Blazing Saddles at 45

Depending on who you listen to, so-called “PC culture” is the scourge of modern comedy. Stand-up comedians (primarily those who are older and white, which is clearly a weird coincidence) often rail against the notion that younger, more diverse audiences aren’t too excited at the prospect of laughing at humor targeting wide cultures of people by utilizing hoary stereotypes. The world of film comedy has had many examples of massively successful films that are proudly offensive, from Animal House to The Hangover.

But one of the rarest examples — a film that is both one of the greatest comedies of all time, and a film that absolutely could not be made in 2019 — remains one of the most un-PC films of all: Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this week.

Rising Below Vulgarity

The appropriate way to describe Mel Brooks, still trucking well past age 90, is courtesy of an anecdote the late critic Roger Ebert once imparted: he was on an elevator with Brooks soon after the release of his breakout 1967 hit The Producers, and a woman criticized it for being vulgar. Brooks’ response: “Lady, it rose below vulgarity.” (Vulgar or not, The Producers garnered Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) Even Brooks’ best overall film, Young Frankenstein, delves into plenty of vulgar humor, just gussied up in black-and-white and in the style and flourish of James Whale’s seminal horror film Frankenstein. And some of that vulgar humor—specifically the many sex jokes, such as the gag in which the modern Frankenstein’s fiancée is swayed to sleep with the monster based on his…uh…size—is clearly of its time. But in many ways, Blazing Saddles is the most gleefully vulgar Brooks film of all.

It’s perhaps telling that the parts of Blazing Saddles that work best in 2019 are those that don’t rely as quickly on the invocation of ethnic or racial slurs. Instead, the film’s best moments are its most subtly satiric. The film is as much a sly satire of classic Westerns as it is a slapdash spoof — in the year 1874, a ruthless attorney general, Hedy—sorry, Hedley—Lamarr (Harvey Korman), wants to exploit the land of a small Wild West town called Rock Ridge so he can manipulate the track of the intercontinental railroad, thus becoming richer and more powerful.

But the “white, God-fearing” citizens of Rock Ridge are unwilling to budge, no matter how many times Lamarr’s goons go on the attack, leaving “people stampeded, and cattle raped.” So, when they ask for a new sheriff to protect them, Lamarr convinces the state governor (Brooks) to send a black railroad worker, Bart (Cleavon Little), in the hopes that the Rock Ridge denizens will be so infuriated by his presence that they’ll abandon their homestead.

The Cadence of a Joke

Because the film is set in 1874, the script (credited to Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Alan Uger, Norman Steinberg, and Richard Pryor) doesn’t skimp on the usage of nasty, racist terms to diminish black people, the LGBTQ community, the Chinese, Native Americans, the Irish, and…well, just about everyone. On one hand, it’s not wrong to suggest that Blazing Saddles is an equal opportunity offender — no group leaves this movie unscathed. But watching it in 2019, it’s kind of fascinating to consider my initial reaction to the film, as a naïve 13-year old busting a gut as much at jokes that still hold up as I laughed, in shock, at the use of profanities and slurs (which I won’t repeat here without the help of some asterisks) that I simply couldn’t believe were in a mainstream studio comedy.

Here is what’s close to the argument comedians will make in defense of their own un-PC comedy in the 21st century: comedy is supposed to offend. It’s meant to speak truth to power. If you can’t handle the humorous heat, get out of the Chuckle Hut Comedy Club, etc. Yet when I watched Blazing Saddles now, with an arguably more perceptive critical eye 20 years after I first saw the film (though that could be up for debate), I couldn’t help but realize that so many of the uses of the n-word or the f-word, or other slurs, are themselves meant to be punchlines, as opposed to being a small part of larger, funnier jokes.

Something I certainly wouldn’t have noticed or cared much about at age 13 — there’s a lot more humor targeted at the gay community in this movie than I remembered, and much of it is cartoonish, a bit cruel, and pretty stale. Hearing Slim Pickens, as one of Lamarr’s nefarious outlaws, insult his fellow railroad overseers as “a bunch of Kansas City f****ts” isn’t funny; instead, it’s an example of the great non sequitur from the TV series Parks and Recreation — it has the cadence of a joke. Much of the use of slurs here has that same cadence — the actors deliver them in ways that are meant to suggest laughter from the audience, but their presence is mostly meant to shock. Most Westerns of the era wouldn’t go that blue, whether or not it’s actually funny.

The Common Clay of the New West

Where Blazing Saddles continues to be hilarious, and is arguably more so now, is in its depiction of the racial divide. The film’s setup is based on the villain’s largely correct assumption that Rock Ridge’s white citizens will be so bothered by the very existence of Bart that they’ll revolt. When he first arrives (confidently saying, “Excuse me while I whip this out” in reference to a written order from the governor, despite what the Rock Ridge folks think he’s talking about), Bart has to hold himself at gunpoint simply to not be shot to bits by everyone else. Brooks’ equal-opportunity-offense mentality works best at the capper of that joke, as Bart looks at the camera and says, of himself, “Baby, you are so talented,” and follows it up with, “And they are so dumb.”

The film’s snappy satire is best exemplified in a three-scene sequence: first, Sheriff Bart decides to stroll through town one morning despite the warnings of his new friend, ex-gunslinger and current alcoholic The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), only to be greeted fiercely by a seemingly kindly old lady, “Up yours, n***r!” Then, the Waco Kid soothingly reminds Sheriff Bart that he’s dealing with “the common clay of the New West. You know…morons.” (The way that Little cracks up at this is one of the film’s most charming and likely unplanned elements.) Later, after Sheriff Bart has to foil the nefarious outlaw Mongo to save the town, the same old lady returns to the sheriff’s office to give him a freshly baked apple pie as a form of thanks, before saying, “And of course, you’ll have the good sense to not tell anyone I spoke to you?”

When you think about Blazing Saddles, it’s easy to forget cutting jokes like that, which are vastly more subtle than the infamous campfire scene where all the cowboys fart after eating a healthy helping of beans. (Even that scene is still funny, if only because the sound of flatulence is inherently, stupidly, goofily funny, to an adult like me.) But that’s because the most memorable humor in Blazing Saddles is entirely lacking in subtlety, even if it relies too much on name-calling. The film’s savviest humor is pointed at Westerns themselves, from the gag that everyone in Rock Ridge has the surname “Johnson” to Hedley Lamarr’s intense disdain for the cliché “head them off at the pass”.

A Live-Action Cartoon

But as much as Blazing Saddles is both a spoof and weirdly loving homage to Westerns, some of the film’s easiest roots are represented in the face-off scene between Sheriff Bart and Mongo, played by ex-NFL star Alex Karras. Mongo is presented as a larger-than-life bully, someone Bart couldn’t possibly match physically. So Bart turns into a live-action version of Bugs Bunny, presenting Mongo with an exploding “candygram” and exiting a local saloon as the Looney Tunes theme plays on the soundtrack. So much of the film is a cartoon version of the Western genre; even its depiction of sexuality, as Hedley Lamarr recruits the voluptuous Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn, who got an Oscar nomination), is delightfully outlandish, in an antiquated way.

The cartoon culminates with the finale of the film, in which Sheriff Bart rallies the Rock Ridge citizenry as well as his fellow railroad workers to build a fake version of the city to fool Lamarr’s outlaws. The ensuing fight once the outlaws realize they’ve been duped spills out of the desert into the rest of the Warner Bros. Pictures backlot. It’s here that Brooks totally leaves behind any semblance of storytelling — in a film with a lot of fourth-wall-breaking, this is akin to the cast literally escaping from the movie screen itself — in favor of a lot more gags, only some of which work. (The Dom DeLuise cameo has one good line, where he asks not to be punched in the face, but the gay jokes in his scene are rough to watch now.)

As much as the final scene of Blazing Saddles is a bit of a comedown from the Hollywood-set fight, it also closes with another gag that’s both very funny and, in its own way, a solid dig at Westerns. Instead of Bart and the Waco Kid riding off on their horses into the sunset, they ride part of the way before getting off their horses and entering a fancy black car that drives them the rest of the way. The film ends strongly, and its style of throwing joke after joke at the wall in the hopes that half of them stick allow for much of the racial humor to not seem rough or painful in the context of 2019. But its use of slurs as punchline is, indeed, the kind of politically incorrect humor that wouldn’t pass the smell test in 2019. Good thing, then, that the best humor in this movie doesn’t exist simply to offend, but to smartly satirize one of the oldest cinematic genres.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: