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American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise

(PBS; US DVD: 21 May 2013)

Mel Brooks may be America’s greatest living comedian, and so this 90-minute celebration of Brooks’ prodigious comedic gifts not only seems in order but maybe, at first, a little understated. It’s not, of course. Producer, writer, and director Robert Trachtenberg strikes the perfect balance between telling us Brooks’ whole story and leaving open a few blanks that will continue to stir the imagination. It helps that he has as his subject a born entertainer who is wildly funny and instantly at ease in front of the camera, a man who oozes charisma.


Brooks tell his story––from the time his uncle took him to see Anything Goes to the present day––in interview clips with Trachtenberg that are anything but standard fare. The director doesn’t attempt to mute Brooks’ zaniness for the occasion, instead we’re treated to a vital and vibrant mind who still loves to make us––and, probably, himself––laugh. Old friends Carl Reiner and Joan Rivers are on hand as are Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Cloris Leachman, Tracey Ullman, Rob Reiner, and Richard Benjamin. Gene Wilder’s absence is disappointing, considering the role he had in shaping three unmistakable films directed by Brooks: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. Still, he’s not so critical to the story that his absence takes much away from the whirlwind tour of Brooks’ life.


Some of the stories told here might be familiar to Brooks stalwarts, especially anyone who watched last year’s multi-DVD set The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy, but the stories lose none of their humor, even on repeated viewings. We learn about the origins of The 2000 Year Old Man, Get Smart and the Brooks’ work with fellow comedy legend Sid Caesar. There’s brief mention of the Academy Award-winning short film The Critic and, of course, a detailed account of how his decision to write a musical about Adolf Hitler morphed into the The Producers. (And we get the answer to the question we’ve been asking all these years: When did Brooks first become aware of Hitler?)


That film also scored with the Academy although its follow-up, the painfully underrated 1970 feature The Twelve Chairs nearly spelled the end of his directing career. Fate brought him together with The Producers star Wilder for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, his two most essential films. Although subsequent pictures were funny, not all of them were artistic or commercial successes. Spaceballs (1987) flopped at the box office, received mixed reviews, but has become probably the best selling video of all the director’s works––it may also be the funniest thing he did after 1980. 


If 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It spelled the end for Brooks’ film career, his 2001 stage adaptation of The Producers (at the suggestion of David Geffen) proved that he and that story still had plenty of juice.


There are pauses to discuss his first marriage––to Florence Baum, mother of his eldest three children––and his second––to actress Anne Bancroft, his co-star in the film To Be Or Not To Be; their son, Max, is a widely-recognized writer and occasional actor. For the most part, though, the focus remains very much on what makes Brooks worthy of inclusion in this series––a bit on the late side, one might add––his contributions to the world of comedy and American life in general. This series rarely if ever misses and Mel Brooks: Make a Noise is one more example of the reason why we can’t stop watching––the series if fun, smart, revealing, and, frankly, intoxicating.


The DVD features roughly 15 minutes of deleted segments that offer more laughs and are––rare for outtakes––just as entertaining as anything that made the final cut.

Rating:

Jedd Beaudoin is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Wichita State University and hosts Strange Currency six nights week for Wichita Public Radio. His writing has appeared in No Depression and The Crab Orchard Review as well as at websites such as Ytsejam.com and Amazon.com.


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