Comedy Giant Mel Brooks Is an “American Master” on PBS

Mel Brooks.

Mel Brooks.

Back in the ’50s, I actually had a job offer from Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and I could have worked with the comedy icons who were pioneers during the creative beginnings of live television. But I didn’t do it, mainly because I just moved to Hollywood, and I didn’t want to go to back to New York. So all the comedy geniuses who gathered in Caesar’s writing room got along without me, and I took a different path.

But every once in a while I think about what could have been. And I’ll be doing that when I watch American Masters Mel Brooks: Make a Noise premiering Monday, May 20, on PBS.

Mel Brooks was part of Sid Caesar’s team in the writers’ room and on the comedy classic which showed off his brilliant flair for original comedy. It was on Your Show of Shows that he teamed with Carl Reiner and created The 2000 Year Old Man routine.

The American Masters profile journeys through Brooks’ early years working with Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, and many more TV pioneers. The PBS show covers Brooks’ 60-plus years in show business. Over that time it seems Mel has earned more major awards than any other living entertainer. He is one of the rare performers who has become an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner. Yet the Brooklyn native has avoided making a documentary, even issuing an informal gag order on his friends, until now.

Brooks agreed to throw himself into the American Masters documentary about his impressive career, giving exclusive interviews and complete access to his film and photo archives. “There are a few singular voices of genius in film comedy. Mel Brooks joins the ranks of Chaplin, Keaton, and Woody Allen, creating a genre unto himself,” said Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters, now in its 27th season. “This project has been a joy. Mel can make anything funny. He even had me in stitches during a conference call about distribution contracts. His humor is truly instinctive and constant!”

“Hello, I’m not such a comedy giant — I’m five-foot-six,” the 86-year-old Brooks started kidding when he sat down with Lacy at the PBS interview session. There we learned that the show will feature new interviews with Brooks, his friends and colleagues, including Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Cloris Leachman, Joan Rivers, Tracey Ullman, and his close friend Carl Reiner.

It will cover the film genres he so successfully satirized in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety, and Spaceballs. Brooks said he likes doing parodies because “a genre gives you a lot of clichés that you can lean on, have fun with, and satirize. You can have fun with a western, or a sci-fi movie. And Hitchcock is an entire genre.”

More recently he’s proud having entered the Broadway musical field with the smash version of his first film, The Producers, and the Young Frankenstein musical that followed. The documentary also delves into his professional and personal ups and downs — his childhood, his first wife, and subsequent 41-year marriage to the late Anne Bancroft. Talking about her is still very emotional for him. “I have great children, and I have a good life, but it is very difficult every day to go on without her.”

Kidding around Brooks said, “When they called me to say I had been chosen as the next ‘American Master,’ I thought they said I was chosen to be the next Dutch Master. So I figured what the hell, at least I’ll get a box of cigars. When I realized my mistake I was both elated and a little disappointed at losing the cigars.” Also upcoming for Brooks, he’ll be honored with the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award this June.

Summing up his experience making the film about Brooks, director-producer-writer Robert Trachtenberg said, “I asked him deep, probing questions for four months, and he got to keep the shirt we bought for him. So I think we both made out pretty well.”