PBS recalls Mel Brooks' life of laughter

Television • He's not just one of the "American Masters," he's an American treasure.
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Mel Brooks is a comedy giant. Just don't let him hear you call him one.

"I'm not such a comedy giant," he said. "I'm 5-6. There are guys not as funny, but they are bigger, and I think that counts."

Brooks, 86, is the subject of PBS' newest "American Masters." And there's so much to his career that stuffing it all into a two-hour documentary leaves it bursting at the seams.

Even as he's being interviewed for "Mel Brooks: Make a Noise," he's not so much talking as he is performing. He opens with a song and almost a dance. And he's an amazing storyteller whose energy is infectious.

He talks about his life. His four-decade marriage to Anne Bancroft, who died of uterine cancer in 2005.

Well, only a bit about Bancroft.

"It is really a little too painful and private," Brooks said. "She was the best singer, the best dancer, and maybe the best actress in the world. I was very lucky for 45 years, and it's very difficult. I have great children, and I have a good life, but it is very difficult every day to go on, I can tell you, without her."

Brooks talks about his career in television — "Your Show of Shows," "Get Smart" (which he co-created) and the timeless special "The 2,000-Year-Old Man." He talks about his movies, including "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," "Silent Movie," "High Anxiety," "Spaceballs" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights."

He talks about his Broadway shows — "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein."

The man has won an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys and three Tonys. And his Oscar acceptance speech (for "The Producers") remains memorable.

"I want to thank the Academy of Arts, Sciences and Money for this wonderful award," he said. "Well, I'll just say what's in my heart — ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump."

Who doesn't love Mel Brooks? "Make a Noise" features an amazing lineup of people singing his praises (some in archival interviews): Nathan Lane, Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner. Barry Levinson, Richard Lewis, Susan Stroman, Rob Reiner, Tracey Ullman, Neil Simon, David Steinberg, Steven Weber, Buck Henry, Anne Bancroft, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Sid Caesar, David Lynch, Richard Benjamin, Bill Pullman and Matthew Broderick.

Brooks resists the idea that his is Jewish humor.

"I think I missed the Jew boat by one generation," he said. "I mean, literally."

His father was a German Jew who immigrated from what is now Gdansk, Poland; his mother was a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated from Kiev; Brooks (born Melvin James Kaminsky) is all-American.

"When I worked in the Borscht Belt in the mountains, I spoke in English," he said. "A generation before me, they spoke in Yiddish."

And he doesn't know how to answer questions about Jewish comedy.

"I say, 'You've got it wrong. It's not really Jewish comedy,' " Brooks said. "There are traces of it, but it is New York comedy. It is urban comedy. It's sophisticated. It's street-corner comedy. It's not Jewish comedy."

Whatever it is, it's hilarious.

And "Mel Brooks: Make a Noise" is funny and fascinating.

spierce@sltrib.com —

'American Masters'

"Mel Brooks: Make a Noise" premieres Monday, May 20, at 8 p.m. on PBS/Channel 7.