Mel Brooks is one of 14 EGOT
(Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony)
arts & entertainment
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I Special to the Jewish News
el Brooks is a charmer, a
mentsh and an intellectual. Who
In his movies and TV appearances, Brooks
came across as a man who'd do anything for
a guffaw. Loud, shameless and aggressive, he
all but challenged the audience not to laugh.
It scarcely needs to be said that with writ-
ing, directing and performing credits like
Your Show of Shows (starring the great Sid
Caesar), Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing
Saddles, Young Frankenstein and his portray-
al of the 2000 Year Old Man (opposite Carl
Reiner), Brooks almost always succeeded.
He was absurd, funny and absurdly funny.
But Brooks' manic intensity was also occa-
sionally shrill and exhausting. Like a lot of
comedians— Jewish and otherwise — who
crave being the center of attention, he could
appear pushy and unlikable.
That edge is rarely visible in PBS's
American Masters tribute Mel Brooks: Make
a Noise, a fast-moving, thoroughly enjoyable
hour and a half spent in the rambunctious
company of a practiced performer. The
86-year-old Brooks may still be "on" every
public minute, but at this point in his life it is
gregariousness — not neediness and insecu-
rity — that makes him shine in the spotlight.
Mel Brooks: Make a Noise premieres at
9 p.m. Monday, May 20, on PBS stations,
including Detroit Public Television-Channel
A contemporary, anecdote-filled interview
with the Brooklyn-born Brooks serves as
both the spine of the program and motor.
Augmented with television and movie clips,
and pungent one-liners and recollections by
many of Brooks' collaborators and admir-
ers, the interview is itself a performance, a
fact that Brooks endearingly acknowledges
Underscoring that quality, director Robert
Trachtenberg frequently cuts away from
straightforward tight shots of his subject to
show us the set and the filmmaking appa-
ratus. We see that Brooks is performing for
Trachtenberg (and the crew) as much as for
the camera (that is, us), and we grasp his
personality in a more immediate and visceral
way than is typically conveyed through sit-
The former Melvin Kaminsky was 2 years
old when his father died, and he confides
that it was "a brushstroke of depression that
really never left me, not having a father."
His mother carried the ball, raising Mel
and his three older brothers. Years later,
when Your Show of Shows head writer Mel
Tolkin convinced his cohorts to go into psy-
choanalysis, Brooks discovered he had zero
issues with his mother (though other mishe-
gas, no doubt).
Whether it was she or growing up in
Brooklyn that instilled a sense of identity,
Brooks always knew who he was.
"I was never religious, but terribly Jewish,"
he says. "I liked being Jewish:'
Brooks admits that he realized he was
an attention-seeker as an adolescent and
took up drumming (hence the title of the
program) as well as acting. But he quickly
discovered that cutting up and making
people laugh was where his satisfaction and
He made it to Germany with the U.S.
Army during World War II, and upon his
return launched his entertainment career in
the Catskills. The new medium of television
was a natural lure for Borscht Betters, and
in 1950 Brooks landed a job as a writer on
Your Show of Shows with talents like Larry
Gelbart and Neil Simon.
He also worked on the star's successor
show, Caesar's Hour. Though the ambitious
Brooks coveted more autonomy, fame and
money, he was well aware he was working
with, and for, the best
"That son of a bitch held me back because
of his Promethean talent:' Brooks says,
tongue only partly in cheek, "for eight or
When Caesar's run ended in 1958, Brooks
found it difficult to find backers for his own
work and fell into a two-year depression.
Then came the hit comedy LP, 2000 Years
with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, proving
there were plenty of laughs to be gleaned
from a Yiddish accent.
"There is no Jewish kid interested in com-
edy for whom that isn't a seminal album:'
comedian David Steinberg asserts.
A Jewish sensibility could be detected in
Get Smart, the '60s secret agent parody cre-
ated by Brooks and the brilliant Buck Henry.
Curiously, the American Masters program
doesn't invite its subject (or anyone else) to
muse about what constitutes Jewish humor,
or why Brooks' brand was so popular.
For a guy who came out of the Catskills
and the Golden Age of television, Brooks had
no problem connecting with the acid genera-
The Producers (1968) was brave and
brilliant and (though panned by the New
York Times) won Brooks the Oscar for Best
Original Screenplay while The Twelve Chairs
(1970) displays a craftsmanship and soulful-
ness that are in short supply in the comedies
of Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler, the sup-
posed Jewish comic geniuses of today.
Both films featured songs written by
Brooks, and one regrets that Make a Noise
misses the opportunity to recall and celebrate
Brooks' talent as a composer and lyricist.
(He's acknowledged in passing for writing
the songs for the Broadway musical adapta-
tion of The Producers, but still.)
According to Joan Rivers, who is no idiot
(even if she occasionally plays one in her
stand-up act), Brooks is an intellectual who
read the classics and was steeped in classi-
cal music. He certainly knew movie genres
well enough to parody them in Blazing
Saddles (co-written by four Jews), Young
Frankenstein, Silent Movie and High Anxiety.
Various collaborators on those films —
from Cloris Leachman to Barry Levinson
— offer insights into Brooks' approach to
directing comedy. Viewers who haven't seen
these films since their original release will
undoubtedly be inspired to revisit them.
To its credit, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise
doesn't impart the saccharine aftertaste of
hagiography, in part because its subject isn't
content to call it a career and bask in compli-
ments. He's always hatching and developing
projects; and the risk of failure and criticism
is perpetual, even for a comic legend.
Furthermore, any inclination to roman-
ticize Brooks is undercut by the brassy and
sassy presence of actress Anne Bancroft.
Brooks' wife from 1964 until her death in
2005, she supplies (via archival snippets)
some of the most acerbic and witty com-
ments in any documentary you'll see this
Brooks' vast body of work speaks for itself,
though a coterie of admirers is happy to add
their voices. But Bancroft seals the deal: To
be happily married to her for 40 years, he
must have had not only a genius for comedy
but a talent for people.
Mel Brooks: Make a Noise airs at
9 p.m. Monday, May 20, on Detroit
Public Television-Channel 56. It will be
available on DVD, with bonus tracks,
on May 21 from Shout! Factory.
Special to the Jewish News
Rock 'N' Roll
The 2013 induction ceremony for the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was held
on April 18; at 9 p.m. Saturday, May
18, HBO will broadcast ceremony high-
Three tribe mem-
bers were inducted:
Randy Newman, 69;
Geddy Lee, 59 (as
a member of the
rock band Rush); and
Lou Adler, 79.
May 16 • 2013
began as a singer-songwriter, has
mostly been a film-score composer
since 1981. Nominated for 20 Oscars,
he's won twice; and while he has only
one pop hit ("Short People") of his own,
his songs (like "I Think It's Going to
Rain Today") have been recorded by a
who's who of pop/rock singers.
Lee, his band's bassist and lead
vocalist, is an icon
for progressive rock
devotees, and there's
been much grum-
bling about Rush's
wait to get into the
hall. Lee, born Gary
Lee Weinrib, the son
of two Holocaust
survivors, has referenced his parents'
experience in the camps in a couple of
Rush songs. In 1995, he accompanied
his mother on a trip to Bergen-Belsen
to mark the 50th anniversary of the
Adler, inducted as a non-performer,
has worn many hats. His record com-
pany discovered the Mamas and the
Papas. He was a mentor to Carole King,
71, who sang a song in his honor at the
ceremony. He produced the great 1967
Monterey Pop Music Festival, which
showcased incredibly talented new
faces in rock music like Jimi Hendrix.
On top of all this, Adler had the great
sense (and great mazel) to buy up
the rights to the stage version of The
Rocky Horror Picture Show and turn
it into a movie. Adler, by the way, is
the guy who always sits courtside at
Lakers' games next to Jack Nicholson.
J. J. Abrams, 46, the director of Star
Trek: Into Darkness, opening Friday,
May 17, says this will be the last time
he helms a reboot of the Trek franchise.
His first Trek pic, 2009's Star Trek,
was a box office and critical success.
Advance reviews of Darkness indicate
Abrams will go out on a very high note.
Chris Pine, whose maternal grandfather
was Jewish, returns as Captain James
T. Kirk, and Anton Yelchin, 24, once
again plays Ensign Pavel Chekov. ❑