Mel Brooks on the Difference Between Shock and Surprise in Comedy
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: “You could never make Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles today because it’s too damn shocking.” But as Brooks tells Judd Apatow in a recent interview for The Atlantic, shock was never his intent.
“I didn’t know I was being shocking,” says the comic who turns 97 next week. “I just thought I’d get a big laugh here. The purpose was not to be shocking. The purpose was in the surprise, which, of course I’d get a bigger laugh. It was always to get the biggest laugh. Never to make a political point — I was never making any points. I was always: Surprise them!”
Blazing Saddles, with its irreverent take on race in a fictional Old West, continues to be a point of controversy to the point that some refuse to show it. Apatow argues that it’s far more dangerous not to have that kind of satire in society. Not surprisingly, Brooks agrees. “The comedian has always been the court jester,” he explains. “He’s always, ‘You got it wrong, your majesty; you got that one wrong.’ He’s got to whisper in the king’s ear when the king gets off on the wrong track. We have a good job to do.”
While Brooks claims he’s never trying to make a political point, his comedies are full of them. Although “Hitler was bad” isn’t going too far out on a limb, anti-Nazi humor is a running theme throughout Brooks comedies: “Sometimes I get angry at something and say, ‘Don’t you know that what you did was bad? Here, I’m going to show you. I’ll just put you on skates.’ So: Hitler on ice! When I did “The Inquisition,” I think underneath it the engine was to say, ‘Hey, look what they did to Jews.’ But as long as you were laughing, it was okay.”
In today’s environment, argues Apatow, some comedy writers might be afraid to throw some joke ideas onto the table because “they might get in trouble.” That timidity doesn’t fly for Brooks. “Nothing is off the table. Nothing,” he says. “It’s not for us to censor ourselves. There are plenty of censors around, you know? There is one rule: You don’t go further if it didn’t make you laugh. You personally have to break up and laugh, or the idea is off the board.”
Sometimes, those ideas will be shocking. Brooks remembers seeing Lenny Bruce perform back in the day. “Lenny Bruce had a tremendous — what a mind,” he says. “For instance, I’ll never forget, in one of his shows, he said out of the blue, ‘What if Jesus was electrocuted?’ Just that one sentence. I really shrieked. He said, ‘At the top of every tall building, there’d be an electric chair. And we’d wear little electric chairs around our neck.’ I mean, it was amazing.”
But more importantly, Bruce surprised Brooks. “No one talked like that before,” Brooks says. “That’s the opposite of ‘I just flew in from Chicago. And boy, are my arms tired.’ ”