With the Farrelly Brothers Dumb and Dumber To (2014) bumbling into theatres now, it’s fitting that TIFF has chosen this moment to look back at one of the great purveyors of goofball comedy, the legendary Mel Brooks. With films like The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Spaceballs (1987), Brooks has carved out a huge swath of send-up satire that comedy directors today are enormously indebted to. Too?
Brooks’s entire career pushes the envelope of bad taste. And at ninety-years young, Brooks has made a lot of nut-bag movies. The deliriously deranged centrepiece of The Producers is the cynical guaranteed-to-fail musical Springtime for Hitler. Blazing Saddles spoofs the Hollywood Western, using it less as a Trojan horse and more like a bucking bronco to tackle racism in America. The script, co-written by Richard Pryor, combines edgy in-your-face jokes featuring the N-word (it just couldn’t be made today) with fart jokes and the broad slapstick of the Three Stooges.
Sometimes, rarely, his satire takes a more gentle turn. Young Frankenstein (1974) lampoons the old black-and-white Universal Horror movies of the thirties, but does it with such faithfulness that it practically fits in alongside James Whale’s original 1931 Frankenstein. The manic Gene Wilder, his eyes twinkling with an intelligence askew, is great as the neuroscientist eager to distance himself from his infamous grandfather, to the extent he prefers to be called “Doctor Fronkenshteen”. Madeline Kahn brings her unique exaggerated hauteur and sexuality as his hung-up fiancée, with Marty Feldman and Teri Garr as his hilarious lab assistants Igor and Inga. And Peter Boyle is the believably misunderstood monster, just trying to groan his way through brought-back-from-the-dead life. When Wilder and monster Boyle sing and dance their way through “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in tuxedos for a gathering of high society, the moment is silly but bemusingly delicious, two monsters desperate to fit in.
Which is probably the best way to look at Brooks’s work. He’s unafraid to be dumb, dumber than a post that dropped out of wood school. But that lack of depth is disarming, and sometimes even hides, well, depth. Too.
Mel Brooks: It’s Good to Be the King kicks off at TIFF on Saturday, November 15th and runs to December 20th. For a full schedule and info on specific screenings, see here. If you’re not in Toronto, you can find most of the Mel Brooks comedy canon on Netflix and iTunes.