The Daily Stream: The Satire Of Blazing Saddles Still Has Bite Nearly 50 Years Later

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Blazing Saddles" (1974)

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: Hollywood cinema of the 1970s was something of a miracle, thanks largely to a suffocatingly restrictive ratings system being dropped and audiences showing up for more challenging stories. On the page, "Blazing Saddles" should have just been a fun, dumb fish-out-of-water comedy, but Mel Brooks and his impressive writing team made something else entirely: a fart-joke comedy that also had teeth when satirizing racists and bigots of all types. This movie still packs a bite almost 50 years later, and that's worth talking about.

Why it's essential viewing

I'll start all this by telling you about a long ago time and place: Austin, TX in the mid-'90s.

I was a freshman in high school and my English teacher knew I was the movie guy, so she tasked me with bringing in a few VHS titles for the class to choose from. The plan was to do our finals and then we'd have enough time left over to watch a movie.

I grabbed some usual suspects, like "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park," and without thinking I grabbed "Blazing Saddles" and threw it on the pile. I didn't even consider the rating when I did this; I was just on the hunt for good movies to bring.

So, we finished our finals and I was called upon to offer the titles I brought. The classroom was wishy-washy on which movie to watch and then a popular football player in the class walked up and tapped "Blazing Saddles" and said, "Yo, this movie's tight." (I must remind you this was the '90s so that's really what he said, I swear to God.)

The rest of the class instantly fell in line and that's how we watched an R-rated comedy in my freshman English class.

The English teacher's reaction

It dawned on me pretty early on that maybe this wasn't the right choice, probably around the time Slim Pickens called Cleavon Little the n-word for the fourth time in about 30 seconds. The only time the teacher acknowledged this, though, was one that'll forever stick in my memory.

We're about 15 minutes into the movie and I'm waiting for any sign that she's going to pull the plug and that's when we get hit with another n-word. She sighed deeply, looked up from grading, took off her glasses and said, "I really hate that word," and then went back to grading and let us watch the rest of the movie.

Today she'd probably have been fired for letting us watch this movie. I mean, she might have been fired for either "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park" for that matter, but if a kid today watched this movie in school and then went home and talked about any random scene from "Blazing Saddles" out of context, that's a recipe for a national news story.

Yes, "Blazing Saddles" is shocking and has some very bad words in it, but if that's all you're clocking then you're missing the bigger picture.

Seeing the movie through new eyes

During lockdown one of the things I turned to for some kind of comfort was watching reaction videos on YouTube. (I know this feels like an abrupt tangent, but stick with me for a second.)

Normally people talking through movies is like nails on a chalkboard for me, but isolated and unable to do some of my favorite things, like watching movies in a theater with a group of strangers or having my young nephews over to watch my favorite classics for the first time and seeing that pure reaction to a new favorite thing that you can't fake, I needed some kind of replacement for that joy. So, I turned to random 20-year-olds on YouTube watching things for the first time and reacting.

Not all reaction channels are equal. Some are just as annoying as sitting next to a loud couple at the movies, but there are some where the joy of discovering cinema is honest and authentic, so I gravitated towards those for that little adrenaline hit you get from introducing a friend or family member to something you love in a time where we had to be isolated from one another.

One of the titles that came up during this time was "Blazing Saddles" and the reaction to this movie is ... all over the place. Lots of laughter and then looking guilty for laughing at stuff that is borderline cancelable now. There are more n-words in "Blazing Saddles" than in any random Tarantino script and a huge dose of queer bigotry to boot, but there it's important to consider the context of those very loaded slurs.

Comedy that speaks truth to power

"Blazing Saddles" is about a small western town, beset by outlaws, that enlists the help of a new sheriff ... who just so happens to be a Black man. The white folks aren't exactly welcoming to the new sheriff, but ultimately recognize he's there to help and just smart enough to outwit the dumb brutes and corrupt politicians trying to wipe out this town.

With a set-up like that you know you're in for a rough ride by 2022 standards, even in a comedy, but that's why it's vital to factor in the context of the upsetting language, and the intentions behind it.

A lot of comedy is pushing the audience into an uncomfortable place to expose some real societal truth beneath the veneer. There are some comedians whose only skill is knowing how to push buttons, but the very best of them can also make a broader point to go along with the shock factor. George Carlin was a master at this, as was Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor (who, it should be noted, almost played the lead role in "Blazing Saddles" and served as one of the writers).

Depiction is not endorsement

"Blazing Saddles" has more on its mind than fart jokes. There's a real message to this movie about getting along back in a time where racial tensions were at a breaking point. When you realize the good guys are the ones that get along with each other, the leading man is a Black dude in a position of power, and all the bad guys are the ones holding hatred and bigotry in their hearts then you'll recognize "Blazing Saddles" as the progressive movie it is. Not just of its time, either, although it certainly was. It's progressive by today's standards, which shows how little progress has been made in the nearly 50 years since "Blazing Saddles" was released.

Portraying something in a film doesn't equal endorsement. I hate to be the old man shaking his fist at the youngins, but that is something it seems younger audiences in particular have trouble understanding. As twentysomethings started exploring movies outside of their bubbles they find something shocking and tend to focus only on the shock value of certain moments, ignoring their setting within the rest of the movie.

My favorite example of this is a think piece that made the rounds a couple years ago that was all about how Jack Torrance from "The Shining" was problematic. Um... yeah. He's an alcoholic and physically abusive to his family even before he steps into the Overlook hotel, and is driven to the brink by the evil that lurks within those walls. That's kind of the point of the character. I'm surprised there haven't (yet) been bad take articles about how problematic it is that Spielberg used Nazis as the bad guys in "Raiders of the Lost of Ark."

There are still some missteps in the movie

As a proudly progressive person, I know that most of these knee-jerk reactions come from a desire to keep anyone from feeling bad — and that's a noble instinct. But when you turn to fiction you have to keep an open mind as the big picture plays out. Sometimes the politics of the filmmaker isn't on the money for you, and sometimes that doesn't even matter. 

For instance, a core theme of "The Incredibles" leans way more Libertarian than I do. "If everyone's special then no one is" is a pretty screwed up message to send to kids, but at the end of the day the main thrust of the story is about trusting in yourself and loving your family so I let that particular sub-theme slide off my back.

"Blazing Saddles" has a few missteps, too. I can't tell you to recontextualize the big, flaming musical sequence where Dom DeLuise throws out queer slurs left and right to a crowd of the most obnoxious, obvious gay stereotypes ever because that's the joke. The only thing you can slap on that one is the dreaded "it was okay at the time" label, which doesn't mean very much.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Cleavon Little's Sheriff Bart and the drunk ex-gunslinger The Waco Kid, played with great delight by Gene Wilder. If you're looking for the message of the movie, look no further than this friendship that develops onscreen. Little is so damn charismatic and Wilder just radiates so much kindness in every frame that they make a legitimately great on-screen duo. It's a real shame we didn't get to see more of these two together. As much as I love Wilder's movies with Richard Pryor, they're missing some of the spark Wilder had with Little.

When spoof movies weren't just dependent on references

Again, not to pick on the young guns out there, but for a lot of young people merely portraying bigotry is grounds to condemn a movie. Yet "Blazing Saddles" is so much more than the shock humor. For cinephiles it's a deep cut ribbing of the western genre, for the more basic among us there's a lot of dick and fart jokes to keep you laughing and for the more discerning viewer there are some legitimately brilliant jokes, like when Harvey Corman breaks the fourth wall, which is very common in these post-"Deadpool" days but was outside the box thinking back in 1974.

Mel Brooks would become famous for pioneering the spoof movie with this, "Young Frankenstein," "High Anxiety," and later "Spaceballs" and "Robin Hood: Men In Tights." We'll just look the other way on "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." But what he does so well, especially in the earlier films, is make a movie that works by itself and isn't just a callback to other movies. I doubt there are many today who would get the "Randolph Scott" joke in "Blazing Saddles," but the movie is way more interested in being funny within its own world and doesn't rely on the audience understanding every reference to work as a comedy.

So, if you haven't seen "Blazing Saddles" or it's been a minute and you are worried the humor is going to be cringy and dated, why not give it a watch? It's still funny as all hell, silly in all the right parts, and sneaks up on you with a lovable central bromance. And I didn't even mention Madeline Kahn spitting fire every moment she's on-screen — that's how loaded with talent this movie is.