To Mel Brooks, the absence of comedy is misery. That becomes clear early in “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” the latest in PBS’s “American Masters” series. In 1958, Brooks’s success writing for Sid Caesar on television came to an end. He was broke and divorced, and perhaps more importantly, had no outlet for making people laugh. Brooks says he spent two years sobbing. Carl Reiner says his best friend was sometimes suicidal. “You know what it is,’’ says Reiner, “when you know you’ve got something, you don’t know how to peddle it.”
Brooks figured it out. He became a comic legend, and the “Masters” special reminds us of the breadth of his triumphs through archival footage and interviews with collaborators such as Reiner, Joan Rivers, and Barry Levinson. Brooks was an architect of modern sketch comedy with Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.” He had a successful sitcom with “Get Smart” and comedy albums with Reiner with “The 2000 Year Old Man.” He took chances, filming “Young Frankenstein” in black and white and wrecking the contemporary sensibilities of good taste with “Blazing Saddles.” More quietly, he supported such artists as David Lynch and David Cronenberg, and Richard Benjamin with his production company, Brooksfilms. “The Producers” won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards.
Often Brooks’s triumphs came when he was unemployed or in a career lull, jumping to “Get Smart” from sketch writing or to Broadway when every bad review for his later films was a “knife in the heart.” He would reinvent himself because he had to, because he was, and remains, unceasingly driven to entertain whoever is in front of him and whomever he can reach. And he wants to reach everyone. This is a guy who picked up a bullhorn to sing to German troops at Saarbrucken as a soldier in World War II. The first thing he does after he sits down for his interview is start singing. “Here I am, I’m Melvin Brooks,” he croons. “I've come to stop the show. Just a ham who’s minus looks, but in your hearts I’ll grow.” It’s a neat summation of Brooks, the showoff, the entertainer, but it’s not the whole story.
Those who know Brooks mostly for his silly and scatological side may be surprised to hear him talk about writing what’s in his soul. But the guy who tells the best poop joke isn’t the one who is thinking about poop. It’s the guy who stays up until 3 a.m. reading Chekhov and Strindberg. And as funny as the gags are in “Blazing Saddles,” the reason anyone can watch that movie twice is its unrelenting satire on racial prejudice and the honest bond between Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder’s characters. The show also features wonderful glimpses into Brooks’s personal life, from his marriage to Anne Bancroft to his devotion to his mother, who raised four boys without a husband.
At the end of the special, Brooks says he’s not sure he’s talented, but he’s spent his life convincing people he was. That might explain what has driven him to stay vital all these years (he will be 87 in June), but it’s a half-truth at best. He knew he had something when he was 9 and cried with joy when his Uncle Joe took him to see “Anything Goes” on Broadway. “No factories for me, no driving a cab,” he remembers thinking. “I’m gonna be in show business. And I knew it. And I was going to enjoy my life and have fun. And I did.” All he needed was an audience, and he always found one.Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.