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A Comedy Icon: 'Mel Brooks Unwrapped'
December 13, 2019  | By David Hinckley

You see the words "Mel Brooks" on a TV show, and you know that whatever you get, it's going to be funny.

Mel Brooks Unwrapped, which premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, is funny. It's also ragged and disjointed, which is part of what makes it funny.

Unwrapped reunites the legendary 93-year-old comedian with Alan Yentob, the former creative director for the BBC, who has collaborated with Brooks on a number of specials over several decades.

The specials have often cast Yentob as Brooks' straight man interviewer, teeing things up for Brooks to go off on semi-crazed riffs. Or maybe break into a song. Or, well, whatever.

Unwrapped takes a slightly different tack. It's a quasi-documentary on Brooks' long and impressive life and career, though you have to squint to make out any linear progression. Instead, Yentob, who is both producer and director, remains true to Brooks by seeming to let him wander all over the map.

The serious segments, and there are several, are punctuated with self-referential segues in which Brooks throws out deadpan gags about making the film in the first place.

The extended opening scene shows Yentob waiting for Brooks, and waiting some more, until Brooks finally appears and tells Yentob he's changed his mind and doesn't want to do the film at all, because everyone Yentob profiles dies.

Brooks seems in no imminent danger. He still gets around nimbly, and his wit is undimmed. The historic segments of Unwrapped focus primarily on the 1970s, when Brooks was turning out a string of hit movies like Young FrankensteinBlazing SaddlesSilent Movie, and High Anxiety, but they acknowledge that his comic style really came together two decades earlier when he and Carl Reiner helped create the pioneering television sketch comedy Your Show of Shows.

Reiner makes an appearance here, naturally, and their conversation is as droll as ever.

Brooks is the star of this show, however, not only because he deserves it, but because it's so clear that performing for him is as natural and essential as breathing.

He is, among other things, a song-and-dance man. Extended clips here include his performance of the title tune from High Anxiety and a Dean Martin-style ballad from an old interview session with Yentob.

Brooks talks briefly about how he started his show biz career as a drummer, and he starts to tear up – legitimately, by all appearances – when he listens to "In the Wee Small Hours" and talks about why Frank Sinatra was such a great singer.

In one of the passages where things get serious, Brooks tells Yentob that despite his reputation as a zany comedian, "All my films are serious."

Comedy doesn't work, he explains, unless it's about something. It can't be just random, disconnected jokes. He talks about how Blazing Saddles was about racism, and The Producers was about the insanity of show business.

He recalls how The Producers, in which his lead characters must produce a flop show and end up with a musical called Springtime for Hitler, was called tasteless and outrageous.

And that was a good review compared to what most of his 1970s hits inspired. He jokes with Yentob that he didn't know what to do when the stage version of Young Frankenstein drew widely positive reviews because he'd never had them before.

Anyone looking for the full sweep of Mel Brooks' career, which is as vast as it is remarkable, will need additional material beyond Unwrapped. There is only the slightest tantalizing reference, for instance, to his 41-year marriage to actress Anne Bancroft, which lasted until her death.

But there's plenty here to explain why Brooks became such a revered figure in comedy. It's because he's funny, and the best way to understand that is simply to watch.

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