A teaser for a forthcoming American Masters special, Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (PBS, 5.20), arrived this morning. A Shout! Factory DVD is available the next day, but no VOD/online rentals? The clips indicate that Matthew Broderick, Richard Lewis, Nathan Lane and Carl Reiner see Brooks as an egoistic handful and no day at the beach. Like every driven artist-performer who’s ever lived. What else is new?

May I be blunt? In an 11.13 N.Y. Times interview with Frank Bruni, Alexander Payne remarked that all good directors have a magic decade. “They say you can do honest, sincere work for decades, but you’re given in general a 10-year period when what you do touches the zeitgeist — when you’re relevant,” he said. Due respect but Brooks’ movie-lightning period lasted only six yearsThe Producers (’68), The Twelve Chairs (’70), Blazing Saddles (’74) and Young Frankenstein (’74).

But if you count Brooks’ peak years as writer-performer on TV in the ’50s and ’60s (with Sid Ceasar on Your Show of Shows/Ceasar’s Hour and later Get Smart) and his 2000 Year-Old Man recordings with Carl Reiner, his hot-and-relevant period lasted a little over 20 years. Which is fairly extraordinary.

Silent Movie (’76) wasn’t all that amusing when you get right down to it. (I saw it exactly once, and I tittered but never laughed.) High Anxiety (’78)…Hitchcock tribute stuff, in and out. The Spanish Inquisition musical number in History of the World, Part I (’81) was hilarious and provocative, but otherwise the film was just mezzo-mezzo. Spaceballs (’87) was a downturn, I felt — a wallow. Life Stinks (’91) was actually a kind of resurgence — a character-driven movie that wasn’t a genre spoof. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (’93) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (’95) were weak tea.

  • scooterzzzz

    i don’t know if you’re familiar with marc maron’s ‘wtf’ podcast but it’s
    one of the best interview programs available on the net… a couple of week’s
    ago, he did over an hour with brooks and it was brilliantly entertaining and
    informative… and the two hit it off so well that brooks set him up with a full
    hour talking with reiner the next day…both interviews are available free
    through itunes and well worth the time….

    as for the ‘american masters’ special, brooks did a full 45 minutes on
    stage at the tca in January and absolutely killed….

  • tca = Trifecta Consolidated Agency? Tits & Cocaine Association? Trans Continental Anus?

  • scooterzzzz

    while at least two of those would probably apply, it’s actually ‘television
    critics association’…

  • Actually

    History of the World and Spaceballs aren’t as good as his great works, but they’re light years better than anything he did since. Although with both movies the ZAZ influence is obvious- late-era Brooks owes more to the Airplane! school of scattershot humor (which, admittedly, Brooks had a large hand in inventing) than even his earlier work.

  • I second Scooter on the WTF. Great interview.

    Also, a friend of mine served him in a swanky Long Island restaurant around 2000 or so. He was a friend of some regulars so the managers were on red alert about his arrival. As soon as he sat down my friend managed to spill a pitcher of iced lemonade all over him. The managers had a collective aneurism, but Mel immediately jumped up and started a loud routine of ‘Oh thank you my Darling, I was overheated so you’re an angel from heaven. Just what I needed!’ She still got crucified but he probably saved her job. So Mel is a mensch.

  • fitz-hume

    ‘Young Frankenstein’ alone would have been more than enough.

  • hupto

    (aka Cadavra)
    SPACEBALLS and ROBIN HOOD are probably his weakest comedies, as it was clear he was trying to dumb it down for the kids. He returned to form for DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT, which was very much the old, grown-up Mel, but by then it was too late and it was off to Broadway. Nielsen may not have been the best choice for the Count, but otherwise it was easily his best comedy since HISTORY and needs to be re-evaluated.

    • To me, SPACEBALLS was Mel trying to make a Zucker Brothers/Jim Abrahams comedy. The funniest bit remains the ultralengthy exterior tracking shot of the spaceship.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Spaceballs seems to be, oddly enough, one of his most divisive works largely dependent on how influential Star Wars was to your cinematic upbringing/childhood (I personally love it — and VERY — respectively).

    Having said that, though, I think Young Frankenstein is his one unquestioned masterpiece.

    What the fuck is Twelve Chairs? This is why this whole “10 years-zeitgeist” thing is a bunch of horseshit, ultimately. The vast majority of artists’ careers ebb and flow — they’re not like athletes where once they hit the wall, it’s usually over (or soon to be).

  • I’m a fairly big Star Wars fan, but CHRIST, Spaceballs is absolute dreck. Just wretched from the first minute to the last, and I was 16 during my first viewing with shit taste in movies so it should have been in my wheelhouse.

  • Can we extend his “hot-and-relevant period” by a few years if we consider that he also produced THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE FLY? He has some interesting stories about both projects on the Marc Maron interview, including that he had to talk David Lynch out of applying John Hurt’s makeup himself.