Tragedy is when I get a hangnail” said Mel Brooks in one of the more illustrative apothegms of our era. “Comedy is when YOU walk into an open sewer and die.”
That’s the way I’ve always remembered Brooks’ classic delineation since I first read it about six or seven presidents ago.
He says it, much less effectively, in reverse in Robert Trachtenberg’s documentary “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.” Nor is that the only instance where a lifelong devoted scholar of Brooksiana (and you have to trust me, I’m all of that) will notice that Trachtenberg’s solid (if stolid) PBS documentary contains a slightly lesser version of an immortal Brooks line that was a good deal better the first time around.
For instance, in this Brooksian version of his film-by-film saga of filming his second movie, “The 12 Chairs,” Brooks says this about the local cuisine as they made it: “We ate wood. In Yugoslavia.” The version I’ve always treasured – and much prefer – is this description of how terrible was the Yugoslavian food during shooting: “One day they served us fried chains.”
Let us be kind and generous here: He has been so many people’s nomination for the funniest man alive for so long – and such a national institution since he soared back into the highest level of American idolatry with his Tony-sweeping Broadway version of “The Producers” – that he has been poked and prodded and interviewed almost endlessly by Brooks worshippers. If he has begun to repeat himself on occasion – and to lesser effect the second time around – let us, by all means, give him the sympathetic understanding he deserves 12 times over.
Brooks will be 87 on June 28 and even a wildly fertile comic genius and improviser like Mel Brooks has to fall back on a familiar trope or two sometimes. That is especially true now that everyone and his brother-in-law Bobby seems to be in the “We love you Mel” Brooks interview business. Brooksian scholars should nevertheless, by all means, not miss “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise” when it airs at 9 p.m. Monday on Channel 17 as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. It’s heartily recommended to everyone else too for its happily large quotient of both frequent hilarity and revelation.
The title of Trachtenberg’s portrait comes from Brooks’ explanation of why he became a drummer when he was a teenage tummler in the Borscht Belt: “I think I became a drummer because you made the most noise.” (A brilliant bit of insight from his lifelong friend and accomplice Carl Reiner: “He has rhythms in his head. His jokes are great structures of rhythm.”)
Here, in line with that, is an anecdote from my own family from a slightly later period – mid-’50s – among predominantly Jewish guests at a Miami hotel. At an amazing lunch there was at a very large nearby table what seemed to be half the comedians from that era’s television: Jack Carter, Buddy Hackett, and everyone on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows:” Caesar, Howie Morris, Carl Reiner. The laughter from that table was huge and constant. And it was all occasioned by only two men cracking the others up – Hackett and, especially, a man utterly unknown to the rest of America at the time even though he was the unquestioned comic czar of the Sid Caesar Writer’s Room. Everyone asked who that little man was that everyone else thought was so funny. “Mel Brooks,” they were told by the restaurant staff.
“Mel Brooks: Make a Noise” is a portrait of Mel Brooks from a documentarian determined to entertain but at the same time take Brooks with utmost proper seriousness. Trachtenberg doesn’t miss talking about a single film with him (some – “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” for instance – were decidedly missable). But he also reveals a lot more of the real texture of Brooks’ not-always wonderful life than has been commonly seen elsewhere. During the years of Sid Caesar’s weekly beauties, such was Brooks’ anxiety at producing under the gun constantly that, says Brooks “I was puking between parked cars” on the street.
And too, there’s a lot about his long relationship with his second wife Anne Bancroft, who died at the age of 73. She tells the camera that from the moment she met him “the man never left me alone – thank God.” (“He looked like my father” she says. “He acted like my mother.”)
In the ancient jazz musicians’ distinction that separates great drummers from good ones, documentarian Trachtenberg doesn’t really “swing” the way Brooks does but he certainly “keeps good time” in his watchable Brooks portrait.
In his mid-80s, Brooks’ self-defensive memory understandably gets a few things a bit wrong. His memory, now, is of getting a wholly bad review from the New York Times for his first film as writer-director, the classic “The Producers.” If you reread Renata Adler’s ultra-shrewd review of the film, she calls it “a violently mixed bag. Some of it is shoddy and gross and cruel; the rest is funny in an entirely unexpected way.” Adler is hard on “The Producers” star Zero Mostel (so, in recollection, is Brooks) but thinks Gene Wilder is “wonderful.” (So does Brooks: “Everything Gene did was angelic and brilliant.”) And, bless Adler, she was smart enough to tell Times readers that “the first act of ‘Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgarden’ is the funniest part of this fantastically uneven movie.”
It’s hard not to enjoy everyone who practically lined up to be filmed in the act of loving Mel Brooks: Joan Rivers (who confides that his intellectualism surprises people; later, Brooks correctly uses the word “verisimilitudinous” in passing), Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Barry Levinson, Neil Simon, Tracey Ullman (“Mel Brooks loves women” she says, unlike so many comedians and comedy directors), Richard Benjamin, Richard Lewis, his Broadway “Producers” director Susan Stroman. And how can you resist a Brooks portrait as replete as this one is with clips from Brooks’ own films and the films about him? (One from 1981 was memorably called “I Thought I Was Taller.”)
When Brooks in fact won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for “The Producers,” he gave one of the great acceptance speeches. He began by saying “I want to thank the Motion Picture Academy of Arts, Sciences and Money.” He ended by telling his peers “I want to say what’s in my heart. (Pause). Ba-BUMP, Ba-BUMP, Ba-BUMP.”
I dearly wish that as long as Trachtenberg was determined to be thorough, he’d have given us more about the pre-”Producers” period when Brooks was the darling of New York City’s comic intelligentsia – the voice on Ernest Pintoff’s Oscar-winning short “The Critic” and the improv master Madison Avenue loved to pair up with the ultra-American Dick Cavett. (Bic’s new pen, said Brooks, was called the Bic Banana and not the Bic Prune because prunes, as everyone knows, are “wrinkled and dopey.”)
Mel Brooks’ final message to us during the closing credits of PBS’ portrait? Eat plenty of citrus fruit. It tastes sweet. And once it goes into your stomach “it knows what to do.”