It's Good To Be The King ... Of Comedy
Mel Brooks reaches across the country via Skype in ongoing career retrospective accolades
By Michael Shashoua / Jester editor-in-chief; Photo by Joyce Culver courtesy of 92nd Street Y
In recent months, Mel Brooks has suddenly been seemingly everywhere – with re-releases of his movies on home video and a new deluxe box set including lots of his old television work, plus multiple podcast appearances including “The Nerdist” and “WTF.”
So it may have seemed like overkill for PBS “American Masters” series to profile the comedy icon, but a screening of the result, followed by a live Skype interview with the man himself in Southern California, graced the 92nd Street Y on May 15.
The documentarian, Robert Trachtenburg, captured nuances to Brooks’ story beyond the tummler happily telling his tales and recounting his work, in the 90-minute installment. Trachtenburg didn’t shy away from Brooks’ career set-backs, notably the decline of “Your Show of Shows,” on which Brooks wrote for Sid Caesar, as television spread to Middle America and Lawrence Welk, in turn, started crushing them in the ratings. Also, notably, the justifiably criticized later Brooks movies such as “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.” Steven Weber, who appeared in that movie, acknowledges in the documentary that the movie ended up having too little of Brooks’ signature style to it, and came off more like a second-rate Mad Magazine parody.
Seeing these career dips acknowledged makes one appreciate Brooks’ peaks all the more, and he certainly gets a triumphant ending with the success of “The Producers” on Broadway, not to mention all the accolades delivered by colleagues in the documentary, including Barry Levinson (a co-writer on “High Anxiety” and “Silent Movie”), Nathan Lane, Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Tracey Ullman, Andrew Bergman and Cloris Leachman, to name just a few. Gene Wilder, strangely, appears only in archival interviews in this documentary, while all the others are fresh interviews; Anne Bancroft, Brooks’ late wife, appears in well-chosen interview clips.
Trachtenburg also devotes a portion of the film to highlighting Brooks’ work as a producer of more serious films, mostly in the early 1980s, including “The Elephant Man,” “The Fly,” and “Frances.” One realizes that if that part of his resume – minus all the comedy classics -- was all Brooks had ever done, he would be worthy of accolades. He gave key breaks to the directors David Lynch and David Cronenberg, who became well-respected artists in their own right.
As to the live portion of the screening, the Skype hookup with Brooks was less than ideal, with some glitches making it difficult to hear Brooks as he fielded questions from Trachtenberg, Joy Behar and Susan Stroman (“The Producers” musical) seated on the 92Y stage. It was amazing that as quick and funny as Brooks was in the parts of his answers you could hear, he was a little clueless about the placement of a lapel mike that also kept falling off – at one point putting it right up to his mouth and overdriving the sound system. But that in itself was, in a way, cute, as the documentary had also given the audience a better idea of Brooks’ bold, but sweet nature as a person.
“American Masters Mel Brooks: Make A Noise” premieres nationally on PBS at 9 pm May 20, and on DVD on May 21.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua