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Interview: Mel Brooks and 'Blazing Saddles' both as brash as ever

Legendary director-screenwriter-producer-actor-comedian Mel Brooks attends a 40th anniversary screening of Young Frankenstein, the 1974 film classic he co-wrote and directed.
Published Oct. 7, 2015

It's still good for Mel Brooks to be king.

Brooks is having quite an 89th year, being reminded everywhere he goes that he's a comedy legend whose trickle-down genius inspires countless comedians, and that millions love him.

Brooks sounds like he isn't buying it.

"America is wrong," he said by telephone, raspy and rascally as ever. "Somebody, the populace, everybody's wrong."

About what?

"At this age there's something wrong about all this (adoration)," Brooks said. "I should've been forgotten, completely. Time passes, we remember only a few, like Mark Twain, you know?

"I should have been ... You know, there was a comic called Jackie Miles, and some good comics on television like Billy Sands. You don't know those names. You don't know Jackie Miles, you don't know Billy Sands. And I should've been with them. I shouldn't be remembered like I'm Mark Twain. I'm not that good.

"But people remember me. I made a couple of good movies. For some reason they never stop playing."

Brooks is being modest. It's more than a couple of good movies. One of his greatest is the reason for his Back in the Saddle Again! tour celebrating Blazing Saddles, "my funniest film," he declared.

The tour stops Oct. 14 at Tampa's David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Brooks is showing Blazing Saddles, then doing a moderated Q&A session, telling "odd little stories about the who and what" of creating a comedy masterpiece, perhaps the funniest ever.

Like a college football coach, Brooks believes so much in Blazing Saddles that he's challenging its national ranking. The American Film Institute rated the Western satire No. 6 on its list of the 100 funniest American movies. Brooks is taking aim at No. 1, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot.

"I've challenged AFI to a laugh-off," he said. "We're going to do it sometime this winter at the Chinese Theatre here in Hollywood, with equipment (to measure) the laughs. Whoever wins should be No. 1."

Blazing Saddles remains one of Hollywood's most politically incorrect movies ever, framed as a Western and scribbled like naughty notes passed in class. Andrew Bergman, one of the film's five co-writers, had the idea of a black sheriff protecting a bigoted town, originally titled Tex X, as in Malcolm. Warner Bros. hated the title; Brooks came up with Blazing Saddles in the shower.

Brooks recruited a lawyer (Norman Steinberg) and a dentist (Alan Uger) seeking new careers as co-writers, telling them: "We'll get Richard Pryor so we can use the n-word — 17 times — and blame it on him." Pryor did sign on as a co-writer, and Brooks ran writers meetings like he did in his early days on Your Show of Shows, where anything went.

"I said just dig down deep and say the dirtiest, craziest things you ever thought of, because this movie is not going to be made," Brooks said. "Once they see this script, Warner Bros. will throw it in the wastebasket."

Turned out Brooks was as wrong as The Producers' Bialystock and Bloom about that. Blazing Saddles opened on Feb. 7, 1974, at single theaters in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles for a do-or-die trial run. "It clicked," Brooks said.

Blazing Saddles would seem like a perfect choice for another Mel Brooks musical on Broadway, after boffo runs for adaptations of The Producers and Young Frankenstein. "I just haven't gotten to it," he said.

Brooks brushed off a suggestion that today's touchy racial climate might be an obstacle to Blazing Saddles hitting the boards.

"No, it would work, oh, it would work," he said. "That's the place, in the theater, where you can say or do anything. The Book of Mormon, you know? You can do anything. It would be a brave and crazy musical."

For now, the movie is more than enough. Brooks can't wait to share Blazing Saddles again.

"I get goose bumps if I see it on a big screen and there's 2,000 people in the audience, laughing together," Brooks said. "What I envisioned, what I dreamed of, would be a joke that worked or a moment that worked, or something touching that worked.

"Two thousand people there in the dark theater looking at the silver screen and it works. That's why I did it. There's nothing like it."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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