Notes from the back row 

Spoofs: they don’t make ’em like they used to

Comedy filmmaking is probably the easiest genre to pull off but perhaps the toughest to really nail. (Not counting romantic comedy, which almost always sucks.) Sure, today’s toilet humour and sexual deviancy is funny stuff, but it takes balls and creativity to elevate that to the level of long-lasting cinematic genius. And a bit of absurdity never hurt anyone, either. Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail , that movie’s 30 years old, still makes me howl. Or better yet, Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, which is one of my dad’s favourites and also the DVD of the week.

The year is 1874 and a bunch of greedy white politicians want to run an entire town full of people off their land to build a railway through it. It’s a pretty common Western genre plot and a hero always rises to protect the good common folk of the town. Brooks, however, shakes things up a bit. His hero is a black sheriff pulled off the railway work gang and plopped smack in the middle of a town of bitter racists.

Western films are often chock full of obvious racist content (Is that you John Wayne?) but in Blazing Saddles , Brooks takes things the extra 21 steps into "full-on" mode. The result is mockingly hilarious from the film’s beginning, in which a Chinese rail worker collapses from exhaustion and the first line of the film, delivered deadpan by the redneck cowboy boss, is "Dock that Chink a day’s pay for sleepin’ on the job." The boss and his hick crew then blow all decency away by demanding some good "nigger work songs" out of their crew, who feign ignorance and trick the bosses into singing and dancing to The Camptown Ladies.

Brooks is quoted as saying, "Take an absurd situation, play it straight, and that’s comedy." Well it works in Blazing Saddles and his take on racism, a topic hopefully even more absurd to today’s audiences than those of 1974, turns out to be pant-shittingly hilarious. Starring Cleavon Little as Black Bart the Sheriff (a role that was supposed to go to co-writer Richard Pryor but the studio was afraid to cast him), and Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, a laid back alcoholic gunslinger who befriends Bart, Blazing Saddles solidified Brooks as a comedic genius who was also socially pertinent. Plus, the campfire and beans scene is the originator of the fart joke, a trend that has permeated almost every comedy made these days.

Brooks’s next film was Young Frankenstein , released later that year and also hilarious. Rent both of those today, or Spaceballs, or The Producers. Or… well I could go on all day.

Instead, let’s stick with funny-ass old Western spoofs and mention another Jack Banks favourite, The Three Amigos. A 1986 classic, Amigos features Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short as Hollywood stars who misinterpret a cry for help as a publicity gig and end up having to save an entire Mexican village from the infamous bandit El Guapo. While it doesn’t contain the social commentary of Brooks’s spoof, this is still really funny stuff. From the singing bush (Camptown Ladies again), to El Guapo’s birthday sweater, to the ridiculous costumes, Three Amigos is non-stop foolish fun.

Martin, Chase and Short are superb. This is back in the days when those guys were killing it weekly on Saturday Night Live, and together they pull off another near-perfect spoof of the Western genre, including token singing cowboys. They just don’t make spoofs like they used to, as anyone who’s seen the Scary Movie franchise can attest.

Rent some DVDs with your old lady and relive these glorious comedies today. Or take her to Hitch , Will Smith’s new excuse to act cute. It’s not that bad, for a romantic comedy.

AT VILLAGE 8 Feb. 18-24: Because of Winn Dixie; Son of the Mask; Are We There Yet?; Constantine; Pooh’s Heffalump Movie; Meet the Fockers; Sideways; Million Dollar Baby; Hitch.

AT RAINBOW THEATRE Feb 18-24: The Aviator.

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