[Note to my regular readers who come here for women's golf coverage: I'm airing Mel Brooks's 1974 film Blazing Saddles tonight as part of SUNY Fredonia's American Studies film series "Myths of the American West," so decided to share a draft of my opening comments here at Mostly Harmless (which is, after all, "for fun"). I'm aware of the 5-car collision that has lead to my favorite golfer Ai Miyazato withdrawing from this week's LPGA event (and onechan's favorite Paula Creamer being a likely WD candidate) and obviously wish them and everyone else involved in it a full and speedy recovery.]
[Note to my non-regular readers who are coming here after watching Blazing Saddles (or missing it): Hope you enjoy this post and are curious enough after reading it to browse around for other posts here that you may find interesting!]
I was four years old when Blazing Saddles was first released in American theaters and until Shannon McRae--the director of American Studies at SUNY Fredonia and organizer of the program's film series "Myths of the American West"--took seriously my half-joking suggestion to include it in the series and invited me to introduce it, I had never seen it in its entirety until this month. In a semester when I'm teaching American Identities, Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, and Critical Reading, I'm particularly pleased to take Shannon up on her kind offer, and offer a few comments as a new viewer of a movie that's been well-known (even to me) for decades, comments that will hopefully be as useful to students in my classes this semester as everyone else who braved the rains to make it out here tonight.
Growing up, I put Blazing Saddles in the mental category of comedies too raw for me to watch, a remarkably capacious category that in the '70s and too far into the '80s included everything from Monty Python to Mad magazine to Saturday Night Live to just about every famous stand-up comedian of the time. If this reference helps people place where I was at, probably Benny Hill was the rawest thing I got access to before graduate school. Yes, I grew up in a small town in central NY and failed to take advantage of 2nd grade in Palo Alto and 7th grade in Chapel Hill. Nevertheless, I was obsessed with everything comical and comics-al. In high school I started a cartoon series called The Gray Area that, despite its being far too derivative of The Far Side, was seen, nay loved, by regular readers of the Pennysaver and other fine local publications for far too many weeks. Me, I loved everything from Gilligan's Island to Scooby Doo, from Diff'rent Strokes to The Facts of Life, from Benson to Newhart, from Doctor Who to The Greatest American Hero, from Airplane! to Ghostbusters, from The Muppet Show to The Tracey Ullman Show, from Tom and Jerry to Rocky and Bullwinkle (in reruns, duh) to Calvin and Hobbes to Mork and Mindy, from any DC comic Ambush Bug appeared in (even though I was almost exclusively a Marvel fan) to the animated version of The Tick. Sure, I hated the Smurfs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but otherwise I was pretty easy to please. And I was a fan of The Simpsons before The Simpsons was The Simpsons, man! (It goes without saying from the title of this blog what my favorite was, though!)
All of which is to say that when I go to grad school in the early 1990s I was perfectly primed to understand and appreciate what many still misunderstand and denigrate even today as a French theoretical import: postmodernism. As someone who saw The Simpsons parody of the end of The Graduate long before I ever saw The Graduate, who loved it when Beavis and Butt-head were watching a Johnny Cash video and decided it was gangsta rap, and who came of age in a hip hop culture rife with allusion and remixing and pastiche, I didn't have to think twice about Jean-Francois Lyotard's notion of "incredulity toward metanarratives" as a core characteristic of postmodernism.
So it's all too easy and obvious now for me to look back at Blazing Saddles and see it as yet another exemplar of American postmodernism. It's certainly not an original point to make, as a quick google search will show you (I recommend posts by Mark Bourne and Mike Sutton on this aspect of the movie). But what is originality, anyway? Just another stinkin' metanarrative--right, JFL? Perhaps it's slightly more original to claim that Mel Brooks and Monty Python were engaged in a transatlantic comedic one-ups-man-ship that was perfectly postmodern. In the same way that Brooks and his co-writers, including Richard Pryor, were playing with myths of the American west and poking fun at founding narratives of the modern United States, Monty Python was taking on English legends of the Holy Grail and western icons of Christianity--and at roughly the same time. Check me on this. And, as you watch Blazing Saddles tonight, consider some of the debates over postmodernism that occupied so many western intellectuals in the last third of the 20th century: is postmodernism all sound and fury, signifying nothing? is it, in the final analysis, the laugh track of late capitalism? are its politics of race and gender and sexuality and [fill in the blank] reactionary, liberatory, laughable, nostalgic, or what? is postmodernism a thing of the past, and if so, how do we react to it today (and what comes after that post-?) if not, if we are still living in and with postmodernism, what does Blazing Saddles compare to in contemporary and recent culture?
There's so much more to be said--about what light Blazing Saddles may shed on black-Jewish relations in the late civil rights era, for instance--but I think it ought to wait until after the movie. Don't you?