'Blazing Saddles' at 40: A conversation with Mel Brooks
When Mel Brooks demands a harumph, you give Mel Brooks a harumph.
After all, he’s carving time out of his day to speak about Blazing Saddles, the delirious western that is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a special edition Blu-ray, out May 6. Time is of the essence: “I have people coming in to give me awards,” Brooks jokes. “Every 45 minutes, roughly, someone will knock on my door and give me the United Jewish something or other. I always get an award every day, some kind of award.”
Well, it’s good to be the king. And Mel Brooks has worn the crown well since Blazing Saddles, since The Producers, since Get Smart, since writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. But Blazing Saddles might be his zaniest movie ever, which is saying something. In 1874, a mustache-twirling villain (Harvey Korman) wants the valuable land that belongs to the white residents of Rock Ridge, so he names a black railroad worker who’s scheduled to be hanged (Cleavon Little) as their new sheriff. His plan backfires when the charming sheriff pairs up with a pickled old gunfighter (Gene Wilder), winning over the hearts, minds, and loins of the simple folk.
1974 was a different time — but even then, Brooks knew he was venturing into uncharted and possibly offensive territory. The film is punctuated with racial epithets, including multiple appearances of the n-word. For guidance, he relied on Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the script. “Every time I said to Richard, ‘Can I use the n-word here?’ he said, ‘Yes,'” says Brooks. “I said, ‘Richard, it’s a little dangerous here.’ He said, ‘Yes.'”
Brooks thought Warner Bros. might bury the film and never release it — but somehow, it made its way into theaters and became a huge smash. “Blazing Saddles figured it out,” says Brooks. “It was the truth, and everybody raised the flag. They raised the flag and said, ‘We love it. We’re going. We’re going to see this movie over and over again,’ and they did.”
Click below for an exclusive clip from a new Blazing Saddles documentary, and an extensive interview with Brooks.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Blazing Saddles has been honored by the Library of Congress, and President Obama has waxed nostalgic about seeing it as a child. I’m guessing you didn’t envision such accolades when you made it.
MEL BROOKS: I envisioned a race riot. I thought everybody would come after me and kill me for what I said about the Chinese, and the blacks, and the Jews. I thought if this was shown in Waco, Texas, the whites would storm the screen and cut it to ribbons. Because we were kind of hoisting the black sheriff up on our shoulders and made him a hero. But Texas liked it as much as New York.
I’m trying to put myself into the shoes of the Warner Bros. execs, thinking about all the things they’re seeing in their 1974 mindset — whether it was the n-words or the “sissie-Marys,” or breaking the fourth wall on the lot at the end on the movie.
That was dangerous because I was asked by Warners — they said I can do everything you said, but they kept saying, “Don’t do the gay scene. Don’t break through the walls and do the gay scene. You’re crossing a line there.” I said, “Don’t be silly.” There’s always these musicals being shot at Warner Bros. with top hats and tails and dopiness, you know. I said, “It’s a good mixture of cowboys and gay chorus boys.” So I kept it all in. I had final cut.
How did you manage final cut on Blazing Saddles? Your first two movies were great films, but hardly box-office successes.
Jeff, I got final cut on The Producers, and I wouldn’t do any movie unless I got final cut. Because I knew — even on The Producers, even with final cut, I had big fights with the studio. They wanted to change 100 things. They wanted to — [laughs] they wanted to take out Hitler. Could you imagine? Take out Hitler? There’s no movie. Hitler is the driving force that makes the movie work.
Blazing Saddles epitomized what became known as a “Mel Brooks Movie,” an irreverent romp that broke all the rules. What led you to this type of wacky satire?
I just wanted to exorcise both my angels and demons. I said to all the writers, “Look, fellas, don’t worry, this movie will never get released. Never. [Warner Bros.] will see it and they’ll say, ‘Let’s bury it.’ So let’s go nuts. Let’s write things that we never would dare write.” And we did. There’s a few guys doing that now — Tarantino’s doing that. He’s not being politically correct or in any way correct. Getting Goering and Hitler and Goebbels and all of those guys into a movie house in Paris and setting it on fire. [Laughs] I mean, that’s so crazy. So I think I just let it all go. I said, “I’m not gonna f—ing worry about what they’re going to like or not like. It’s what I like and what I don’t like.”
Richard Pryor helped write the script, and you wanted him to play the sheriff, Bart. What did he bring to the film?
I was so lucky to get him, because he’s just funny in every way. He made a profound contribution to that script. He gave me some really beautiful 126th Street, St. Nicholas Ave. [Harlem] lines. I quit for three days because Warner Bros. wouldn’t [let me cast] Richard as Black Bart. Richard came over and said, “If I was the black sheriff, I could pass for Cuban because I’m coffee-colored. Now, this guy Cleavon Little: He’s classy, he has poise, and he’s really charming. But he’s black as coal. He will scare the s - - - out of them.” I said, “Okay, I’m coming back.”
In comedy, the rule of three often applies, but you blew past that in the bean-fueled campfire scene. How did you decide how many farts were the correct number of farts?
That’s a very good question. I had a rough cut, and maybe I had 16 farts. Things didn’t get exciting until the fourth or fifth one, and the laughter began to diminish around the 12th fart, so I said, “Okay, cut it off at 12.” I did it kind of systematically. I do a lot of homework.
Pound for pound, minute for minute, there are probably more laughs in Saddles than in any other movie ever made.
I think the AFI number one all-time comedy is Some Like It Hot, which I like. I thought it was really terrific. But it’s certainly not half as funny as Blazing Saddles. I mean, it can’t compare. When you limit your lists to comedies, Blazing Saddles should be first, second, third, and fourth. And then maybe Young Frankenstein should be fifth. That’s the way it should roll. Between me and you — you can print it — that’s why I didn’t do the AFI Man of the Year thing for a long time.
Our attitudes towards sex and violence in movies have grown less severe. You watch a movie like Dirty Harry or a Marilyn Monroe film, and they almost seem tame compared to what we see today. But with Hollywood comedy, we’ve gone in a different direction, in terms of political correctness. I don’t think you could make Blazing Saddles today.
Isn’t it strange? It could hardly be made then. Certainly not 10 years before then. And now it’s suddenly, it’s 40 years later, it cannot be made today. That’s weird. The prejudices or whatever, the restrictions, should have thoroughly diluted by now, and here we are — it’s amazing. We’re playing it safe. I don’t think the individual person is playing it safe, but I think the organizations — let’s call them television networks or studios — they’re playing it safe. They don’t want to get sued. They don’t want to lose the Latino endorsement or the black endorsement or the Jewish endorsement.
Would you still like to see Blazing Saddles on Broadway?
I’m still seriously thinking about. I think it’ll work. I’ve written a couple of songs already. I just have to talk to people like Susan Stroman and think about how to do it. I’d like to open it up in Houston or something. If it goes there, it will go anywhere.