‘Blazing Saddles’: The Career’s Highlight of a Man Without Whom the World of Comedy Would Be a Far Gloomier Place

Mel Brooks & Cleavon Little on the set of Blazing Saddles. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Whenever we start talking about the genre of film parody, it’s impossible not to think of the great Mel Brooks. The world of the Old West has never before and never again been as funny as in his 1974 spoof Blazing Saddles. In his hilarious take on the Western genre, Brooks at the same time delivers a clever critique of racism, turns the postulates of the West upside down, constantly engages the viewer with a whole range of sharp, often offensive and pretty much constantly highly amusing jokes and jabs at whichever subject came to his imaginative mind in his wildly creative process. In Blazing Saddles, Brooks works with his favorite actor Gene Wilder once again, but this time the awkward genius is joined by equally talented Cleavon Little and Madeline Kahn to form an unforgettable trio that makes the best out of Brooks’ inspired material. It probably wouldn’t be unfair to call this film a very long comedy sketch, and this might be the first time in the history of film analysis that this kind of a remark doesn’t have the slightest trace of a derogatory sense in it. The film is a complete chaos, with structure and tempo being put into complete and dedicated service of the principal goal of the picture, which is to make the audience laugh to the point of experiencing pain in the abdomen. We’re not sure if there is a single filmmaker except Brooks who could afford to build his entire film this way, jumping from one hilarious gag onto another, neglecting the plot and lunging in every other scene to make us giggle one more time. But Mel Brooks isn’t just an ordinary filmmaker—he is the absolute king of parodies, the emperor of excess, the Prime Minister of fart jokes and an artist without whom the world of comedy would be a far gloomier place.

Screenwriter must-read: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor & Alan Uger’s screenplay for Blazing Saddles [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The all-new Blazing Saddles 40th Anniversary Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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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.” —Blazing Saddles, 40 years later: A conversation with Mel Brooks

Blazing Saddles happened this way: I’m walking down the street and I hear somebody say, “Looking for change?” I look up, and it’s David Begelman. He’s running a big agency with Freddie Fields—CMA—and he says, “You know, something came into my office the other day from Richard Zanuck and David Brown. It’s called Tex X.” I said, “That’s an intriguing title. What is it?” He says, “It’s about a black sheriff in 1874 and how they want to string him up.” I said, “You know, I like to write my own stuff.” But I was broke, my wife was pregnant, and he said, “Well, you know, maybe I can get you some real money if you write and direct it. Come back to my office.” I came back to his office and read this treatment by… I think it was by [Andrew] Bergman, all by himself. I read it, I loved it, and I called Bergman and said, “If I do this, would you write it with me?” He said, “Absolutely.” I said, “And we need a black guy to validate any use the N-word.” [Laughs.] “We can’t do that. And there’ll be a lot of it, because there’ll be rednecks who’ll be happy to use the N-word at the drop of a hat.” So he says, “Sure.” And I say, “Also, I like this kid Norman Steinberg.” By the way, Norman Steinberg went on to do My Favorite Year for my production company. Beautiful, beautiful movie. And he’s a great writer. So I said to Begelman, “Okay, we’ll do it. And I’ll direct it.” So we all sat in an office in New York, and when it got to be two or three in the morning and there was nothing open but Chinatown, we’d go down to Chinatown and have Chinese food and keep writing. [Laughs.] We just enjoyed each other’s company. And it turned out to be quite an unusual and crazy, funny, brave script. I kept saying to all the other writers, “Write anything you want. Write from the bottom of your heart. Write from your unconscious if you can get in there. Write everything you can, because this ain’t gonna get made, anyway.” [Laughs.] And strangely enough, Warner Bros. liked it.

It’s a great, great story, the birth of Blazing Saddles. We wrote it. I went to Hollywood, I filmed it. There was a rough cut, I showed it to [Warner Bros. executive] John Calley and [Warner Bros. chairman] Ted Ashley and… well, there was a lot of different people. And Calley was the only one who chuckled. There were no laughs. I mean, Jesus, you figure you’d get a few! But Leo Greenfield, who was in charge of distribution then, said, “I’ve never said to anybody in this company, ‘Let’s eat this picture, just pay for it, eat it, never show it, because it would embarrass the company.’ I’m saying it now.” [Laughs.] He says, “This is too embarrassing. We can’t release this picture.” So we were finished, you know, because they all kind of agreed that it was just too irreverent, too crazy, cast a bad light on Warner Bros.

So Michael Hertzberg, who was the producer of it—and of The Twelve Chairs, also—said, “I’ve arranged for a screening at Studio Screening Room 12, it’s the biggest screening room at Warner Bros., and I’ve invited every secretary, every assistant, everybody.” Two hundred seats. Strangely enough, come 7 o’clock that night, there were about 300 people there, all packed in, sitting in the aisles, going against fire regulations. And almost as soon as the Warner Bros. logo burst into flame and burned away like an old-fashioned Western, when the Chinese worker who’s building the railroad faints from 110-degree heat and Slim Pickens says, “Dock that chink a day’s pay for napping on the job,” right from there, they never stopped guffawing, laughing, falling over themselves. It really was an old-fashioned laff riot. That’s L-A-F-F. And it must’ve gotten back to some of the executives, because suddenly they’re saying, “Well, let’s open it in three cities, in theaters like the East Side of New York, the Loop in Chicago, and Sunset Boulevard in L.A.” So they opened it in these three cities, and it got all kinds of great reviews, really. Ebert and Siskel went nuts for it in Chicago. It just was great. And then slowly but surely they fed it to some more cities and many theaters, and it was a big hit. But I thought we were finished. I thought that was the end of it. But when the reviews first came out for my first movie, The Producers, Renata Adler—you don’t forget the names—of The New York Times crucified it, and I said, “Look, I made a living with Get Smart, I can go back to television.” That’s what I thought. I thought that was the end of my movie career. —Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks talks about how it all began.

Blazing Saddles storyboards, courtesy of Bonhams.

The making of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles by unknown photographer © Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, USC Photo Archives. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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