It's been 40 years since Mel Brooks changed comedy movies with the success of his raunchy Blazing Saddles, and what's incredible about watching it today — after the slew of R-rated comedies we currently digest — is that it still plays to gut-busting perfection. Cleavon Little as a black sheriff in the overwhelmingly racist Old West, every race and creed lampooned with razor-sharp precision, and yes, the farting scene. It's the movie that introduced an unapologetic crass comic style that would be elevated over the decades by the likes of the Farrelly brothers, Todd Phillips, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Brooks goes even a step further, calling Blazing Saddles the funniest movie of all time (more on that later).
With Warner Brothers having just released a 40th anniversary Blu-ray version of the movie, we got to talk to Brooks about his masterpiece, as well as other topics like the advice he gave Dave Chappelle and if he'll ever do a sequel to Spaceballs.
ESQUIRE.COM: Looking back, what are the memories that stick out most from making the movie?
MEL BROOKS: I always thought Richard Pryor was going to be the black sheriff. I just assumed it. Richard was one of the writers [on the film] and then Warner Brothers said, "No, he's got a drug problem, he's not well-known as an actor." And I was just like, "Trust me, this guy's the funniest guy who's ever lived. He's going to be a big movie star." And you know, two years later he did Silver Streak.
"Richard [Pryor] was like, 'He's really black, he's going to scare the shit out of these people.'"
ESQ: And you were so disappointed they wouldn't give him the part that you quit the film.
MB: I walked out and then after three days Richard grabbed me and said, "Look, if you leave I don't get my last payment as a writer." So I came back and he was like, "C'mon, we'll find somebody." So Richard and I looked diligently and when Cleavon read one line we looked at each other and that was it. He was the handsomest guy we'd ever seen in our lives. And Richard was like, "He's really black, he's going to scare the shit out of these people."
ESQ: That feeling you had about Richard, was it the same for when you cast Dave Chappelle in Robin Hood: Men in Tights?
MB: Absolutely. I knew Dave was the guy. I had seen a hundred guys but Dave had a presence. He basically said, I'm not afraid of this shit. I'm not afraid of the camera. I am who I am. And that was so evident in his attitude. And when we were doing the movie he didn't know he had a sweetness in him, he is the sweetest kid. He was the perfect sidekick for the hero. In fact, off-camera he and Cary Elwes hung out a lot together.
"I said to Dave Chappelle, 'You'll find it. Just drift for a while until you find what you want to do.'"
ESQ: At the height of Dave's popularity he left his hugely popular show and went into seclusion. At that time did he ever reach out to you for guidance?
MB: I called him once and I didn't get enough out of him. He said something like, "I don't know what I'm doing. I'm not sure I know what I'm doing or what I want." And I said, "You'll find it. Just drift for a while until you find what you want to do." I never encouraged him to come back — "You have to, we need you," blah, blah, all that shit. But he'll find his way back when he wants.
ESQ: Going back to Blazing Saddles, is it true when you first showed it to the Warner Brothers executives, none of them laughed?
"Leo Greenfield, who was in charge of domestic distribution, said, 'I don't want the Warner Brothers logo on it.'"
MB: It was about a dozen executives at a screening room at Warner Brothers and, no, there were two guys that laughed. Now, not so loud, they didn't want to hurt the other people's feelings. But the ten other guys in the room didn't laugh and at the end Leo Greenfield, who was in charge of domestic distribution — nice guy, I got along with him — but he said, "I have to voice my feelings, I think we should bury the picture and eat the money and not release it. It's disgusting and I don't want the Warner Brothers logo on it." And [John] Calley [who ran the film division] said, "Well, let's have a screening," and that was a big, big hit. Right from the opening credits — the WB logo burning through and Frankie Laine singing and the whip cracks — that was it, we were home free. The hell with executives, the hell with politically correct. The manager said he'd never heard laughter like that in that movie house.
ESQ: Did the famous bit of Mongo knocking out the horse really come from Sid Caesar actually punching a horse?
MB: Yeah, I got that from Sid Caesar. In Central Park there was a horse that threw his wife so he punched the horse and the horse went down. I said, "My God." I never forgot it. Oh, God, that was so much fun. And let me say that the horse and the guy riding it were not hurt.
ESA: Did you tell Sid you were going to put it in the movie?
MB: I did, and he said, "Great."
"If it works in Texas, it will work in Paris, it's going to work in Egypt, it's going to work anywhere."
ESQ: So even before the movie opened you knew it would be a hit.
MB: I did, I really did. I actually wanted to see it in San Antonio, Texas. I few down there, I didn't tell anybody I was coming, I wanted to see the reaction, because it's Texas and you say the N-word in Texas and they don't take it as a joke, to them it's correct wording the people in the movie are using for this black guy. But they got it and laughed like hell and I said, "If it works in Texas, it will work in Paris, it's going to work in Egypt, it's going to work anywhere."
ESQ: And it worked so well that the movie got developed into a TV series.
MB: I hated that. I said, "What are you going to do, it's 24 minutes for a sitcom, do you think you can get any of this in that time span?" I told them it's a big mistake. And I said I'd have nothing to do with it. They said, "But you have to write it," and I told them no. I was right, it wasn't good what they came up with. The only regret, and I've told AFI this, they put Some Like It Hot as the funniest movie of all time. What I want to do is have a contest in theaters and we'll rig up some laugh meters and we'll run Some Like It Hot and then run Blazing Saddles and see which one gets more laughs, and there will be no contest. It won't even get half of the laughs we get.
"Blazing Saddles is sixth [funniest on AFI's list], that's ridiculous. Even my worst comedy should be three or four."
ESQ: This is something that's been bugging you since that list came out?
MB: It's been bugging me since they came out with it. Blazing Saddles is sixth, that's ridiculous. Even my worst comedy should be three or four. It should be me and maybe The Gold Rush and maybe a little of [Buster] Keaton and Harold Lloyd and that's it. I don't know about the others.
ESQ: So, not much love for Billy Wilder.
MB: No, I love him. There's no knocking Billy Wilder, he was an all-around filmmaker. How could a guy make Some Like It Hot and previously make Double Indemnity or Ace in the Hole? But just laughs versus laughs, I'll go in the ring with Blazing Saddles against any film. It can't be beaten, it's the Joe Louis of comedy films.
ESQ: How about today's comedy, are there any films or anyone today that makes you laugh?
MB: Yeah, I don't want to go into it because there are too many of them. But they're okay. I laugh. The Hangover films were funny.
ESQ: Did you see the third one?
MB: No, I skipped that one.
ESQ: I'm glad. What about Seth MacFarlane?
MB: Yeah, he's said some nice things about Blazing Saddles. What's his next movie?
ESQ: A Million Ways to Die in the West, which is Blazing Saddles on steroids in regards to its crudeness. But we have gotten to this level because of what you gave us.
MB: It would be hypocritical of me to take issue with anything in questionable taste, seeing that I invented bad taste in films. I'm sure Seth MacFarlane is pushing it a little further.
"You're joining the politically correct when you use words like 'too far.' You don't want to join the army of politically correct."
ESQ: Has it been pushed too far?
MB: No. There's no such thing as too far. If it works it's funny, if it doesn't work it's too far, it's stupid. Really there's no such thing as "too far." You're joining the politically correct when you use words like "too far." You don't want to join the army of politically correct. I mean, There's Something About Mary, you may say that's going too far, but it works so it's not.
ESQ: When did you realize that Blazing Saddles would be iconic and you'd have to talk about it for the rest of your life?
MB: When I created Brooks Films and I was doing really profoundly classy films like The Elephant Man, I knew if I put my name on it people would think there's going to be farting in this movie, so I was very careful to keep my name off all of the Brooks Films movies. My grotesque comedy baggage would lead me to bad things.
ESQ: Which of your films are you still surprised didn't find an audience?
MB: I would say Life Stinks. I think it's a very funny movie with many comic explosions, but it was never given its day.
ESQ: Your last movie was in 1995, Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Has there been an interest to direct since then?
MB: Actually, [following Dracula: Dead and Loving It] I had my eye on Broadway and there was a chance to get back to it in a big way. Instead of my thirteenth movie it would be my first big Broadway musical where I composed the score and it was thrilling. And my movies were not reaping the kind of emotional rewards that I wanted. I wanted them to be appreciated and they weren't. I didn't want the reviews to say, "Mel Brooks has made another movie," and you get the title somewhere in the second paragraph, so I thought I better go where I was wanted.
"I would call it Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money and all the fans would know it."
ESQ: Would you be interested in doing another Spaceballs?
MB: It's easy to do because we have the title.
ESQ: That's right!
MB: In the movie Bill Pullman as Lone Starr asks me, I'm playing Yogurt, "Will we ever see each other again?" And I say, "Who knows? God willing, we'll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money." So if I did it I would call it Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money and all the fans would know it. And I would have the kids of those characters and have the actors from the first movie come back in cameos.
ESQ: Sounds very similar to what they're doing for the next Star Wars movie.
MB: Yeah. If that one is successful I should come back with another Spaceballs. I know it would be funny.