If you look at Mel Brooks’ directorial body of work, you see a lot of classic comedy pillars standing tall. The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs are all there, but most would say that Blazing Saddles stands above them all. It’s these films that allowed Brooks to take risks with something like Silent Movie (even though they were pretty risky themselves) and they’re certainly what have helped him keep his career chugging along well into his 88th year.
So it’s a little shocking (just a little) to hear him say that he’d never be able to make something like Blazing Saddles today. He’s right, of course, but I don’t think it’s for the reasons you’d initially single out. I might even go out on a limb and say he might not be able to make Young Frankenstein today either.
While stopping by Bill Maher on Friday night, Brooks was asked if he thought he could make Blazing Saddles today, leading to say “not at all” and adding some details behind the hurdles of making the film back in the early 70s. He’s talked about this before, recounting how he was told to excise the bulk of your film’s humor and his final cut. It has to be a bit of a gut punch, but clearly one he could take back then. Today, I’m not so sure and neither is Brooks, something he detailed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly from last year:
Our attitudes towards sex and violence in movies have grown less severe. You watch a movie like Dirty Harry or a Marilyn Monroe film, and they almost seem tame compared to what we see today. But with Hollywood comedy, we’ve gone in a different direction, in terms of political correctness. I don’t think you could make Blazing Saddles today.
Isn’t it strange? It could hardly be made then. Certainly not 10 years before then. And now it’s suddenly, it’s 40 years later, it cannot be made today. That’s weird. The prejudices or whatever, the restrictions, should have thoroughly diluted by now, and here we are – it’s amazing. We’re playing it safe. I don’t think the individual person is playing it safe, but I think the organizations – let’s call them television networks or studios – they’re playing it safe. They don’t want to get sued. They don’t want to lose the Latino endorsement or the black endorsement or the Jewish endorsement.
There’s a good reason for playing it safe today and it has little to do with the delicate sensibilities of audiences. Brooks hints at it a bit when he mentions getting sued or losing those endorsements. It’s a bigger business now than it ever has been throughout its history. Barely recognizable compared to the era when Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were created.
Pick up any text about the period and you’re hit with with talk of the “New Hollywood” and the collapse of the bloated studio system that bled money during the “golden years” of Hollywood. It was a time to take those risks you hear guys like Coppola and Stallone talk about. There was a search for that brand new method of success and features like Blazing Saddles could thrive there.
Fast forward to today and it’s a different situation. Blockbusters carved out their stake, conglomerates snatched up media properties left and right leaving independent film to fill the role of the New Hollywood. Now studios produce films that will net them the most profit on a global scale, boosting the stock of a parent company that may resemble a fanged, tentacled beast. I’m not sure.
Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles might be two of the most influential comedies of all time, but they can’t be compared to the films that are successful today. You know, the one’s that make you hate everybody that went to seem them. What’s the market for a film like Blazing Saddles? Who will see it? That seems to matter more than, “is it funny?”
Comedies don’t make the cash and the one’s that do are normally flashier or action oriented. The top comedy, not counting animated kid movies or superhero films with comedy elements, was 22 Jump Street. Action, youth, and skimming the surface of controversy. Not a bad movie, but you can see the split compared to something from Mel Brooks.
I’m certainly not saying anything you don’t know already. Tastes shift, culturally and economically, and so do the risks involved. These are discussions we’ll always have and some will have them better than right now. I just think it is misplaced to say that we live in a more sensitive environment than before. People are still as prone to outrage as they were back in the early 70s and then like they were in the 80s, but it’s the business that has changed. We could discuss what is outrageous, what is offensive, what is funny all day, but I think it boils down to the money. Vince talks about it all the time over at Film Drunk, noting how good movies are put out at a certain time of the year, summer movies are a thing, and certain months are doldrums. It’s formulaic to the point of boredom. That’s why it’s easier to say that people are just more sensitive today. It’s a discussion that can have no end because people will always be sensitive, especially as they have a larger venue to spout their problems.
The good thing is that we don’t need another Blazing Saddles. We have one and it’s great. That should be the biggest reason we couldn’t make one today, it doesn’t need to happen. A musical, maybe, but the films are fine the way they are.