“Make a Noise” is only loosely concerned with chronology — although Brooks starts off with a boyhood memory of being taken to see Ethel Merman in “Anything Goes” on Broadway in 1934. It isn’t too long before we’re skipping across his early comedy days with Sid Caesar and into his movie career, but then, at another point, Trachtenberg (who asks all the questions of his subject) circles back around to World War II.
“When did you first become aware of Hitler?” he asks.
“What a crazy question!” Brooks exclaims with real delight.
It’s actually a brilliant question, with an answer that contains the possibility for several dissertations on modern history. Here you have a Brooklyn-born octogenarian who is a descendant of immigrant Jews and who became a World War II enlistee, and he is being asked about his earliest memory of the 20th century’s worst person, who, it would turn out, would become Brooks’s greatest target and punchline for repeated acts of satire. (“Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers”; “Hitler on Ice” in “History of the World, Part I.”)
His answer? He first heard of Hitler sometime in the 1930s. “It took a long time to make any kind of sense of [the Holocaust],” Brooks says.
At an earlier point in the film, Brooks recalls the war itself and singing “Toot, toot Tootsie, goodbye!” at the top of his lungs during a pre-skirmish lull, knowing the Germans were just on the other side of a river. When he finished, he swears, he heard polite applause coming from that direction. “I think I could’ve ended the war right then and there,” he says.
In any event, his best fighting occurred on other fronts, breaking down fixed notions of comedy in Hollywood’s front offices. “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise” is worthwhile for its romp through his groundbreaking comedy films, starting with “The Producers” and then on to the highs (“Young Frankenstein”) and a tender treatment of the lows (“Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”). Gene Wilder, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Nathan Lane and others help dissect the way Brooks works and what he’s like in private. For every illuminating anecdote, viewers will have to sit patiently through moments of what has to be television’s most agonizing documentary genre: Comedians talking about the mechanics of comedy.
Reiner chuckles at how his friend Mel will sometimes get upset when he sees something he thinks is too vulgar or over-the-line in today’s comedies — umbrage from the man who brought us the campfire flatulence scene in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles.”