I kid, I kid (sort of). Norman Lear of course was a potent force in terms of decrying the racism and bigotry that resided in the perfect little pockets of working-class America, but his technique very often was a crowbar through your windshield. It was a funny crowbar, but nonetheless you knew what you were getting hit with. And that is why I have always deferred to Mel Brooks.
Brooks was and is a funny man. Intoxicated off the breathalyzer scale with the majesty of “show biz,” young Melvin knew at the earliest age from seeing a performance headlining Ethyl Merman that show biz was his biz. Through some hard work, chutzpah, and ridiculous amounts of luck, he wound up being part of the storied writers staff for Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, which also housed luminaries like Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Brooks’ frequent comedic partner and straight-man Carl Reiner. Through Reiner, the duo’s concept for Get Smart, the TV show starring bumbling spy superagent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) seized the airwaves. Around the same time their collaboration as interviewer and The 2,000 Year Old Man was becoming the stuff of comedy recording legend. Eventually Brooks had a thought concerning his first love, the Broadway stage — you could probably make more money on a flop than you could a success.
The rest, as they say, is The Producers. In-between there was shenanigans galore, many successes, some big failures, and a legacy of making people laugh that will long outlive the still very sharp and cognizant Brooks, confounding the experts at age 86. You get all this and more from the American Masters documentary about Brooks called Mel Brooks: Make A Noise, now available on DVD from Shout! Factory.
What you don’t get, in blunt, none-too-subtle terms is Brooks’ commentary on the world, its politics, and its prejudices. For that, you have to look deeper (and some will say that makes for a more effective lesson). With the great fortune of Sid Caesar’s gift for double-speak, his writing staff regularly made a mockery of the forces most were fighting to the death just a decade prior. The central crux of The Producers is that Bialystock & Bloom’s musical Springtime For Hitler is so awful, so offensive, and so unforgivable, that by going on the cheap with the production and going under in days, the duo get to keep the leftover budget. Perhaps most pointedly, the backward western town of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles are faced with a dilemma: be subjugated by ruthless raiders or be saved by a black sheriff, played by brilliant Cleavon Little. In each case, I’d expect most people were too caught up in laughing initially to get the lesson. That would come later.
But never mind the mission; let’s talk about the show. PBS’ American Masters series is one of the network’s most prestigious offerings, and usually each show runs an hour’s length. Make A Noise benefits from the defiance of time from most of the principals, leading to having tons more material to work with, and a generous schwanzstucker of a 90-minute length to get it done. Furthermore, Brooks is still in love with the anarchic practice of throwing pies in whatever face is available to receive. Note how he constantly messes with his interviewer (presumably the documentary’s producer/writer/director Robert Trachtenberg). The DVD offers plenty of deleted segments, all of which could easily have been included in the actual show were it not for the strict lock-down for broadcast times.
And Brooks is lively, which benefits the show greatly. While I am already a sucker for documentaries of this sort, I admit to being less charitable to the ones where the subject, groaning in a dessicated voice about their former glories, look like they’re on the edge of the death spiral. And let’s not kid ourselves; a lot of these sorts of films are done to try to capture a great person just before they “kick off,” because so few were celebrated properly in their heyday. Brooks again thumbs his nose at such things by looking as though he could jump up and give you the ol’ song and dance as ever. How much of that is real and present and how much is judicious editing and retakes is hard to determine. Let’s just say that if the play’s the thing, Brooks is playing it well. It’s good to be the king.
There are some glaring omissions and flowers tossed on mulchpiles in the film, to be candid. Not much energy is wasted on Dracula: Dead And Loving It, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, or Life Stinks. The stage adaptation of Young Frankenstein did not catch fire as enthusiastically as its predecessor The Producers. We see glimpses of Brooksfilm’s The Elephant Man, and less of David Cronenberg’s The Fly, but where (I ask you) is Solarbabies?
The message Mel Brooks: Make A Noise leaves the viewer with at first is the story of a life where the intention and the fulfillment of that intention collide stunningly. The hidden message is one that Brooks has espoused his whole career — that if you want to fight back against “evil,” you take its critical power away; the power of fear. You do that with mockery, with making them the butt of your jokes, and if you’re good enough at it, the student won’t even know they’re being taught. That itself is the definition of an American Master.
Mel Brooks: Make A Noise (American Masters) is available from Amazon.com, and will probably be a lot more enjoyable that way than when PBS airs it with 300 pledge breaks. (I’m kidding! I’m kidding! I love PBS! But seriously, they want your money.)