the Marx brother from another mother, his sunset years lit by kliegs.
He is the subject of an American Masters special (Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, airing Monday on PBS), recipient of an American Film Institute life achievement award (on June 6, to be shown on TNT later next month), and librettist of a proposed Broadway musical based on his 1974 movie hit Blazing Saddles.
How do you measure this singular talent? Short in stature (65 inches) and broad in humor (he penned the improbably peppy songs "Springtime for Hitler" and "The Inquisition"), Brooks famously is the winner of entertainment's Grand Slam, the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
He won the first of four Emmys for writing a Sid Caesar television special; the first of three Grammys for the album The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000; his Oscar for the screenplay of The Producers; and three Tonys for the 2001 Broadway adaptation of The Producers. And that's just the tip of the Brooksberg.
Less well known is that the wag famous for the TV satire Get Smart and movie spoofs like Young Frankenstein and Robin Hood: Men in Tights is also a significant movie producer whose company made possible The Elephant Man, The Fly, Frances, and My Favorite Year, among others. Those productions earned 12 Oscar nominations and won one.
The irrepressible entertainer appears slightly subdued in Mel Brooks: Make a Noise. Though Robert Trachtenberg's profile shows his subject's many facets, it lacks both the full-force flash of the comedian's razzle-dazzle and his reflectiveness. Surprisingly absent is Brooks on the subject of his comedy as a weapon against intolerance. Of the jesters who evade anti-Semitism in The Producers and racists in Blazing Saddles, Brooks once observed, "If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?"
Before the PBS program, Brooks long resisted being the subject of a documentary. His reasoning? "You're always a little disappointing in person because you can't be the edited essence of yourself."
He has a point. Brooks' funniest bits on stage and screen aren't the stuff of sound bites and film clips. They need time to build and tickle.
Brooks, whose preferred comic pitch is the curveball, doesn't always connect with Trachtenberg's straightforward questions about his youth.
Still, the comedian lets his essence show when describing his showbiz initiation. When he was 9, his uncle took him to see Anything Goes, the Cole Porter musical starring Ethel Merman. "I couldn't catch my breath!" he recalls. "Ethel Merman sang - without microphones, and she was still too loud!" He knew then and there, "No factories for me. I'm going to be in showbiz!"
Among those on board to comment is Carl Reiner, Brooks' longtime coconspirator. They worked together writing material for pioneer television comic Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows (a job affectionately lampooned in My Favorite Year). And they collaborated on the seminal comedy album The 2000 Year Old Man. When Reiner, the interviewer, inquires about the creation of the cross, Brooks replies, "It was easier to put together than the Star of David."
"Mel has rhythms in his head - you laugh at the rhythms," Reiner notes of his professional partner and best friend of 60-plus years. So true.
After the Caesar show, there were lean years for Brooks. He wrote the occasional television special. Reiner went on to create The Dick Van Dyke Show (basing the Morey Amsterdam character on Brooks), and Brooks cocreated the James Bond spoof Get Smart. But mostly he noodled with an idea, Springtime for Hitler. Was it a book? A play? The one about the theatrical producer and the accountant who figure out that they can make more money with a flop than a hit became the low-budget film The Producers. Brooks wrote and directed.
The little movie about the Broadway flop that unexpectedly became a hit unexpectedly became a hit itself. It earned Brooks an Oscar and a Hollywood niche.
He was the guy who parodied show-business conventions. He spoofed Dr. Zhivago in The Twelve Chairs, cowboy movies in Blazing Saddles, monster flicks in Young Frankenstein, and Hitchcock films in High Anxiety. With their revue style and winks at the audience, Brooks' comedies paved the way for the Airplane! and Naked Gun and Scary Movie franchises. They also functioned as pop movie criticism, exaggerating the lighting, music, and camera moves in order to make the audience laugh while schooling them in genre tropes. That significant aspect of Brooks' legacy goes unexplored here.
Make a Noise includes clips from many Brooks films, including Spaceballs, his parody of Star Wars and Star Trek. Best of all is a sequence from The History of the World, Part I, a movie with so much mirth you would need a counter to clock the laughs per minute.
Though it is unreasonable to hope that a documentary about Mel Brooks would be as funny as he is, I couldn't help wishing Brooks had written and directed Make a Noise. It might have taken the form of a spoof of This is Your Life, with comic exaggerations of his youth, lean years, midlife success, 40-year marriage to Anne Bancroft, who died in 2005, and twilight-time resurgence with The Producers on Broadway with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
Make a Noise made me smile more than laugh. One positive takeaway: I wanted to watch all of his films again, to sing "The Inquisition" from History of the World ("Auto-da-fe, what's an auto-da-fe?/ It's what you oughtn't to do, but you do anyway") and hope that Blazing Saddles gallops to Broadway very soon.
"Mel Brooks: Make a Noise"
9 p.m. Monday on WHYY TV12