With the recent loss of Gene Wilder, we have been doing a lot of reminiscing about the comedies of yesteryear, and the one that always rises to the top is Blazing Saddles. The interesting thing about this Mel Brooks classic is that -by far- it is not politically correct and yet it is still a classic. Mel Brooks has gone on record saying that he believes such a movie would never be able to get made today in Hollywood. In fact, even when it was produced in the 1970’s the studio was giving notes to Brooks saying things like, “Can you reshoot Black Bart with a white actor?” and we can understand why. The N-word is used enough to qualify the movie as a gangsta rap album, and it leans heavily on almost every stereotype and joke one might be able to think of when it comes to racism, sexism, and even homophobia. So why is it still such a classic? Is it wrong they we enjoy it so much? Is this a question that is too big for us to accomplish?
Oh Lord! Do we have the strength to pull off this mighty task in one night…or are we just jerking off?
On the Nature of PC
We here at The NYRD pride ourselves on being inclusive and progressively minded, almost to a fault. We believe that everyone should be treated equally and that the artificial boundaries of race, religion, and sexuality should not limit people’s potential or affect how they are treated by one another, but by-god if it isn’t funny when the mayor says “to extend a laurel and hardy handshake to our new… N*****” See, we can’t even write the word because it a foul and terrible expression of centuries of oppression and bigotry. Yet, we laugh. So what is going on? Are we terrible people for laughing at the very un-political correctness of this movie, or are we just having fun? Should we be taking comedy so seriously, or are we just bad people?
Blazing Saddles is the type of movie that a lot of people point to as the very reason political correctness is wrong. “People care too much about offending each other today. Back in my day we laughed at one another. Look at Blazing Saddles,” these imaginary men might say. It is true that if Mel Brooks had limited himself to being “PC” this classic movie would have never been made. A racist Western written by two Jewish men and Richard Pryor does not exactly sound like it would be a marquee moment in civil rights. And yet, does the inclusion of Pyror make the script acceptable? Does the fact that the movie won three Academy Awards and is listed as Number 6 on American Film’s Institute of 100 Years… 100 Laughs make it okay to laugh? After all, we want to be inclusive and fair to all people, but sometimes funny is funny. This is all so confusing…
Maybe the term Political Correctness, itself, has become part of the problem. Over the years it has transformed into an almost derogatory phrase. It has become a sort of clarion call by those on the more conservative side. It has become the bigot’s excuse for why people take certain actions. If Obama apologizes to a foreign country it is political correctness, as opposed to just fair-minded diplomacy. If a black person gets a job over a white person it must have been because of political correctness, as opposed to just one candidate who got a job over another candidate. If a Christian baker is forced to make a cake for a gay wedding it is seen as political correctness, as opposed to just a merchant fulfilling a job they were paid legal tender to accomplish. Ultimately, being “PC” has become a word that allows people to avoid dealing with deeper issues of society and race. It is a cop-out phrase that some people use to label certain actions they see as offensive to their good-old-boy sensibilities, but then again…
You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.
Beside a Brooks near a Stone in a Parker
Regardless, it is hard to argue that Blazing Saddles is politically correct, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. For our best contemporary comparison we need to turn to Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the minds behind South Park. The cartoon about four foul-mouthed children from a small town in Colorado is usually both political and correct, but it is not politically correct. The genius behind Stone and Parker’s work is that -like Brooks- they lean on stereotypes, but they often subvert them or turn them on their head. They do not shy away from making fun of people, even making fun of those who make fun of the very people they just lampooned themselves. South Park is a landmark show because it goes after everybody: black, white, gay, Christian, Jew, celebrity, Hollywood, small town folk, big city folk, Canadian… etc. It is an equal opportunity offender painted in the form of outlandish comedy, and that is something they have in common with the master, Mel Brooks.
Being politically correct means making all interactions equal and colorblind, which is a noble goal, but also fails to acknowledge and even joke at our differences. Comedy is a contract that allows us all to enter into a safe space where we can acknowledge and laugh about the idiocy of the cultural norms we have constructed around ourselves. Blazing Saddles and South Park are ways for us to look around at the absurdity of the social cage we have built and laugh as equals. In Blazing Saddles, the black men are called the N-word, the Chinese are called the Ch-word, but the white people are morons. The politicians are cross-eyed idiots, the townsfolk are inbred Johnsons, the male-dancers are all gay stereotypes, and even the Native Americans speak Yiddish. We’re all idiots, and that is the real reason why we should enjoy this movie. Mel Brooks doesn’t want us to laugh at one type of race or one type of religion or sexual identity. No, he is asking us to laugh at humans and our absurd ideas. In essence, we aren’t laughing at black characters but at the concept of racism.
This is different than movies that put white actors in black face and ask the audience to laugh at the wild hijinks of the “negro,” or use the only gay character as the “weird and funny” one. Those are offensive and -quite frankly- lazy jokes. Those moves are deserving of our derision. However, that does not mean we should wash away all our differences, or stop joking about them. In fact, comedy is an amazing arena that often allows everyone to come together to laugh at our flaws as human beings. Mel Brooks accomplishes just that with Blazing Saddles. It creates a world where not one type of person is ridiculed or made to feel inferior, but where everyone is made to see their own flaws and find the humor in them. Thus, despite what critics think maybe Blazing Saddles is more PC than anyone realizes. It is about finding the funny in the absurdity of humanity as a whole, and not just one single human.
Men, you are about to embark on a great crusade to stamp out runaway decency in the west.
The Big Finale
Just look at Bart, the main character of Blazing Saddles. He is the smartest man in the picture, a Bugs Bunny type transported to the absurdly backwards racist West. Much like Mark Twain, Mel Brooks is not showing us a black character worth of ridicule, but instead a moronic world that cannot see the sense and rejects him simply because of something as arbitrary as the color of his skin. The movie even addresses the overly simplistic labels of black and white…
Sir, he specifically requested two “n*****s”. Well, to tell the family secret, my grandmother was Dutch.
So maybe, Mel Brooks is right. A film like Blazing Saddle with its outstanding and offensive story will probably never get made again in today’s Hollywood. Maybe we have become too PC, but that’s also not as bad thing. Equality, justice, and love are not concepts to be avoided, but they also should not negate the humor of our stories and differences. Being PC is fine, but we also can’t be afraid to laugh about ourselves, so long as we do so fairly and equally. After all, the real humor of race, religion, and division is not so much in the differences between people, but that those differences exist at all.