Mel Brooks ‘makes noise’ in new PBS documentary

Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in their in their iconic “2000 Year Old Man” routine.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The in-your-face comic genius of award-winning filmmaker and musical-comedy writer Mel Brooks is on full display in the “American Masters” PBS production, “Mel Brooks: Make Noise,” which will have its national premiere Monday, May 20 on KETC-TV, Channel 9.

For his roughly 60 years in show business, Brooks has been making audiences laugh so hard that it hurts for. He has earned more awards than any living entertainer (and is one of only 14 EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — winners). While he has been a very public figure in Hollywood and on Broadway for six decades, he carefully guards his privacy.

Los Angeles-based photographer Robert Trachtenberg does a superb job as writer, director, producer and editor of the Mel Brooks documentary. Known for his celebrity portraits, entertainment and fashion photography, Trachtenberg has created profiles of Hollywood legends George Cukor, Gene Kelly and Cary Grant, which earned him an Emmy nomination.

On camera, Brooks explains in his own words why he agreed to be featured in the documentary.  “When they called me to say I had been chosen as the next ‘American Master,’ I thought they said I was chosen to be the next Dutch Master. So I figured what the hell, at least I’ll get a box of cigars.  When I realized my mistake I was both elated and a little disappointed at losing the cigars.”

We learn much about Brooks the entertainer as well as about the brilliant, sensitive man who was born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1926. Brooks recalls that his first exposure to musical theater took place when he was nine-years-old, when his Uncle Harry had two tickets to see “Anything Goes” with Ethel Merman. The seats were up on the second balcony.

“There was no microphone, and yet you could hear every word that was spoken or sung,” Brooks recalls. “My uncle, who was a cab driver, saw that I was forever hooked and that I aspired to do a Broadway musical.  Heassured me that one day I would have a play on Broadway.”

Uncle Harry was more than right.  Brooks says he knew early on that “being short and not overly handsome I was more of a comic than a leading man.” He got his first big break as a comedy writer when Sid Caesar hired him to work on a NBC-TV variety show called “The Admiral Broadway Review,” which later became “Your Show of Shows.” In addition to Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Tolkin were writers for the show as well.

Reiner is among Brooks’ many friends and colleagues who are interviewed as is veteran comedian and buddy Joan Rivers. She stresses that Brooks was not just a Borsht Belt comedian who cracked one-liners. “Mel has a very serious side, and for reading pleasure he reads such authors as Tolstoi, Chekhov and Strindberg,” she says  “He is not just a comic genius. He is a real overall genius.”

Brooks’ intellectual genius was displayed through his series of films on serious topics that he financially backed and produced, including the acclaimed “Elephant Man.” He also had the respect of Alfred Hitchcock, and drew praise from the Master of Suspense for his satire of Hitchcock’s films in “High Anxiety.”

Brooks touches on his Jewish-ness in his interviews.  “There are some myths about me and being Jewish.  I am not overly religious or Orthodox, but I feel very Jewish,” he says. “I like being Jewish and enjoy being Jewish.” How true. It used to be impossible for audiences to catch every joke if there was a mostly Jewish audience watching a Mel Brooks comedy.  If you wanted to hear the entire dialogue, it was safer to go to a cinema in a non-Jewish part of town.

What sets Brooks apart from other Jewish comedic colleagues like Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon, all of whom worked with him on the writing teams behind NBC shows, is that Brooks says and lives by the credo, “I don’t want just a little laugh.  I want people to be doubled over and falling down with laughter.”  

No question Brooks fans will find a lot to laugh about, and to be engrossed by, in this captivating documentary.