Mel Brooks taught me about the Inquisition. S&M. Psychotherapy. Humiliating Hitler with humor. He exposed the adults as being just as horny, gassy, and greedy as us kids, and the mythology of the West as baseless folly.
Brooks bestowed these gifts upon me well before I became bat mitzvah. And yet, when the pandemic first struck and I used the early shutdowns to subject my children to a film education, Brooks was not on the syllabus. We traversed plagues, the Holocaust, the Black experience in America. Ang Lee, Mike Nichols, the Coen brothers. New York City, Denzel Washington, short stories brought to the screen.
I hadn’t forgotten Brooks. He made me twitchy. The country was convulsing through a racial reckoning that was both long overdue and sweeping up American Jews in ways strange, ahistorical, and uncomfortably on target. I had no idea how to explain Brooks to my kids, whom I was so strenuously, so earnestly, striving to cultivate in matters aesthetic and ethical, political and historical. Brooks, meanwhile, had rode up on a horse in red face, wearing a feathered headdress and war paint while speaking Yiddish, or some Brooklynized version of it, as a member of the tribe. Other films were more straightforward in their urgency. We watched Do the Right Thing!
Then in December, at age 95, Brooks barged his way back into my life with his memoir All About Me! The coverage was fawning. The New Yorker crowned him king. I got twitchier. Who gets a coronation these days after showing an enslaved Black man boogying down the via in ancient Rome with a boombox? Or scripting gay men being called “faggots”? Or socking a horse so hard in the face that it falls to the ground?
Decades had passed since I was a kid devouring Brooks’ oeuvre. Now I devoured the coverage to puzzle out the ardor. For all his delight in surfacing our inner juvenile delinquents, he was a surprisingly syrupy interview subject. This may be why in one adoring interview—with Terry Gross on Fresh Air—the show producers went heavy on his song catalog, eating up airtime by playing whole numbers in their entirety. On came “High Anxiety,” the title song of his Hitchcock spoof about a psychiatrist who suffers a fear of heights.
“High anxiety/Whenever you’re near/High anxiety/It’s you that I fear/My heart’s afraid to fly/It’s crashed before/But then you take my hand/My heart starts to soar once more.”
My husband came sprinting up the stairs. Are you hurt? Is it the kids? Why are you doubled over like that? I couldn’t get the words out. Tears spilled. My shoulders shook. My husband stood helpless until he noticed the bland interview playing in the background and tapped the back-15 icon on my phone screen a few times.
“High anxiety/It’s always the same/Ooh-xiety/It’s you that I blame/It’s very clear to me/I’ve got to give in/High anxiety/You win.”
I doubled over again. Clutched my sides at Brooks’ straining falsetto. You’re laughing? He stalked out, and I thought-hoped that I heard in his tsk the mock imperiousness of Harvey Korman, Brooks’ sniffy second banana. That night we dragged the kids out of the brainless depths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and screened History of the World, Part I. Could it be, we wanted to know, that Brooks’ merry anarchy had been anticipating the high anxiety of our present apocalypse all along? Or had the last few years of performative piety finally broken us to the point of seeking laughs from such a gleefully infantile and cynical source? A Mel Brooks marathon was in order. I drew up a program.
I grew up in a pop-culture desert of a household in the 1980s. My parents watched Masterpiece Theater. The reading material tended toward The Nation and Partisan Review. Edith Piaf warbled on the record player. None of this made me precocious or cool. It made me weird. Lacking in the lingua franca that my peers shared over movies and music that I did not have access to; the blind spots bedevil me still. My brothers had more friends (not hard) and one day they came home brandishing a VHS tape labeled History of the World, Part I. Their friend had one of the precursors to cable, and this became our portal to the world.
For the unindoctrinated, History of the World, Part I is an episodic history of humankind from the cave people to the Old Testament to the French Revolution. Lots of the jokes were lost on sheltered elementary-age kids like us. We had little context to search the Encyclopedia Britannica for, say, the etymological origins of Madeleine Kahn’s character, Empress Nympho of Rome. Only when I was assigned A Tale of Two Cities in eighth grade did the name Madame Defarge resonate.
At our single-digit ages, we were primed for potty humor. Sid Caesar as chief caveman pees on a cave painting in critique of it; soon we were miming the same (fully clothed) of anything that merited our disdain, never mind my anatomical unsuitability to the task. The bawdiness thrilled us, too. I may have been hopelessly straight from the start, but the really big, barely concealed breasts that are all over History of the World, Part I were also exotic to me, since I did not yet have any and found it impossible that I ever would. Even so, it was hard not to notice that the breasts belonged to women who looked not much older than our babysitters and that it was Brooks with his schnoz perpetually truffling into them.
As I would come to learn about Brooks’ films, a zingy musical spectacle effects a wondrous amnesia. “The Spanish Inquisition” portion of History stars Brooks as the razzmatazz architect of the genocide of 1492: “Hey Torquemada, whaddya say?/I just got back from the auto-da-fé!” We eventually broke our tape by rewinding and replaying it so we could memorize and reenact it, bickering ferociously over who got to play Torquemada and who was stuck playing the uncooperative Jews. We had little sense of the Inquisition as a true event until we realized we could use the pool at our swim club to make a more complete staging with the resplendent synchronized-swimming nuns. An ancient leathery man in a navy Speedo and heavy gold chain knew exactly what we were up to, scolding us in a thick European accent that killing Jews was nothing to sing and swim-dance about. Our mom looked on from a lounge chair. We left him in the shallow end.
We were hooked. Every few weeks, my brothers came home with a new Mel Brooks movie. Young Frankenstein. High Anxiety. To Be or Not to Be. Our grandparents took us to see Spaceballs at the cinema. Our dad, who politely excused himself from most of our lives, took us to a friend’s to watch The Twelve Chairs (a curveball with characters, plot, stakes—and no sex, no toilet humor, no breasts). It wasn’t just the antics, the outrageousness, the dirty, dirty jokes. It was the sense of belonging. Spoofs may be the stuff of outsiders, but Brooks brought me nearer to the inside. For the first time, I grasped the talk at recess. “You aren’t worth spitting on!” sneers one fortune hunter in The Twelve Chairs; “Well, you are!” his nemesis hurls back. (You had to hope your sparring partner was not as literal as Dom DeLuise.) I may have hated The Producers with the screeching, lecherous ogre at its center and the frisky old ladies who bankrolled him so they could boink him. But I loved being in on the joke at Hebrew school when some kids tricked the music teacher into letting them sing “Springtime for Hitler.” Behaving badly according to a script that the adults followed, too—this was liberation.
Then my brothers brought home Blazing Saddles. It was dangerous. The N-word practically opens the movie, and it’s a rare scene that does not contain it. (Richard Pryor was a co-writer and Brooks’ first choice for the lead.) Here’s the premise: To force the abandonment of a town on the western frontier, a crooked politician appoints a Black sheriff who turns out to be a cheerfully formidable opponent. When we went to watch it the next Saturday night, the tape had disappeared. My brothers brought home a new copy. That one disappeared, too. A pattern was developing. My brothers saw Blazing Saddles elsewhere. Then my clandestine copy of Forever by Judy Blume disappeared. A book, however, I could read in the school library. Movies were harder to access. I moved on.
Meh. That’s a generous summary of my kids’ response to most of Mel Brooks. By the time Sid Caesar urinated out his opinion of the cave painting in History of the World, Part I, my 14-year-old had slunk off muttering, “How many men do I need to see pee?” Better to group-text and e-ogle the Toms—Hardy, Hiddleston, Holland. The younger two yawned and fidgeted until “The Spanish Inquisition,” the musical number that I reenacted endlessly with my brothers and which I found my kids YouTubing a couple days later, singing and jazz-handsing to it. So much for the ancient man in the Speedo at my childhood pool club.
In 1970, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “One of these days someone is going to put together a smash-hit television special called ‘The Greedy, Fraudulent World as Seen by Mel Brooks.’ It will celebrate the comic genius of the writer-director-occasional performer whose longer works tend to outrun their initial inspiration.” Canby’s assessment augurs much of Brooks’ next 50 years: the brilliant scene nestled in hours of dreck. This, as my children know, is what YouTube is for.
In 1970, Brooks had not yet made the two or three movies that sustain their initial inspiration. Here’s where we dive into the great divide that is Blazing Saddles: Is it racism or provocation or reporting or something else? Many questions trouble Blazing Saddles—sexism and gay-bashing, to name two—but the pervasiveness of the N-word puts the movie in other territory altogether. The N-word is America’s basest contribution to the English language. It consolidates our ugliest impulses. It is always a shock.
“Is it going to be this racist the whole time?” my son asked within the first 15 minutes.
“You’re going to hear the N-word a lot.”
“How can you show this to us?”
“You’ve heard the N-word in other movies.”
“Not like this.” He had a point. Not this insistent. Not as part of a joke. Not without venom and suffering and the clear intention of showing a uniquely American evil. Not with a very Jewy director.
I went Gen X on a very Gen Z kid. “If you watch things that make you uncomfortable, then you have grounds for critique.”
“Here’s my critique.” He left. Should I have pointed out that Sheriff Bart is the hero? That he rescues the town, beds the girl, saves his white sidekick, and rides off into the sunset and onto the studio lot—all with smarts and charm? That the N-word was central to Richard Pryor’s stand-up routine? That moralizing softens the blow? That the case is my son’s to make—all of ours to make—that Blazing Saddles could have been confrontational and funny without it?
The power of Blazing Saddles is that it still unsettles, divides, rankles, sparks debate, and—crucially—cracks us up, often unnervingly, nearly 50 years later. Those are the conversations I want my kids to run to. We have work to do.
If I had to do it over again, I would warm up the crowd with Silent Movie, a silent movie about the main character’s effort to make—yes—a silent movie. I took the DVD to a neighbor’s, accompanied by my youngest daughter. Rarely a minute passed without laughing out loud—a man in his 60s, two middle-aged women, and a fourth grader. Silent Movie is charming, a pleaser. I only squirmed twice. Brooks could have gone on like this for 50 years. But the challenge is mostly one of formatting. It’s instructive that Blazing Saddles came next. From the whimsical to the caustic, Brooks’ about-face back then echoes the country’s present gallop into darkness.
Rebecca Sonkin’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Tin House, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is reporting a memoir about a deadly car crash.