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He's been taking funny seriously for 60 years

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There's funny, and then there's FUNNY.

And then there's Mel Brooks.

With a career that spans more than 60 years and has encompassed pretty much every aspect of comedic endeavour -- movies, TV, Broadway; writing, directing, acting, producing; joke writing, script writing, songwriting and composing musical scores -- it can safely be said that Brooks, 86, is the most influential comedy figure in a couple of generations.

The depth and breadth of his show-business accomplishments are explored this week in the new PBS/American Masters documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.

It is, for an fan of comedy, movies, Hollywood or Broadway, a wonderful, heartfelt examination of a remarkable man and a one-of-a-kind career.

"I'm not such a comedy giant," Brooks said with a mischievous smile when he met with the press a few months back during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in L.A. "I'm five-six. There are guys not as funny, but they're bigger. And I think that counts."

In fact, Brooks made his first big mark in show business working for one of TV's true giants, both physically and in terms of his comedic talent. Just back from the Second World War and after a short stint as a drummer, occasional pianist and, later, standup comic in a series of Borscht Belt nightclubs, he landed a job writing for Sid Caesar on a pioneering television program that would eventually become known as Your Show of Shows.

It was a pressure-packed environment in which to develop one's comedy chops. Working alongside the likes of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and head writer Mel Tolkin, Brooks was part of a small team responsible for writing -- and rewriting, and rewriting until Caesar was satisfied -- 90 minutes of live TV comedy every week.

After that job, Brooks intimates in the film, everything else seemed rather possible.

When he emerged from Caesar's shadow, however, Brooks flourished, creating such iconic big-screen comedies as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (with regular collaborator Gene Wilder), Silent Movie, High Anxiety and many more.

He also co-created Get Smart (with Buck Henry) for TV, and in recent years has reinvented himself as a writer and producer of Broadway musicals, most notably the stage version of The Producers that broke all records for the number of Tony Awards won by a single show.

Brooks is one of only 14 people to earn the elusive EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) combination.

Make a Noise features reflections of former writers'-room mates Reiner and Simon, as well as well-known comedy figures Joan Rivers, Richard Lewis, Rob Reiner, Tracey Ullman and local product David Steinberg.

It's a fairly thorough and deeply affectionate tribute to an entertainer who is largely responsible -- for better and worse -- for creating the blueprint for 21st-century stage and screen comedy.

-- -- --

Speaking of comedy, Fox has a new one arriving in prime time this week, in the form of The Goodwin Games.

It's never a good sign when a network premieres a new show after the traditional fall-to-spring TV season ends -- the implication being that it wasn't good enough to merit inclusion in the race-for-ratings regular schedule -- but the pilot episode of The Goodwin Games is sufficiently strong to suggest that this series isn't -- or shouldn't be -- a complete throw-away.

It focuses on three estranged siblings -- Henry (Scott Foley), a successful surgeon, Chloe (Becki Newton), a former math geek who's now a mostly unsuccessful aspiring actress, and Jimmy (T.J. Miller), a dim-witted con artist who spends long stretches behind bars -- who return to their hometown after their father's death.

Shocked by the news that their layabout dad (played, in video clips, by Beau Bridges) had somehow accumulated a fortune exceeding $20 million, they're even more surprised when the old man's lawyer informs them that they're being forced into a winner-take-all competition for the money.

The first episode lays the groundwork for an average but pleasant feuding-siblings comedy. It isn't laugh-out-loud hilarious, but there's enough promise in these Games to make them worth playing through at least a few summer weeks.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

 

TV PREVIEW

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise

Featuring Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Nathan Lane and Cloris Leachman

Monday at 8 p.m.

PBS

 

The Goodwin Games

Starring Scott Foley, Becki Newton, T.J. Miller and Beau Bridges

Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Fox and Citytv

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 G4

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