One of my favorite moments in the Jerry Seinfeld web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” comes when Jerry and Carl Reiner leave the car, forget about the coffee and spend an evening at Reiner’s house eating takeout deli food, telling jokes and talking comedy.
Reiner’s old friend Mel Brooks is there with a microphone Scotch-taped to his hoodie, wearing white socks and black gym shoes, and eating off one of those old-timey, fold-up TV dinner tables.
He’s past 90. He’s a legend. He could give two bleeps.
It’s just the greatest.
The new HBO special “Mel Brooks Unwrapped” plays like an 69-minute version of that “Comedians in Coffee” moment. In fact, there’s a real-life reboot of sorts of that very scene, as the camera crew follows Brooks as he shops at Whole Foods before arriving at Reiner’s house, where they sit in the very same TV room and talk about their legendary comedic creation titled “The 2,000-Year-Old-Man.”
Brooks says the routines were never scripted or rehearsed. Reiner would ask a question, e.g., “Where did the word ‘cheese’ come from?” and off Brooks would go, and the result would be pure genius.
“Unwrapped” is wrapped (so to speak) in an interesting if occasionally bewildering and distracting gimmick: a series of mock interviews one Alan Yentob (a former creative director for the BBC) has been filming now and again with Brooks since 1981.
Yentob, who is the writer-director for this project, perhaps overestimates his abilities as the straight man. He’s no Carl Reiner. (Then again, who IS, other than … Carl Reiner.)
But for the most part, Yentob wisely gets out of his own way and lets the cameras roll as the Mel Brooks of the 1980s and 2000s and the Mel Brooks of the here and now alternates between playing the role of the vainglorious artiste, and drops the character to talk as the real Mel Brooks — a sweetheart of a guy who tells a story as well as anyone has ever told a story, and has been partially and/or solely responsible for some of the greatest comedic achievements in modern history, from TV shows such as “Get Smart” to movies including “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” to the Broadway smash adaptation of “The Producers.”
In a scene shot nearly 40 years ago, Brooks rides in the side car of a Vespa that rolls onto the sidewalk, into the lobby and down the corridor of his office, where he dismissively tells the off-camera Yentob to “keep talking” as Brooks enters the men’s room.
Ten years later, the tables are turned as a disheveled, supposedly down-on-his-luck Brooks sneaks into the BBC offices and corners Yentob, who dismisses Brooks as HE enters the men’s room.
It’s funny stuff, but we’re here for the vintage clips and the stories. “Unwrapped” shines brightest when we see footage of Brooks telling a perfectly constructed anecdote about a series of lunches he had with Cary Grant; when Brooks indulges in his love for crooning and for playing the drums; when we see the timeless clips from Brooks’ movies, and when we see black-and-white photos of young Mel Brooks and his family in his hometown of Brooklyn.
“When I was a little boy, in [the] Williamsburg [neighborhood of], Brooklyn, I don’t think I ever saw a green leaf,” recounts present-day Mel. “Everything was cement. Now, here [in Los Angeles], every day, there’s something green and beautiful…”
Brooks asks the camera operator to take a step back and focus on a magnificent tree rising high to the California sky.
“This is probably the best tree that ever grew in the world. It has the most amazing roots, it has a network of branches. … It’s amazing.”
Mr. Brooks might as well have been describing himself.