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Mel Brooks on ‘Blazing Saddles’

The movies of Mel Brooks have long been a guilty pleasure of mine, none more than Blazing Saddles. One must be careful, however, when quoting or even referring to the film, because politically correct sensitivities have eroded some people’s sense of humor. In Blazing Saddles, Brooks has his characters say the things that are better left unsaid, making fun of racists, homophobes, sexists, and other small-minded people by blasting open the dam that holds back vile talk and sentiments. No trigger warnings here: you are going to hear what people really think.

Brooks is still going strong at almost 90, as he showed when he appeared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday night, in a Q&A session after a screening of Blazing Saddles. Truth be told, there were relatively few questions in this part of the event, mostly just Brooks sharing memories of how the film came to be made, in a rather delightful, slightly manic monologue.

Even people who know Blazing Saddles well may be surprised to learn that Brooks had wanted Richard Pryor to play the role of Sheriff Bart. The insurance company balked, because of Pryor’s problems with addiction, but the film is still partly Pryor’s work, through the writing he contributed to the screenplay. “All of the uses of the N-word,” Brooks said at one point, “were approved by Richard.” This sounds like retroactive butt-covering on Brooks’s part, but Richard Pryor, who died in 2005, could not be reached for comment. More surprising is that Brooks approached John Wayne for the film, possibly to take the role of the Waco Kid, which Gene Wilder eventually played. Brooks said that Wayne read the script and liked it, but declined because he had “too many white Christian fans.”

For such an outrageous film, was there anything that Brooks thought was too much? He claimed he had cut only part of one scene, the scene where Madeline Kahn’s Lili von Shtupp beds Sheriff Bart. In the darkness, she says, “Is it twue what they say about you people, how you are built?” After a pause, she exclaims, “It is twue! It is twue!” Brooks said that he cut the next part of the scene, where Kahn was making noises that sounded like she was performing fellatio. Bart then said, “I hate to disappoint you, Ma'am, but you’re sucking on my arm.” A friend quipped that if Brooks were making the film now, the blowjob scene would stay and all the racist and homophobic jokes would be cut. Different times.

Brooks said it was hard to get clean takes throughout the shoot because people lost it so much on set. When the actor David Huddleston said the line, “We don’t want the Irish" (in the scene embedded above), they had to do twenty takes because everyone was laughing so much. Eventually he bought everyone on the crew white handkerchiefs and told them to stifle their laughs so they would stop burning through so much footage. Incredibly, Harvey Korman never lost it during the shoot of Blazing Saddles, according to Brooks. The only time he after spoiled a take by breaking character was in History of the World, Part I, when he told Brooks’s king, “Your Majesty, you look like the piss boy.” Brooks said that he improvised the king’s now-famous response (“And you look like a bucket of shit!”), and Korman lost it.

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