If there’s one way to judge quite how much tastes change over time, comedy is perhaps the most blatant method of testing. As attitudes towards civil rights issues have quite rightly improved in recent years, such approaches were still in their infancy during the 20th century and were going through a turbulent time. Comedy is therefore a tricky subject to look back on and reevaluate, as audiences consider that what might have been seen as humorous in the past, is not, and was never, socially acceptable.
In recent years comedy has certainly been put under the microscope, with shows like Little Britain and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia joining classic film Gone with the Wind as they were stripped from streaming platforms for scenes of ‘blackface’. Equally, when we look back at the career of Mel Brooks, the classic satirical comedian, we must also do so with an analytical eye, particularly when it comes to Blazing Saddles, a film the director believes would “never be made today” in a “stupidly politically correct” culture.
With a liberal use of the n-word, Blazing Saddles exists in a wholly different time for censorship, riding the fine line between satirical comedy and simply racist material. Stuart calls such conversations “the death of comedy”, commenting that the genre is – and always has – been required to “walk a thin line, take risks. Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering into the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behaviour”. Whilst the attitudes presented in Brooks’ satirical Western Blazing Saddles certainly remain contentious, the directors legacy on spoof filmmaking remains pertinent even to this day.
His influence is difficult to overstate, poking fun at everything from national socialism to popular 20th-century culture with films such as 1967s The Producers, and Star Wars parody Spaceballs. Rising to popularity around the same time as British comedy troupe Monty Python, Mel Brooks was a pioneer of spoof comedy, helping to set the groundwork for parody films to come. For Brooks, a parodic film was something of an enigma, a genre to be taken seriously whilst simultaneously being a source of great, puerile comedy. Whilst spoof films of the past displayed an imbalance of such a tone, leaning more on the puerile, ridicule of certain subjects or groups, Brooks’ film favoured story first, giving a vehicle for such satirical comedy to thrive.
Brooks’ back-to-back successes of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in 1974 established the director as a titan of comedy, but also of filmmaking, with both releases being widely recognised as classics of their era. Such, no doubt, inspired Monty Python’s Life of Brian fuelled by a beating heart of a strong storyline, as well as 1980s classic comedy Airplane. Not before Mel Brooks had wrangled satirical comedy to the floor had the genre taken its artistry so seriously.
Armed with favourable budgets and ambitious storylines, Mel Brooks would approach satirical contemporary comedy with a genuine desire to impress. Making stars out of actors Gene Wilder and Frank Langella, Brooks took silliness seriously and changed the way that modern comedy was delivered.