It’s Mel Brooks’ 88th birthday and I’ve been a fan since the 80’s (when most of his jokes went over my head). In today’s overly-sensitive, apology-ridden society (when the words you use mean so much more than who you are as a person and what you feel in your heart), we should remember what Mel Brooks taught us: that’s a lot of bullshit.
Brooks wrote a movie called “Springtime for Hitler.” That was his original title for “The Producers” before the studio suggested he change it. The movie was about a Broadway producer who has sex with rich old ladies in his office for money. The ladies then write him a check for his new play “Cash.” No need to explain the film any further, it’s a classic. Mel said that making fun of Hitler and getting people to laugh at him was the only way he could get revenge. That was his way of fighting a man who was long dead. Make him — and Nazi’s in general — out to be fools. In the end, even our heroes in “The Producers” get their comeuppance, but we laughed with them, while we laughed at the Nazi. It’s unlikely that a song called “Springtime for Hitler” could be considered for a film today. Even if it were to be released as a viral video, Brooks almost certainly would be forced to apologize or risk the public turning on him. And yet, both his intention and the messages he conveyed in “The Producers” are not only noble, but actually important.
Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” also had a strong message, conveyed in a matter that wouldn’t be acceptable today. If you were cheering for the inbred racists, you weren’t quite getting it. Bart was the hero. You rooted for him and laughed with him as he defeated Hedley Lamarr and Taggart, and changed the hearts and minds of the townspeople. Without going back and counting how many “offensive” words were used in that film, I can tell you it was considerable. Could Mel make “Blazing Saddles” today? No, but we’re all lucky that he was born 88 years ago, because it’s one of the greatest comedies ever produced.
His portrayal of Igor in “Young Frankenstein” would be considered bullying today, but Igor was the funniest character in the movie. Again, you laughed with him, not at him. Forget about making “History of the World Part I” in the 21st century! Racist, misogynistic, anti-Catholic, anti-semitic, and on, and on… The media would have ironically crucified Brooks for the song “The Inquisition” today’s climate. “It’s better to lose your skull cap than your skull” are you kidding me?? That movie starts out with cave men jerking off and continues to “offend” until the credits roll. But isn’t that the message?
Brooks is Jewish. He married (and adored until the day she tragically passed away) his Catholic wife Anne Bancroft. He walked off the set of “Blazing Saddles” for 2 days in support of Richard Pryor, who the studio wouldn’t approve for the role of Sheriff. He wrote for two of the most brilliant female comedic actors of all time – Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman – and allowed them to shine. He’s neither anti-semitic, racist, misogynistic or any of the false labels our society tries to put on people because of the language they use.
Mel Brooks proved that we need our comedians to point out the ridiculous people and behaviors in the world. They sometimes need to use words that make us uncomfortable to do so, but they are important. Daniel Tosh doesn’t support rape, Tracy Morgan doesn’t hate gay people, and Don Rickles is called one of the nicest men in show business by those who know him, despite his biting material. If we handcuff our comedians by restricting the language they can use, we are stunting the growth of our culture. Times have changed (thank goodness), but we have to remember to listen to the message instead of missing it because of a word.
Happy Birthday Mel Brooks. You didn’t only teach us to laugh at men farting around a campfire, you taught us all that people should be treated equally, and every human being deserves their dignity and respect.