The R-rated comedy. Even now, in 2012, it is something we notice. It is hard fought, and when it works, it is transcendent. There is something liberating about the R when you’re talking about a comedy, something even more dangerous than with a drama, because in comedy, we can cut right to the darkest, weakest, sickest, saddest places and parts of ourselves, and we can make ourselves ridiculous.
In doing so, we would argue there is something healing, something that brings people together. There is a reason for the #1 pick we made here, the top of the list, the film we collectively picked as the best R-rated comedy of all time, and there is a story to go with it.
Although the film was made in 1975, it retains an urgent, contemporary feel because of just how gleefully it shattered taboo. We haven’t really gotten any more collectively sane about race or race language in this country, but we like to think we have. Those moments when we are forced to admit that we’re still not really doing it right are the hardest ones for us, and in Los Angeles, that was most of the early 90s. There were any number of incidents that took place here that underlined the way race was still a potent and combustible force in our culture. Rodney King in particular was a name that was a hot button flash card in Los Angeles culture. If you lived here, you had the Rodney King conversation. Not just once, either, but constantly for weeks or months. It was ongoing. And when the riots happened, I lived here in LA. It was a scary time. Things never felt more strained. The OJ trial, the ongoing Michael Jackson tragedy/freak show, the Rampart scandal… on and on and on, different things that posed different difficult situational questions about how we felt about ourselves and each other. It felt like it was impossible to get away from it.
On the night of the second Rodney King verdict, the night the retrial was finally ending, the night LA was holding its breath to see if we were going to have another explosion, Warner Bros. re-released “Blazing Sadles” to movie theaters.
It wasn’t timed to happen that way. The release was an anniversary release, and they had it planned for months before it happened. But that’s the way it worked out, and Warner Bros. didn’t want to make a big deal out of things by withdrawing it or not supporting it. They opened it exactly as they planned to, and my friends and I went on that opening night, to the prime time screening, and when we got there, we found the theater totally and completely packed.
The Village in Westwood is a big theater. Not cavernous, but big. And every seat was full that night. Looking around at the crowd before-hand, it was an even mix of black and non-black faces in the house, and everyone around us was certainly still taking about King and the verdict and had anyone heard anything yet and lots of nervous energy. It was all anyone was really talking about, all the way up to the moment the lights went down.
And for the next two hours, Mel Brooks and his amazing cast positively tore the roof off of that theater. It was amazing. The audience roared. They belly-laughed. There were laughs of anticipation from the crowd in some places, but some reactions in the theater were shocked, people who really didn’t know the movie, didn’t know how blunt and brilliant it is. The movie is so unflinching, so uncompromised in what it says and how it says it, that even now, it feels like something you’re not “allowed” to do in a movie. And Brooks does it. And does it. And does it. He is in peak form with this movie, each shot a compositional joy and a genre love-letter, and each joke and character polished and crazy and eccentric and personal and, yes, hilarious.
By the time we left that theater, the verdict was out, and Los Angeles was still standing. And we went home, sides sore from laughing as a group, so glad we saw it that way, with that crowd, so pleased to have heard an audience in the dark, laughing as one, no difference at all between anyone there. We were united by the daring and the wit and the outrageous inspiration of it all, and that’s what a great R-rated comedy can do. It makes you feel like you had something significant happen to you as an audience. We crave that experience, and in anticipation of this coming weekend’s new film “Ted,” we’re looking back at our 25 Favorite R-rated comedies.