Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is one of the great movie comedies of all time, a parody/homage to the Western — that most American of film genres — that’s packed with the sort of racial humor that nobody would be able to get away with today. And yet, for all of its racial slurs, Tom Breihan points out that the film was remarkably progressive for its time.
Mel Brooks was understandably apprehensive about cramming his movie so full of racial slurs. But Richard Pryor, one of the film’s five co-writers, reassured him that it was okay, since the bad guys were the ones saying all the vile shit. (Brooks wanted Pryor to play the lead in the movie, but Warner Bros. didn’t think Pryor would be dependable enough to show up for work every day.) Pryor was right. Blazing Saddles is, in effect, a knowingly absurd comedy about how dumb racism is. A rapacious rich guy wants to run all the people out of a small town because the land’s about to be worth a lot of money, so he sends in a Black sheriff, knowing that the town’s residents will be too blinded by their own racism to look after their self-interests. Really, Blazing Saddles has as much to say about American capitalism as The Godfather does.
The big debates happening in comedy right now are about whether comedians are allowed to joke about sensitive things — whether they’ll have their careers destroyed because they say the wrong things at the wrong time — and about the basic idea of punching down. There’s a persuasive argument that if you make jokes at the expense of people with less power than you, you’re an asshole. By that standard, Blazing Saddles has aged beautifully. It’s not perfect — the anarchic musical number at the end has more gay jokes than anyone needs — but for a 1974 comedy about race, it’s remarkably non-shitty.
And Blazing Saddles gets away with a lot because it’s also unbelievably funny. Mel Brooks anticipated the five-jokes-a-minute pace of something like The Simpsons by nearly two decades. Blazing Saddles is full of dumb jokes that achieve transcendence just because of how brutally unashamed they are and how quickly they keep coming. Some of those jokes are etched in the cultural memory now: Mongo knocking a horse out with one punch; Sheriff Bart kidnapping himself; a symphony of farts around a campfire. And they’re funny even if you know they’re coming. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Blazing Saddles, but this time, I still had to pause at “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” I needed time to recover.
Here’s a little trivia: I never knew that John Wayne was Mel Brooks’ original choice for the Waco Kid, the part that ultimately went to Gene Wilder. As Breihan notes, though, if Wayne had played the Waco Kid, Blazing Saddles would’ve been an entirely different, and possibly even more subversive movie.