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PBS’s ‘American Masters’ Conducts a New Conversation with Mel Brooks… And, on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air,’ So Do I
May 20, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 5 comments

Hilarious Hollywood hyphenate Mel Brooks is the subject of a new American Masters profile tonight (May 20) at 9 ET on PBS — and earlier today, he’s also my guest on Fresh Air…

The American Masters 90-minute special [as always, check local listings] is written, produced and directed by Richard Trachtenberg, who also serves as the off-camera interviewer guiding Brooks through questions about his life and career.

And what a life. From TV’s Your Show of Shows and Get Smart to movie and Broadway versions of The Producers, from producing 2000 Year Old Man comedy albums with Carl Reiner (left) to the very dramatic The Elephant Man movie by David Lynch, Brooks has been a creative dynamo. Yet, as tonight’s Mel Brooks: Make a Noise biography reveals, Brooks also has had bouts of depression, and times where climbing one pinnacle of success has left him sliding down into a valley of uncertainty.

Make a Noise is structured without narration. Brooks tells his own story, entertainingly and very candidly, and his tales are interspersed with samples from his many movies and TV and stage shows.

There also are lots of interviews with those who worked with or for Brooks. Some are new ones conducted for Make a Noise — including Carl Reiner, David Steinberg, Nathan Lane, Cloris Leachman, Joan Rivers, Tracey Ullman, Susan Stroman and Barry Levinson. Others are vintage interview clips, featuring Brooks himself, as well as Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Richard Benjamin, Marty Feldman and Anne Bancroft.

The interview with Bancroft (right), in which she recounts her first meeting with future husband Mel Brooks, is the most revealing and delightful piece in the entire documentary — and there are plenty of other delightful pieces in contention. She marvels at his sheer audacity and tenacity when he introduces himself — while he, in a separate interview, tells of seeing her singing a sultry song in a TV variety show appearance, while Make a Noise unearths and shows us that very appearance.

There’s another nifty bit of scholarship, too, even though it’s underplayed. There’s a photograph of the newspaper headline announcing the 1964 wedding of this unlikely but beautifully matched couple, and the headline itself underscores the different show-biz wattage of the two at the time: “Anne Bancroft, Comedy Writer Married in NY,” read the headline.

Another superb moment comes when Stroman (left), Brooks’ collaborator on the hit Broadway adaptation of The Producers, tells a sad but beautiful story of how Brooks urged her to take over direction of the play after her husband, the original appointed director, died suddenly. “It saved me,” Stroman says tearfully of Brooks’ partnership in The Producers.

For those who know little about Mel Brooks, Make a Noise is a very smart, fairly thorough primer. (An even longer version, featuring deleted segments, goes on sale Tuesday on DVD.)

 Make a Noise manages to cover many aspects of Brooks’ life and career while uncovering some surprises even for those well-versed in the Brooks canon. Among the fresh stuff Trachtenberg delivers: the surprise Brooks film that ranks as his most popular DVD release, and Brooks’ response to the question, When did he first become aware of Adolf Hitler?

I’ve been able to ask Brooks many questions of my own, including in some interviews conducted exclusively for TV Worth Watching.

And today, May 20, I interview Mel Brooks once again, with a whole new set of questions, for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. As with every time I get to talk to him, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface — and I always come away amazed by the clarity and vividness of his memories, and the youthful exuberance of his stories and his entire demeanor.

It was a pleasure to talk with him — and I hope, if you tune in or visit the Fresh Air website, the pleasure is yours, too.

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Judy Page
Mr. Bianculli,
I have listed to this interview several times because it delights my heart on the most stressful days at work. Mr. Brooks is fabulous and the banter between you both (esp your giggle when he talks about Hitchcock) makes me smile. I have to thank you!
Oct 20, 2013   |  Reply

I really enjoyed the interview with Mel Brooks on Fresh Air, and not only because it was Brooks, but because of the way you conducted the interview. Thank you!
May 21, 2013   |  Reply
Jeff Wray
Thanks for the reply. I understand that time is always an element in what gets on the air, especially with someone with the career longevity and accomplishments of Mr. Brooks. I will check out the TVWW interviews. And hey, I'm a big fan of yours. You often ask the question that I think I would ask. Just writing my first radio essay on films for our local public radio station. I need to listen all the Bianculli I can right now. Great work.
May 20, 2013   |  Reply
Heard an interview with Brooks recently that touched on precisely the point Mr. Wray makes above, that "Blazing Saddles" could not be made today. Wish I could remember where the interview ran. Doubtless, it was on NPR.
May 20, 2013   |  Reply
Jeff Wray
Mainly for David Bianculli...just listened to the Fresh Air interview with the great Mel Brooks & have of course read today's blog as a primer for watching Making Noise. I hope that the American Master's doc is different, but I am very disappointed that the discussion of Blazing Saddles does not mention Richard Pryor or Cleavon Little or spend any time on the groundbreaking nature of the racial comedy and satire of the film. I am a black filmmaker and professor. When I teach students this film I always ask if this type of comedy could be made today. They doubt it as do I. Blazing Saddles was a brave, funny, smart, satirical film that epitomized an opening in the 1970s that failed to materialize beyond the 1970s. What I have heard, read & seen thus far on Making Noise seems to fail to give Mr. Brooks the kind of credit he really deserves for Blazing Saddles. Unlike today's liberal Hollywood, Mr. Brooks seemed to put his politics where his mouth and films were. An icon & comic rebel.
May 20, 2013   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Dear Jeff -- I agree with you wholeheartedly, but even with all the time Fresh Air gave that interview, there simply wasn't time to cover everything. If you follow the link in my story to my TVWW interviews with him, you'll find Mel Brooks discussed both Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor with me at length. Thanks, regardless, for listening to the interview.
May 20, 2013
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