Blazing Saddles Doesn’t Age As Badly As You Think
From the fat-shaming tomfoolery of Shallow Hal to the transphobic hi-jinks of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, comedies don’t age well as a rule. The line between “acceptably hilarious” and “WTF horrific” keeps shifting; what has audiences roaring in the theaters today may have them protesting in the streets tomorrow. But there’s one comedy in particular that keeps coming up in the “You could never make that movie today!” discussion.
In fact, when writer and director Mel Brooks was asked “Could you make Blazing Saddles now?” His response was: “I couldn’t make it then!”
We beg to differ. In fact, we’d argue Blazing Saddles has aged a heck of a lot better than any number of seemingly less offensive comedies.
And there’s one good reason. Mel Brooks and his co-writers, including Richard Pryor, knew exactly who they were offending -- and why. Let us explain.
Most filmmakers who make (eventually) offensive comedies have no freaking idea that they’re creating future cringe. Take Penny Marshall’s Big, for example. At one point, Debra Winger lobbied to make the main character female so she could star. Penny refused: “I told her I just can't see a 35- year-old man involved with a 12-year-old girl and not have it be like something from Penthouse or Hustler.”
Fair enough! But Marshall (and 1988 audiences) saw no problem with a 35-year-old woman involved with a 12-year-old boy, a plot point that provokes plenty of pained wincing today.
Blazing Saddles, on the other hand, set out to be offensive. “If you want a comedy to last, there’s a secret you must follow: You have to have an engine driving it,” Brooks wrote in his autobiography, All About Me! “In Blazing Saddles, there’s a very serious backstory. Racial prejudice is the engine that really drives the film and helps to make it work.”
Let’s see -- a traditionally white community turned upside down when a black man unexpectedly comes into a position of power? The only way it could have been more contemporary is if the people of Rock Ridge demanded Sheriff Bart’s birth certificate to prove he was an American citizen.
So yeah, the plot has aged just fine. So is it the jokes that couldn’t be told today? Most naysayers are probably referring to the liberal use of the n-slur, a word that the film’s white townspeople throw around pretty casually. Why, you’d almost think it was a Tarantino movie.
But the insult was used with a purpose, a commentary on the relaxed, everyday racism that Sheriff Bart is about to change. In fact, it was Pryor who insisted on the persistent use of the word (not unlike the comic’s own stand-up). Rather than an easy laugh, it was “a word to be leveraged, jujitsu-like, against one’s opponents.” Still fair game.
Blazing Saddles’ humor is actually quite tame in many respects. When Lili Von Shtupp attempts to seduce Bart, her sexual requests are whispered in his ear so the audience can only imagine her desires. In 2022, we’re guessing every salacious proposal would be shared aloud.
If there’s anything about Blazing Saddles that has aged badly, it’s likely the part that isn’t ‘offensive’ at all--the parody of the movie western. Because that film genre has been out of style for so many decades, jokes that poke at Western tropes probably don’t make all that much sense in 2022. Well, most of them anyway.
Lucky for Blazing Saddles, fart humor is timeless.
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Top image: Warner Bros.