Mel Brooks doesn't think he's an American master.
That's someone like Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, says the creator of the funniest farting scene in the history of film.
But Susan Lacy, executive producer of PBS' American Masters series, thought differently, and convinced Brooks to dispense with his modesty just this once.
The result is Robert Trachtenberg's funny and touching Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, which had its premiere Thursday night at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. (You can see it on your local PBS station; it airs Monday, May 20, at 9 p.m. on KOCE.)
“There are certain people, when you hear their names, they say, 'Do you want to be a part of this,' and you say yes — you don't hesitate, you don't even think about it,” said actor-director Richard Benjamin, who moderated the post-screening panel with Brooks and Trachtenberg (when he could get a word in edgewise).
Most of the people who participated in the film probably would agree with Benjamin. Among those present at the Paley Center were Carl Reiner, producer Michael Gruskoff (Young Frankenstein) and Richard Lewis (Robin Hood: Men in Tights). Cloris Leachman was, unfortunately, a late scratch.
As Lewis told the Weekly of Brooks before the screening, “There's a handful of geniuses — he's one of them.”
On his way into the screening, Brooks was asked if he saw his influence in today's comedy. “If it's vulgar, yes,” he quipped. He also admitted, “Very little that I've done makes me laugh. What other people do makes me laugh.”
The Weekly made Brooks laugh by asking how, in the in-the-works musical adaptation of Blazing Saddles, he plans to orchestrate the campfire scene. “I don't think there's gonna be much of the campfire scene,” he admitted. “A little goes a long way. It's like chili pepper.
“It's coming along,” he said of the musical. “We'll be on Broadway in … 2025,” he joked.
He admitted to being surprised by the movie's initial success and its longevity, saying he told his co-writers, “Let's just let it all go, because this will never get made!”
Documentary director Trachtenberg told the Weekly the hardest part about making the film was editing it. “It's hard to trim a joke. You don't want to step on a joke. It's like very delicate surgery.”
After watching the American Masters program, which featured insights such as Brooks' late wife, Anne Bancroft, admitting she fell in love with him because “he looked like my father and he acted like my mother,” Benjamin sat down with Brooks and Trachtenberg to try to ask some questions.
Benjamin asked Brooks where he learned to sing and dance. The answer: “In the mountains, in the Borscht Belt. You had to do everything. I took care of rowboats, I was a busboy, I was kind of a utility comic, and I was a drummer. And I said, 'I'd better learn how to tap and how to sing, in case they need another voice.'”
Brooks praised Trachtenberg for taking “132 hours of film” (which probably wasn't much of an exaggeration) and “picking the continuum that makes it work, and the little pieces that make the mosaic of the evening. His ability to put the whole thing together was beautiful.”
Many of the clips in the film are from Brooks' numerous talk-show appearances over the years, with the likes of Dick Cavett, David Susskind and, of course, Johnny Carson. Brooks confessed to loving Carson: “Most of these guys that ask you questions, what they want is an opening to tell their own jokes. But Carson would actually look at you, with his eyes open, and give you his rapt attention. A couple times I was on, I remember he actually left his desk” because he was laughing so hard.
“American Masters did a wonderful, a beautiful study on him.”
Trachtenberg said that after his initial meeting with Brooks and producer Susan Lacy, he said, “If I do this right, no offense to them, but I won't need any academics or any critics, because if I ask you stuff the right way…”
Brooks interrupted to say, “If I can fucking hear you!” But then, speaking (almost) sincerely, Brooks told his director, “I was very lucky to get you, really. … The last name is a little too long for billing… Thank God you weren't Robert Ulysses Trachtenberg!”
And that came back around to what was universally described as Brooks' best quality: He's nice. As Benjamin put it, he does “the kind joke, the loving joke.” He isn't a mean comedian, and he doesn't say nasty things about people. He even complimented the Paley audience, saying, “What a thrill and pleasure it was to see the film with over 100 people who were really enjoying it!”
However, it may be time for Brooks to take a firm hand with his old pal Carl Reiner. We've been to several events featuring Brooks in the past couple of years, and it's a given that Reiner will stand up in the audience, mic in hand, and regale the crowd with the story of the birth of the 2,000-Year-Old Man. Then he might ramble on a bit about his wonderful career with Brooks, tell an anecdote or two, offer a genuine compliment (here it was for Brooks' music and lyrics for the Broadway musical version of Young Frankenstein, which he said had lyrics better than Brooks had written before — or anyone had written before — other than “maybe Cole Porter”) and finish with a quip (at the Paley, he said his tie bore the label “Made Expressly for Johnny Carson” and that he'd stolen it one night on The Tonight Show).
Reiner is a comedic genius in his own right, and he may well be getting a little tired of being overshadowed by Brooks. But there were barely stifled groans last night when he got up and started talking about Brooks doing his Jewish pirate routine the first time they met.
But Benjamin finished the Q&A on an upbeat note, calling the film “a fitting tribute to this great man,” which drew disbelief from the honoree, who said, “Are you talking about me? You're not talking about Hemingway?” Benjamin replied, in all sincerity, “Yeah, we are talking about you. Don't you know how we all feel about you?”
“Yeah, but,” Brooks said, “I feel that same way about George Burns and Jack Benny, Bob Hope…”
The awards and awards are starting to pile up for Brooks, who will receive the 41st annual AFI Life Achievement Award on June 6. He said he's particularly thrilled about that one, because it recognizes him as a director, something the industry hasn't often done.
Asked if there's anything he'd like to do that he hasn't yet, Brooks said, “I've done nearly everything I wanted to do — I've never been a trapeze artist, but it's a little late for that — and I've done it as thoroughly as I wanted to.”
Mel Brooks: Make a Noise covers it all, as thoroughly as can be expected in 90 minutes, yet leaves you wanting more. A rare accomplishment, much like Brooks himself.