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Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Mel Brooks and His Wonderful Rejection of Subtlety

Back in a time when our primary source of film-watching outside the movie theatre involved a trip to a video store, it was much harder to be a young boy curious about what might exist beyond the G-rated family comedies we would watch on Sunday nights (my family would do this “picnic style” which meant putting down a dirty blanket in our suburban finished basement, ordering chinese food, and eating on the floor while we watched). One day my parents allowed me to attend a friend’s birthday party where we would be watching Mel Brooks’ R-rated film, Blazing Saddles, perhaps just pleased that we weren’t going to watch one of the many mid-90s sex comedy offerings. A film whose vulgarity has a much more antiquated sensibility, since Brooks’ comedic style was developed on 1950s broadcast television and blue material had to be very carefully hidden or avoided, the choice of Blazing Saddles must have been a relief to them, since many friends’ parents were allowing much more salacious material to be watched (which of course, was not fair).

Today, I know these three things to be true: first, Blazing Saddles is an extremely vulgar film that went right over my 11-year-old head, particularly in regards to racial humor; second, it informed my future as a comedy nerd significantly more than Road Trip would have been able to; and third, it remains one of my favorite films ever made. The next trips to the video store were spent convincing my dad to rent History of the World, Pt. 1, Silent Movie, Young Frankenstein and eventually the rest of the Mel Brooks canon. Ultimately, I strongly believe that Brooks’ films have the elements that make it the perfect comedy film “gateway drug,” and should be essential viewing for any kid with an interest in comedy.

This is because Brooks’ sense of humor is almost child-like, there is very little nuance, which isn’t to be taken negatively, only to mean that the image created in front of you is the joke. In his review of Silent Movie, Roger Ebert writes,

“Mel Brooks will do anything for a laugh. Anything. He has no shame. He's an anarchist; his movies inhabit a universe in which everything is possible and the outrageous is probable.”

While Brooks began as a stand-up in the Borscht Belt like many of his early comedic contemporaries, his comedic sensibilities were honed on the screen. Thus, by finding his voice through a visual medium, Brooks’ instincts are to inundate the visual space with as many comedic cues as possible. Consider a few of his most memorable scenes: Springtime for Hitler from The Producers, Putting on the Ritz from Young Frankenstein, The Spanish Inquisition from History of the World, Pt. 1. All of these scenes are funny on their most basic levels, they are elaborate productions for the sake of being elaborate, spectacle for the sake of spectacle. The images do not need to be thought about or commented on to be funny, they are just funny. Of course, this is how humor is processed from a young age, a subversion of expectations. If we expect people to be walking normally, but then they slip, that laugh comes from the same place as the laugh when the Frankenstein monster soft-shoes in a tux and growls “Putting on the Ritz!” Mel Brooks films made me realize that adults could be funny in the same way kids could be; that goofiness didn’t go away with age. Even in his vulgarity, there is a prevailing mood in the film that he feels like he is getting away with something, that we should be laughing just because he is allowed to do or say these things.

Of course, in his most critically-praised films, Brooks is trading in much more complicated comedy than simply “goofiness.” One would never argue that he his not an expert in creating parody, and I would imagine that the far-lesser parody filmmakers working today, such as Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Epic Movie) would cite Brooks as a primary influence. However, what makes Brooks’ film rise above the work of other parody filmmakers is his ability to make his parodies satirical. Blazing Saddles for example, is both a genre parody of the western and a commentary on the prevailing racial tropes around that genre. In putting Cleavon Little in the lead role as the cool-headed sheriff, Brooks is able to surround him with a town of backwards prospectors for him to play off of. The use of racial slurs in the film play more dated than anything else, but at the same time I doubt Brooks would have used them in a film set in modern-day, so the construction of the western allows for these foul-mouthed characters and an exploration of our reaction to the way they speak. The characters in Blazing Saddles are so aggressively vulgar towards the new sheriff that we are able to laugh at how offended we should be.

Similarly, Young Frankenstein plays as more than just a send-up to the monster film. It has a style, particularly in the production design of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, and emotion, particularly in Peter Boyle’s performance as the monster, that make it an addition to the genre in its own right. There are certainly elements of typical Mel Brooks comedic anarchy here, such as the monster’s sex scene with Madeline Kahn and Igor’s ever-shifting hump, but the film is also aware of itself and stylistically subtle in a way that is not typical of Brooks’ other works. The choice to present the films in black and white, as early monster films would be exhibited, and to take place within the Frankenstein universe (Wilder’s character is the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein, who insists his name be pronounced Fronk-en-steen), shows that Brooks is attempting to place his film within the genre he is parodying. Though less comedically successful in the subsequent Silent Movie, Brooks first exhibits in Young Frankenstein a willingness to take formal risks and provide meta-commentary in his parodies that make them more than just visual spoofs.

The common thread in all this is that Mel Brooks is not interested in restraint. Whether it’s a song and dance number about Nazis or a cacophony of cowboys after eating beans, Brooks’ directing choices intentionally leave very little to be read between the lines and always push the joke as into one’s face as possible. That is why to me, Brooks at his best is as funny as it gets. He is not asking anything out of his audience other than for them to enjoy the joke as much as he enjoys it. It is a thoroughly unpretentious sense of humor fed through expert execution. Mel Brooks shows how one can translate what we all think is funny every day to the narrative of a film. That is why I gravitated towards his work in the formative years of my comedic taste and why I think young comedy fans of today would be well-served to not let the films of this 87-year-old master fall to the wayside.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.

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