Melvin James Kaminsky, known far and wide and forever as Mel Brooks, turns 87 next month. He is one of those comedy legends who can’t complain about lacking respect or accolades, which might make it difficult to find another 90 minutes to spend watching PBS’s appreciative retrospective, “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” airing Monday night on the “American Masters” series. He seems plenty honored enough.
The good news is that the film, directed by Robert Trachtenberg, makes a fast and sure decision to waste nobody’s time, including Brooks’s. A swerving limousine screeches to a stop in front of a waiting studio set, and the legend himself shuffles out, takes a seat and starts yammering.
“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.”
“You started it,” Reiner told him, “so don’t complain.”
It’s pure thematic serendipity: After watching “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” I popped in a DVD of a fascinating new PBS documentary called “The Ghost Army” (airing Tuesday night on WETA), in which, once again, some crafty Americans are tasked with the job of punking Hitler.
In this case, we are talking about the 1,100 or so G.I.s who served in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a “field deception unit” entrusted in the summer of 1944 with creating the illusion of advancing tanks and troops across Europe, designed to fool the Germans. Made up of artists, designers, set builders, sound engineers and other creative types, this ghost army successfully confused the enemy — and seemed to have a wonderful time doing it, even if their work was intended to draw fire upon themselves in order to give an edge to Allied troops.
Ahead of and alongside the D-Day invasion, the ghost army traveled with instruments of trickery and outdoor stagecraft, including elaborate recordings that mimicked pontoon-bridge construction and tank movements. To keep themselves entertained, they kept private sketchbooks of war’s everyday horrors, destruction, banality and companionship. (Concurrent to the making of the documentary, an exhibition of the soldiers’ artworks has made its way to several museums.) Their contributions to winning the war were kept classified for four decades.
“The Ghost Army’s” idea of deception seems like a quaint and delightfully absurd notion compared with the many deceptions involved in today’s war on terror. Suicide bombers and the makers of improvised explosives must also invent ways to sneak around and be clever. And what is a drone, meanwhile, if not an elaborate and brutally efficient riff on the remote-controlled toy?
Once more I am struck by the shape and texture of World War II — not only as experienced through these young soldier-artists’ beautiful watercolors of war-torn villages or in their sexy pen-and-ink portraits of French prostitutes, but in the way their war, for all its many horrors, can still provide fresh stories of teamwork and bonhomie.
(90 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT, with encores.
(one hour) premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WETA, with encores.