J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Mel Brooks, American Master

He has only helmed eleven feature films, but he defines the art of tasteless comedy.  Mel Brooks more or less invented the movie spoof genre, before the Wayanses thoroughly discredited it.  Now the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award winner gets the American Masters treatment in Robert Trachtenberg’s Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (promo here), which airs this Monday on PBS stations nationwide.

As the 2,000 Year Old Man, Brooks has quite a career to look back on.  His first big break came on television as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, the classic sketch comedy showcase that would later serve as a model for the nostalgic Peter O’Toole dramedy My Favorite Year, which Brooks’ company produced.  He subsequently made a name for himself with the aforementioned comedy act he developed with Carl Reiner, but a handful of classic movies would establish Brooks as a brand name.

Logically, Trachtenberg devotes considerable time to The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, adding reminiscences from Brooks regulars like Gene Wilder and Cloris Leachman. He also includes some fitting archival footage of Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and of course Anne Bancroft.  Clearly, they shared one of the few true show business romances.  Yet, to his credit, Brooks sounds quite gracious when discussing his first wife.

Brooks must be an exceedingly difficult interview subject, but Trachtenberg’s persistence is impressive.  From time to time, he also surprises Brooks with the insight of his questions, as when he asks the writer-director when he first became aware of Hitler (who plays such an unusual role in Brooks films like The Producers).

There are not a lot of surprises in Noise, nor does Trachtenberg delve shockingly deeply into Brooks’ psyche.  Nonetheless, he nicely captures the comedy giant’s dichotomies.  Viewers see a smart, thoughtful man with a talent for fart jokes.  We understand he is a private individual by temperament, but has a healthy disregard for his own public image.  Overall, it is a highly watchable profile that should entertain Brooks’ many fans when it airs this coming Monday (5/20) as part of the current season of American Masters on PBS.

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