Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) is undoubtedly one of the greatest comedies of all-time. While his highest achievement might always be Young Frankenstein (1974), Saddles is his most potent work. Like The Producers (1967), it seeks to provoke and horrify you, and does exactly that with fart jokes. The racial and political overtones are so strong and so shocking that they’re still timely. The scene where a crowd of all-white citizens lose their minds and are ready to lynch their first black sheriff plays like a microcosm of the Tea Party during the Obama Years.
But the film achieves that kind of humorous edge by being crude, lewd, and entirely polticially incorrect. And in a modern PC culture where social media is just as likely to burn a filmmaker in effigy as celebrate his or her movie, the white director with a film that features characters dropping the n-word like rain pelts in a thunderstorm would quickly become persona non grata. The film also admittedly has less politically aware stereotypes used in regard to some of its supporting gay characters.
For this and a litany of other reasons, Mel Brooks knows he could never make Blazing Saddles in 2017.
In an interview with the BBC, Brooks said, “It’s okay not to hurt the feelings of various tribes and groups. However, it’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. It’s the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behavior.”
He added that without such bite, Blazing Saddles “would not have had nearly the significance, the force, the dynamism, and the stakes that were contained in it.”
Not that Brooks doesn’t have personal limits. While he is responsible for putting the image of Nazi chorus girls in the popular imagination via “Springtime for Hitler,” his sense of gallows humor regarding World War II (in which he served during in the U.S. Army) stops short at ever directly tackling the Holocaust.
“I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis,” Brooks confided to the BBC. However, he is not entirely unaware that even that is a generational distinction, as he noted in the The Last Laugh documentary from last year. In that film, he commented on how younger Jewish comedians he admires, such as Sarah Silverman, find it much more manageable to explore that subject matter when writing their comedy routines.
Brooks though should be quite proud of his work in Blazing Saddles. For whatever problematic stereotypes it delves in, the movie which featured Richard Pryor as an uncredited co-writer, shined a very public light on the issues of systematic racism in American government, society, and “gentrified” neighborhoods, all while lampooning perhaps the most lofty of white male fantasy genres, the Western. Brooks and Pryor’s screenplay played a greater role in pushing the needle toward “woke” for an earlier generation and still has lessons in a country that always loses its mind whenever a black man (or any type of woman) attempts to reach for a job presumed to be solely the province of white male privilege.
To celebrate Blazing Saddles’ role, here is one of its many great scenes: