I pulled up Facebook today (which is where I get my news) and found out that Gene Wilder died at 83 years old. This bummed me out. It didn't bum me out because it was a surprise; 83 is a healthy life. This death of this icon made me feel my own mortality. Between Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Haunted Honeymoon, & See No Evil, Hear No Evil my life was inundated with Gene Wilder. I firmly believe he had the best timing of any silver screen comedian ever, & he wore his heart on his sleeve at all times. That latter is a rare quality that not many people can pull off in any line of work, let alone showbusiness.
Our mutual loss (and it IS a loss to humanity, folks) sent me off on a kick of watching clips of all those great Gene Wilder moments, which inevitably led me to far too many clips of the single funniest and MOST IMPORTANT movie ever made: Mel Brooks' 1974 classic, "Blazing Saddles".
What's that you say? Funniest and most important? Yep, you heard me. First off, if you don't think it's the funniest movie ever made then go back to the start and check yourself before you wreck yourself. You're wrong. Period. Your argument is invalid. But we're not here to debate how funny it is. What some folks don't seem to realize is how important it is.
There are those of you out there that sneer at the concept that a comedy can be a truly important movie in a social sense. Or (God forbid) there are those of you that sneer at the fact that movies are important at all. I feel so sorry for those folks. How empty your lives must be.
Blazing Saddles came out at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was still painfully fresh in the minds of Americans everywhere. Compared to 1974, the times we live in today are virtually racism free and happy-go-lucky....and I think most folks would agree that there are still issues today. There will always be issues, but that is a topic for another day.
Anyways, in 1974 tensions were still super high and along comes this comedy about a railroad worker, Bart (played with scathing sarcasm by the criminally underrated Cleavon Little), who is appointed the first black sheriff in the West by the hopelessly inept Governor William J. LePetomane (Brooks in his prime) and his evil crony, Hedley Lamarr (I don't know if even his time on The Carol Burnett Show can match this performance by Harvey Korman). Along the way, Bart befriends the town drunk, Jim aka "The Waco Kid" (Gene Wilder just straight killin' it...subtle and perfectly nuanced).
I would imagine that the premise alone produced some seriously slimy ass-crack sweat under the suits of more than a few Warner Brothers execs. Everyone knows the story of how the execs didn't laugh a bit at the first screening and how the subsequent studio screening for the actors and crew of Blazing Saddles (and various other films on the Warner lot) was a riotous success. It's telling in its simplicity: those in charge were too piss-scared to understand that often times the easiest way to tackle an overwhelming issue is to make fun of it. And if you are going to make fun of it then you follow the old rule of comedy: go balls to the fucking wall and don't hold back.
Mel Brooks skewers absolutely every race/condition/life choice there is. There are jokes about whites, blacks, Jews, Irish, Indian, Mexican, German, rich, poor, gay, whores....the list goes on and on. There are jokes about interracial sex ("Oh, it's twue, IT'S TWUE!!") delivered by an oversexed harlot with a speech impediment. There's a stereotypical hunchbacked executioner. It's the movie where literally every single line is quotable. That's not an exaggerated statement. You could put every line in that movie on a t-shirt, and it'd sell like hotcakes.
Make no mistake about it, though: it's the white folks who are on display as the most idiotic of the bunch. Sure, the word nigger is thrown around frequently....but NOT carelessly. Every crass racial joke in that movie is in there by design. It's the absurdity of it all that tells the best story and sends the moral of the story flying into your face. The moral of the story is "look how stupid this shit is". It's so simple and well done that it's often mistaken and misunderstood as a tentpole of racist white comedy. Let's be clear on something about this American treasure: Blazing Saddles is written (primarily) by Mel Brooks (a Jew), Norman Steinberg (also a Jew) and RICHARD FUCKING PRYOR!!!! Yes, you read that right. Richard Pryor aka The Funniest Black Man to Ever Walk the Face of the Earth".
Everything in the movie has a balance and an answer. The evil and amoral white bigots (Gov. LePetomane, Lamarr, Taggart, etc) are balanced out by the honest and good-natured Waco Kid and the reluctant, but ultimately helpful, townsfolk ("Alright. We'll take the niggers and the chinks, but we don't want the IRISH!!"). The bad guys get their just desserts. The evil, conniving whore sees the error of her ways thanks to Bart's big schnitzengruben! It's comedic perfection.
However, it was also the first major time anyone had the sheer balls to stand up and say a lot of those things. It had to take some serious courage to be the first one to tackle America's ugliest issue in such an unapologetically brash way. Groundbreaking doesn't even begin to describe this movie.
So, when you're enjoying some quality racial humor (think Chappelle's Show, SNL, Def Comedy Jam, Bad Boys, etc) just remember who broke that mold and made it possible.
And, for God's sake, if you are reading this and you haven't seen Blazing Saddles then you better go out and rectify that particular crime. If you haven't seen it then you'll thank me. Show it to your kids (like my parents did and I've done as well).