Mel Brooks still writes comedy, but his main business is collecting awards. He’s an “EGOT,” one of only a dozen or so people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony, and he’s had no trouble settling into a stream of never-ending accolades, like this one from the president. In May, one more arrives on PBS, when he is celebrated in the American Masters documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.
For Brooks, who grew up poor with his mother and brothers in Brooklyn, the movies, music, theater, and TV all trace back to one profound “Aha” moment: seeing Anything Goes during its Broadway debut in 1934. “We were sitting in the last seats in the last row of the balcony, and I thought Ethel Merman was still a little too loud,” he tells Kurt. “I’d never seen a show and I went a little nuts.” He realized then that “it’s one life, and I’m going to live it on the stage singing my heart out.”
It wasn’t long after Brooks returned from World War II that he met Carl Reiner, with whom he would go on to create "2,000 Year-Old Man," now regarded by many comedians as a Bible of sorts. “It captured an immigrant sensibility,” Brooks says, “some of that joie de vivre — the spirit of making a life in America.”
Brooks’ more riotous, ribald sensibility developed during the counterculture decade from the mid-1960s into the mid-70s. “Hitler has been my best friend in show business,” he tells Kurt, referring to The Producers, his debut as a filmmaker (and later a Broadway smash). Brooks got away with comedy murder during an especially forgiving time. “I couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today. I don’t think I could even punch a horse, let alone a little old lady.”
Still, Brooks says he was never trying to push buttons for the sake of it. Instead, he says, it was simply about making comedy that thrilled himself and his collaborators, and that explored the human experience. “If we just exaggerate it a little bit, these are what fools we are.”
Bonus Track: How Gene Shalit saved Mel Brooks' career
Kurt Andersen remembers meeting Mel Brooks 35 years ago, when Kurt was working for film critic Gene Shalit at The Today Show. Brooks says Shalit’s embrace of The Producers saved his movie career.