Mel Brooks, the comic genius behind The Producers, Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety, shared what should be an obvious thought in a recent interview. He said Hollywood wouldn’t dare make his 1974 comedy, Blazing Saddles, today.
Political correctness would stop it dead in its tracks. The film traffics in racist characters, uses the “N-word” and evokes stereotypes that might inflame Social Justice Warriors.
Of course, that was the point of the movie. As the Telegraph reports:
Brooks said it was the racial prejudice portrayed within the film that was the mechanism behind its cultural significance.
“Without that the movie would not have had nearly the significance, the force, the dynamism and the stakes that were contained in it,” he said.
Political correctness, he added, isn’t “good for comedy.”
The comments quickly went viral, something that tends to happen when a celebrity strikes a nerve. Something similar occurred when Jerry Seinfeld spoke out against PC handcuffs two years ago.
Neither of these men are random C-list stand-up comedians railing against the status quo. Seinfeld remains one of America’s finest humorists, as widely respected as he is hilarious (and clean). Not only did Brooks perfect the genre satire with Young Frankenstein, he mocked racism and bigotry in a way few could with Blazing Saddles.
For those who haven’t yet seen it (you should!), the 1974 comedy western featured Cleavon Little as the new black sheriff in a deeply racist town. Co-written with Richard Pryor, the film uses the “N-word” in ways that would scare many modern comics. Context is everything, of course, which Brooks intrinsically understood.
You can’t mock racism by tip-toeing around the subject. Nor can you do it while fearing a select few will embrace the hate being parodied. That’s partly why Dave Chappelle abandoned his groundbreaking Comedy Central series Chappelle’s Show. He thought some audience members might laugh along with the racists he was attacking.
Sure, Blazing Saddles featured plenty of broad gags, from a grown man knocking out a horse to a flatulence jamboree around a campfire that still sparks a hilarious and slightly horrified reaction in anyone who sees it for the first time.
Brooks never shied away from bawdy bits. They made the socially aware laughs all the more accessible.
In the wrong hands, of course, a movie like Blazing Saddles would have been a debacle. Lousy timing. Poor edits. A gag pushed beyond the breaking point. A cast not up to the challenge.
Instead, Brooks perfectly orchestrated mayhem with a sense of the surreal and an eye on the true target: Racism. He scored a direct hit and crafted a comedy classic in the bargain.
It wasn’t his first time delivering nuanced commentary others couldn’t touch.
His 1967 comedy, The Producers, featured Brooks, who is Jewish, turning the Nazi regime into a laughing stock. The play within the film is a love letter to Hitler, brought to the stage to flop—on purpose. Theatergoers initially react with shock at the obvious mash note to Hitler, which is exactly what the crooked producers want. Then they laugh. And they can’t stop. The producers’ denouement comes after a long and funny satire of Nazis. The screenplay transformed a “problematic” story-line into a richly textured take-down of a brutal regime.
It was sheer brilliance.
Fast forward to today: A New York school forbade students from showing the Nazi swastika in its student production of The Producers. Evidently a few parents “found the symbol offensive, and complained.” The school superintendent told local news, “I considered it to be an obscenity like any obscenity.” Not everyone agreed. “It’s satire, not supposed to be taken seriously,” one high schooler who happens to be Jewish and who was in the play, said. A local resident agreed. “I personally think Mel Brooks would be honored that the controversy is going on,” she said, “but I think he would be disappointed by the censorship.”
In today’s climate of extreme political correctness, however, not everyone sees Brooks as a legend we could learn from regarding modern comedy tropes. Daily Beast writer Asawin Suebsaeng sent out the following tweet after hearing Brooks’ recent comments about political correctness: “I get that mel brook [sic] is saying political correctness is the enemy of comedy but when is the last time he did anything funny or worthwhile”
So much for the current generation understanding culture or history (let alone spelling).
True, Brooks hasn’t directed a new film since Dracula: Dead and Loving It (in 1995). But he has kept busy creating Broadway versions of The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and he hopes to do the same for Blazing Saddles.
That’s good news. In an era of extreme political correctness, we need Brooks’ satirical sensibility on stage and screen. His work stands the test of time in large part because he has always resisted self-censorship. That makes his voice, even at the age of 91, more vital than ever.
Image: Angela George [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons