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While Blazing Saddles caused some controversy upon its release in 1974, writer-director Mel Brooks says it’s unlikely the movie would even get made in the same manner today.
The satirical Western featured the use of the N-word, a man punching a horse and a campfire scene filled with flatulence. Brooks said at a Q&A with Judd Apatow for SiriusXM’s “Town Hall” series — part of the limited-run “Mel Brooks Radio” channel launching at midnight Saturday — that political correctness has made people skittish.
“That word in an of itself is paled and kind of weak and jejune,” he says. “It’s made people timid. I don’t think anyone really covers racial hatred or the stuff that should be covered.”
At one point in the movie, an old lady in a bonnet says, “Up yours, n—-r.” Brooks recalled asking John Calley, then head of production at Warner Bros., “‘Can we beat the s— out of a little old lady? Can we punch a horse?’ He said to me, ‘If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it. He told me that early in my career, and I never forgot it. I had cavemen masturbating [in History of the World, Part 1]. I rang it.”
Brooks also has noted that co-writer Richard Pryor and star Cleavon Little supported the movie’s use of the N-word. But that didn’t stop other studio execs from sending him lists of notes about changes they wanted.
“I threw them out,” he says, adding: “I was the Quentin Tarantino of my day.”
Brooks’ The Producers (which was first a movie, then a smash Broadway musical, then made into a second movie) also ruffled some feathers with songs like “Springtime for Hitler.” During one early showing, a man got up and started walking out of the theater. Brooks went after him and asked why he was leaving.
“I was in World War II,” the man told him. “How dare you do this, with the Nazi flags and all?”
Brooks’ quippy reply? “I said, ‘I was in World War II. I didn’t see you.'”
Brooks is one of only 11 people who have EGOT status — meaning he has won Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards (he also jokes that he once won the 50-yard dash at P.S. 19 and other awards “that I don’t brag about but are important to me”). But he laments there’s one recognition that has eluded him until now.
“I’m irritated, perturbed, upset that I’ve never been recognized by my peers as a director in this business,” he said, adding: “I’ve never been nominated for anything. But this year — three weeks before I’m gonna die — AFI is saluting me as a director with their lifetime achievement award.”
Brooks also talked about the difficulty of creating comedy. His philosophy is that the best comedy “just strays an inch from reality, to the left or right. It feels so real that you don’t expect it to explode.” Growing up, his inspirations were silent-film stars including Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields.
He also was asked by one person in attendance — a studio audience of SiriusXM listeners — at the Los Angeles event about whether he might want to see himself on Mount Rushmore someday.
“It would be nice to see a Jew up there with those guys,” he quipped. “I don’t know about the others, but Lincoln wouldn’t have minded.”
Brooks also revealed that he thinks his most “underrated and overlooked” movie was 1970’s The Twelve Chairs, starring Frank Langella, Dom DeLuise and Ron Moody. He also admits that the only genres he hasn’t spoofed are something in the vein of Evil Dead 5 or Avatar 3, “but those are too expensive to make fun of.” He also wouldn’t parody The Hangover –“it’s there; it’s funny” — or a Terrence Malick-style movie where “you’re waiting for something to happen.”
These days, Brooks said, he is “writing a few tunes” for a Blazing Saddles musical. “I don’t know if it will happen,” he added, noting that he has an office to still goes into every day to work, make notes and tinker around on the piano.
The Q&A is part of SiriusXM’s Town Hall series, intimate gatherings with iconic musicians, entertainers and figures and a studio audience of SiriusXM listeners. Previous specials have featured Tarantino, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Taylor Swift, Aerosmith, Coldplay, Ringo Starr and the surviving members of Nirvana, among others.
SiriusXM’s Town Hall With Mel Brooks will air on “Mel Brooks Radio,” channel 96 (Laugh USA), at 10:00 a.m. ET on Saturday. The channel also will air excerpts from the recently released DVD box set The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy as well as songs from the soundtracks of his films.
Meanwhile, PBS is set to air the documentary American Masters Mel Brooks: Make a Noise on May 20, with the DVD release scheduled for the following day.
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