THE SHOW "Mel Brooks Strikes Back!"
WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 9 on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Appearing onstage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Calif., before an audience, Mel Brooks talks about . . . his early childhood, his job as a Borscht Belt "poolside tummler," 2,000-year-old men (one in particular), Carl Reiner, Cary Grant, "Blazing Saddles," Gene Wilder, the war years (he was a combat engineer assigned to the 1104th Engineer Combat Group), his collaborator, Ronny Graham (who died in 1999) and Sid Caesar -- who had a temper that could be expressed in wildly creative ways.
MY SAY Brooks, now 86, is a national treasure -- we can all agree on that -- but to get the full breadth and measure of this treasure we'll have to wait until May, when "American Masters" canonizes him. His contributions to film, stage, popular music, television -- especially television -- and modern American humor can hardly be crammed into a 60-minute special, though Monday night's show tries and can't be faulted for not entirely succeeding. It's moderated by Alan Yentob, creative director for the BBC, whose qualifications for a seminar on Brooks are not evident, although his knowledge gaps in American cultural life occasionally are (he muses that it must have been "strange" for a Jew to grow up in Brooklyn; Brooks is almost at a loss for words: "No, it wasn't strange at all!")
Nevertheless, the hour is still funny, congenial, fast-moving and features some priceless outtakes -- including one from the now pretty much forgotten 1983 remake of "To Be or Not to Be," with Brooks and Anne Bancroft (his wife of 40 years, who died in 2005) performing "Sweet Georgia Brown," and in Polish, no less. (Another overlooked fact that this hour seeks to redress -- Brooks had a very good singing voice.)
"Mel Brooks Strikes Back!" doesn't have quite the intimacy of its bookend, "Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again," which aired on HBO last year. But it does prove that the star of the hour is still one of the best storytellers on the planet.
BOTTOM LINE For Mel Brooks lovers everywhere (you know who you are), but it's on the light side.