When writing about Mel Brooks the temptation is to try and be as funny, as just plain nuts as your subject. That’s a sucker play, so even thought it might look appealing, only a mug would try to compete with the subject of Robert Trachtenberg’s long overdue PBS documentary “Mel Brooks:
Make a Noise.” Let me assure readers that there will be no laughs in the following article unless Mr. Brooks is the source.
Rest assured, if there are laughs to be had, Brooks will provide. He is, after all, a man who can say with utter frankness that he became a drummer “because you made the most noise and got the most attention.” As a GI in the Second World War, he heard nearby German soldiers singing at night and responded with a bullhorn-amplified Jolson-imitation rendition of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie.” The Germans applauded. In short, he has earned a reputation as a man who will do just about anything to coax laughter out of people.
One of the great and satisfying elements of Trachtenberg’s profile of Brooks, however, is how genuinely interesting and intelligent Brooks can be when he is speaking seriously — and quietly — about his craft, his interests and his life. As young Melvin Kaminsky, one of four brothers growing up dirt-poor and fatherless in Williamsburg (his father died when Mel was 2), his story seems ill-fitted for a life of laughter. When he was 9, Brooks’ uncle took him to see the original Broadway production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and he was transfixed and transformed. As Brooks himself says when talking about the success of the stage production of “The Producers,” a Broadway success is what he would dream of for the next 60 years in show business.
Before that would happen, though, Brooks took some of the same roads as other Jewish comic geniuses, working as a tummler in the Borscht Belt, writing comedy, most famously for Sid Caesar, creating the hit television series “Get Smart” and the brilliant “2,000-Year-Old Man” routines with Carl Reiner, then bursting into full comic blossom as a filmmaker. He is one of only 14 people who have won all four of the major show business awards, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. And he did it for “spotting the insane and bizarre in the commonplace,” as he explained in interviews.
Sitting down to be interviewed by Trachtenberg, Brooks is surprisingly candid (and remarkably spry for a man who turns 87 at the end of June). He discusses the deep depression that followed his divorce from his first wife and is frank about that marriage’s failure. He talks about his sense of loss in childhood when he first realized, “Other kids had fathers and I didn’t,” and the role of comedy as a means of emotional sustenance. “I was short and funny-looking, I needed another tool so that I would be accepted,” he confesses.
Those last two revelations fit quite neatly with any analysis of Brooks’ film work and its obsessive recapitulation of tender father-son surrogates and even more obsessive need to be constantly funny. They also link up comfortably with his Jewish identity; like so many other Jewish comics, Brooks has always used his humor alternately as a defense mechanism and a weapon of mass destruction, leaving potential enemies laughing helplessly. “I was never religious, but I was always totally Jewish,” he says during the film, and his fascination with the image of Hitler (rather than the reality) is an ongoing part of that identification. As Brooks himself puts it, “If you can reduce [dictators] to ridicule, you’re way ahead.”
“Make a Noise” is a bit too doggedly chronological in its approach until the last half-hour, when Trachtenberg suddenly seems to realize he’s running out of time to cover the past 20 years. Some of the interviews with friends and colleagues are not particularly pertinent. Joan Rivers has some smart insights into how Brooks’ humor works but they don’t really mesh with the biographical bent of the film. Stephen Weber and Bill Pullman add little to our understanding of Brooks’ working methods or his humor.
The film is on its surest ground when the camera just focuses on Mel and lets him talk. Just his health tips alone — eat citrus fruit — are worth the price of admission. Of course, Brooks undoubtedly warned Trachtenberg this would happen. But did he listen? Nooooo.
“Mel Brooks: Make a Noise” will premiere on PBS stations nationally on Monday, May 20. Check your local listings for time and station. The DVD, with bonus material, will be available Tuesday, May 21 from Shout Factory. There will be a special New York premiere of the film, with Brooks (via Skype) and Susan Stroman, director of the Broadway production of “The Producers,” taking questions from the audience Wednesday, May 15 at 7:15 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y (Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street); for information, go to www.92y.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=92813.