“Slapstick comedy: In order to ruin a western town, a corrupt politician appoints a black Sheriff, who promptly becomes his most formidable adversary.” On premise and genre alone, this sounds as far from a
2021 movie as possible. Westerns have become so rare that a parody would fall on deaf ears, to say nothing of the myriad of social taboos, which would have to be juggled. There is a chance that Blazing Saddles could only have been made as it was in 1974, and could only have worked as it did because of the Midas touch of Mel Brooks, and his team of writers.

Blazing Saddles may not be high art, but it is a beloved classic, and was (at the very least for its time) a great send-up of prejudice. Much of the legendary team joined out of pure excitement at the prospect of taking racism for the farce it is, to demonstrably attack it, but keep you laughing as they do it. It isn’t often that a filmmaker can break ground, make waves and come to realize he would no longer be able to make the film he did, all in a single career.

Brooks usually made a point of keeping the original writer of a script away from the film once he came on board, but found Andrew Bergman a more pliable collaborator, keeping him in the loop throughout. A more famed member of the team, Brooks had originally envisioned Richard Pryor as the film’s lead, Bart the Sheriff, eventually played by Cleavon Little. Instead, Pryor, then only a nightclub comic with a lot of potential, picked up some story credits, taking a liking to writing the character of Mongo, the towering, dimwitted, horse-punching heavy who scatters citizens whenever he comes a-riding on his bull.

The truth is, Blazing Saddles is so stuffed with jokes that some laugh-out-loud gags cut for time only saw the light of day in truncated Television edits. Indeed, when recalling the preproduction process, writers struggle to identify who it was that wrote which joke. It’s tough to find someone who takes credit for even the most famous moment in the film, the campfire scene with equal parts beans and farts, a first and foremost milestone for film flatulence. Audiences at the time are said to have been impressed by the audacity of the filmmakers, practically more so than by the film’s social boundary pushing. The scene was a perfect example of what makes a lot of the film work, which is taking Western movies to their logical conclusions. What would happen if a group of cowboys actually sat around eating beans and drinking black coffee?

More serious-minded writers may scoff at the lowbrow quality of these scenes, but that would demonstrate an unfamiliarity with the revolutionary quality Blazing Saddles had in its day. It marked an important turning point in comedy, paving the way for a more raucous, off-kilter and surreal comedy landscape. Mel Brooks, and in particular his early comedies like Blazing Saddles, were instrumental in creating the sense that in comedy anything goes, no matter how stupid, so long as it earns a laugh.

This is a very different world now. Aspects of the film, which were once impressively progressive, may not be acceptable today, depending on the viewer. For a lot of people, you simply can’t laugh about any of this anymore. But crowd-pleasing comedies are a dying breed, and it’s not for a lack of want. You couldn’t make this Blazing Saddles today, but who will make the next Blazing Saddles?

The Writing of Blazing Saddles
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