Mel Brooks is to comedy what air is to mammals: Essential.
From stage to radio to television to film, Brooks's zany brand of bonkers is responsible for more snickers, snorts, and guffaws than perhaps anyone in entertainment.
"It's the funniest movie, I think, by far. No matter what the AFI list says," explains Brooks. "Five should be the next number. One to four should be 'Blazing Saddles.'"
For those of you who haven't seen the movie, shame on you. Stop reading and go indulge. It's so much more than a hilarious joke-a-second spoof of Westerns, it's also a scathing indictment on the idiocy of racial prejudice. It's the rare film that manages to be both highbrow and lowbrow at the same time. And on its own terms.
"They can't make that movie today because everybody's so politically correct. You know, the NAACP would stop a great movie that would do such a great service to black people because of the N-word," says Brooks. "You've got to really examine these things and see what's right and what's wrong. Politically correct is absolutely wrong. Because it inhibits the freedom of thought. I'm so lucky that they weren't so strong then and that the people that let things happen on the screen weren't so powerful then. I was very lucky."
With a new 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition dropping this week, we got Brooks on the horn to talk all things "Blazing Saddles." In his inimitably frenetic style, Brooks recounted how Richard Pryor gave the filmmaker license to use the N-word, even though he couldn't get Pryor cast; how Gene Wilder stepped in to save the film; and why "Blazing Saddles" should be considered the single greatest comedy of all-time.
Brooks can't actually explain how "Blazing Saddles," a film unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, first arrived in his mind.
A lot of things arrive in my head that I don't want them to arrive in my head. I have portals and doors, and I have security guards. The front of my brain's saying, "Wait a minute. Let me see your pass." But you know, you're alive, you can't stop them. They come floating in and you know, it was usually full-blown.
But it all began with Andrew Bergman's rough outline.
Andrew Bergman wrote this thing, had this very simple idea. It was like hip talk — 1974 talk and expressions — happening in 1874 in the Old West. And it immediately just jumped into my heart and I went crazy.
Though Brooks hadn't worked with a writing staff since Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" ended in 1954, Brooks felt the rewrite needed that kind of energy.
I knew I should look at this kind of like a gang comedy. I got the right gang together, and I told them at the beginning of writing it, I said, "Look, this is never going to get made. This is so crazy. This is a hundred years before it's time, it'll never get made." So I said, "Let's just say and do everything. Any crazy thoughts we have." I had a big sign on the wall: "Please do not write a polite script." That was the banner on the wall.
After breaking normal protocol and hiring the original writer Bergman, Brooks looked to an old friend from the comedy club circuit.
The next guy I grabbed was Richard Pryor so I could use the N-word, you know, and have it blessed by a truly bright black guy.
Comics hang out together. I was a stand-up guy, he was a comic and we met each other in like 1959. You know, we knew each other way back.
Pryor also offered unique perspective on an unlikely character.
Richard Pryor loved Mongo, and he wrote all those crazy Mongo gags, him punching the horse, and "Mongo only pawn in game of life," and then later "Mongo straight." He loved Mongo, and he did a great job with it.
Brooks wanted Pryor to play the part of Sheriff Bart, but the studio turned him down. (Brooks protested, quitting the picture for three days, but Pryor convinced Brooks that Cleavon Little would work even better.)
[Pryor] wasn't that big, but I knew he was great. And I begged Warner Bros. to give him the part because I knew he was really talented: "Give him the part as Black Bart." And Warner Bros. said, "Look, we know he's talented, and we know he'd be good, but we're afraid, we did some homework, he does drugs, blah blah blah, we can't get insurance companies, blah blah blah." Two years later he was the biggest star in Hollywood. So I was a little premature.
There were other casting difficulties; Gene Wilder wasn't the original Waco Kid.
I hired Gig Young because I wanted a real alcoholic to play the Waco Kid, and I got a real alcoholic. He won an Academy Award for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" This is Gig Young. Great Actor. Then in the first scene, he's supposed to say just one word. Cleavon Little says to to him, "Are we awake?" He's kind of hanging off the bed in the jail. And he's just supposed to say, "I don't know, are we black?" He can't believe the sheriff is black. So that's the line he has. So Gig Young says, "I don't know, are we bla... a bla... a bla..." And green stuff... he was having DTs, I don't know, it spewed out of his mouth like "The Exorcist." Like that little girl in "The Exorcist!" It was this green vomit spewing all over the jail cell, and then he had fits and shakes and we had to get an ambulance.
So Brooks called his best friend, Gene Wilder, who wanted the part all along but Brooks didn't think Wilder was old enough.
He was supposed to do a movie called "The Little Prince." He was all booked. And he called them and he said, "Could you delay my part please?" And they did. So he flew right out. He was in New York. He flew right out to California. He selected a horse, a gun, a suit, a hat, spurs... he was a cowboy in 24 hours. He learned every line of the Waco Kid on the way out.
The famous fart scene had been simmering in Brooks's mind for years.
When I enlisted in the Army, I was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, near the wonderful town of Lawton, Oklahoma. I think I get a lot of "Blazing Saddles" from Lawton, Oklahoma. It was an artillery base, Fort Sill. It was called Field Artillery Replacement Training Center. Put that together and you got farts. And it just stuck in my head, and I thought I never could find a place for it. Then when I had this cowboy story, with beans and tin plates, I said, "OK, we can let it go."
Somewhere in my head I said, "I will. I will use this." You know, because it was too crazy. It was all over the place, you saw F.A.R.T. written everywhere at Fort Sill, and I said, "Don't they know this? Can't they see this?" I said, "Well, that's the military mind. I mean, they overlook that or something."
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All the farting sounds were created after the fact.
We made the farts in the editing room with soap and water underneath our armpits. There's a way you can do it and you can get thhpt, thweept, powee, you get all kinds of great farting sounds. And you really don't have to stink up the editing room. You really don't have to. We don't have to be that Stanislavski about it.
The farting was the least of Brooks's worries when he screened "Blazing Saddles" for the suits at Warner Bros.
They had a screening, the executives, and it was quiet. I mean, cowboys were farting, Mongo was punching out horses, and you know, bad guys were beating the s--- out of a little old lady. ... And there was not a laugh. Not a laugh. I think [studio executive] John Calley and the late, great Dick Shepherd [the studio's head of production]. Those two guys laughed. John Calley was, thank God, running movies for Warner Bros. at the time for Ted Ashley. So they laughed a little bit.
And then there was about, I don't know, maybe eight or nine executives in a business-affairs team. So the head of domestic distribution, Leo Greenfield, ... the last credit comes on, the lights come on in the screening room, he stands up, and he says "I have never asked Warner Bros. to eat a movie." Meaning, don't release it, buy it, bury it, lose the money, write it off, you know, tax loss. He says, "I'm asking them to do it now. This is a disgusting movie and should never have the Warner Bros. seal on such a terrible, disgusting, embarrassing movie for our company." And then a lot of them said, "Yeah, I think he's right, you know, so what? It's $2.5 million we've invested. The hell with it. So we lose it. We shouldn't go any further than this because we're putting our name in jeopardy."
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And Calley said, "No, we're not putting our name in jeopardy." He said, "You know, I think it's funny. And I think we ought to try it in three cities and see what reaction we get." So he released it in L.A. and Chicago and New York, and it got terrific — well a couple of them, you know, they were mixed reviews — but the major magazines and stuff like that were all brave and they loved it.
It released in February of 1974, and that summer they didn't have a movie that they liked at Warner Bros., and the exhibitors said, "Yeah, you only gave it to us for a week, we'd like that crazy Western back." So they did that, they gave it back to them. And man, in something like 500 or 600, which is a lot of theaters, and it was an amazing hit, that summer's success. Word of mouth... they did no advertising, they didn't have to.
In the end, "Blazing Saddles" soars above the rest of Brooks's films, many of which are classics.
Their subjects were not quite as wild in their savageness. You know, it's a strange thing, everybody says, "'Blazing Saddles,' oh the farting scene is the funniest." But you know what makes something funny? The juxtaposition of different textures. What makes it really funny is that there's a black guy fighting for integrity, for dignity, for humanity. Just fighting to be looked at as a human being.
So it has a great deal of heart. I mean, that's the little choo-choo train that drives this. Racial prejudice is the little choo-choo train that drives all of "Blazing Saddles." And then I can hang every Western cliché I want to have fun with. And yet, you got to love something, you just can't make fun of it, you got to make fun with it.
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