While movie parodies don’t necessarily have to justify their existence with anything other than laughs, it’s refreshing when one actually has something important to say.
…because laughter isn’t only the best medicine, but a weapon against the forces of evil. A legend in the field of comedy, Mel Brooks has used his absurd humor to make Nazis, racists and monsters look like fools. His trademark film genre parodies like "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles" reveal Brooks’s careful attention to the language and style of cinema. In addition to his lasting influence on film and TV comedy, Brooks is also an accomplished songwriter, collaborating on memorable tracks for his films and the award-winning stage adaptation of "The Producers" which crossed the “T” on his EGOT.
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It’s almost guaranteed that Brooks won’t be remembered for just one thing. But hypothetically speaking, if he were, it would be his pioneering of the film parody genre. Interestingly, Brooks first experimented with this in another medium: the TV series "Get Smart," which he co-created with Buck Henry, spoofed the 60’s spy movie genre embodied by the James Bond films. However, Brooks elevated (and arguably perfected) this format with "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein." With these two masterpieces, Brooks proved cinema had become so engrained in our popular consciousness that audiences could sit through a film that almost entirely referenced other movies. If the French New Wave directors believed that film played an integral role in modern culture, Brooks really put his money where their mouths were. Not only that, Brooks also proved his mastery of film styles and history through his ability to imitate the tropes of different genres. "Silent Movie," for example, is a (mostly except for one amazing inside joke featuring the iconic French mime Marcel Marceau) silent movie that draws on visual storytelling conventions as well as the early days of Hollywood. If "Silent Movie" sounds like a less sappy version of "The Artist," it basically is. "High Anxiety" pays homage to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, while "History of the World, Part I" offers a eulogy for the historical epic genre that ultimately brought an end to the Hollywood Golden Age. Yes, as Brooks continued his parodies, they became a little too contemporary. "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" has a few great jokes, but mocks Kevin Costner at the expense of becoming a poignant satire of swashbucklers in the vein of "My Favorite Year" – which Brooks actually produced – or Rob Reiner’s "The Princess Bride." With "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," Brooks failed to recapture the universal (not to mention, Universal) magic of "Young Frankenstein" by focusing more on Francis Coppola’s then recent update as opposed to other cultural incarnations of the Count. While the parody genre has basically fallen into an endless cycle of self-parody, Brooks’s original imitation of classic cinema still reverberates in the work of directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers.
Being insanely funny doesn’t mean a film can’t be powerful and insightful. Drawing on his roots as a stand-up comic and variety show writer, Brooks’s movies are always loaded with one-liners, sight gags and puns. The plots are usually silly and the characters, while well-developed, are extreme versions of human archetypes. Yet at his best, Brooks channeled this humor into a powerful mockery of the worst aspects of our collective history, traits and culture. "The Producers," for example, turns Nazi propaganda against itself, making the “show within a show” Springtime For Hitler a joke not just for the film audience, but the fictional theater audience as well. With "Blazing Saddles," Brooks was able to ridicule the ignorance of racism while also acknowledging its deep roots in American society. "Young Frankenstein" turns a source of fear into a source for laughter, with the horror film style actually driving the film’s comedy. In a memorable scene from "History of the World, Part I," Brooks turned the atrocities of the Spanish inquisition into an absurd song-and-dance number reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s musical numbers, underscoring the fact that the demonization of others is always a farcical pageant (j’accuse, Donald Trump). Even Brooks’s early TV work on "Get Smart" transformed the paranoia of the Cold War – which was very real in the 1960’s – into a spy game played by buffoons. With the current rise of “dramedies” in film and TV, we perhaps forget that it’s possible to be funny without being entirely serious or realistic. Brooks reminds us this doesn’t have to be the case.
Mel Brooks was trans-media before the cool kids were all doing it. This perhaps isn’t that surprising considering his early days working on stages and comedy writers’ rooms, but Brooks has never simply limited himself to one media format. His first feature, "The Producers," was set in the world of Broadway; Brooks’s own later stage adaptation revived a lagging theater culture and became the "Hamilton" of its day in the early 21st century (yeah, we’re talking ancient history here). His film "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" actually grew out of "When We Were Rotten," a short-lived TV series he created in the 1970’s. What’s more, a song from "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" is derived from a bit in the preview to the fake sequel for "History of the World, Part I" in that film’s epilogue. And perhaps the best joke in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" is a callback reference to "Blazing Saddles." Brooks also produced the film "My Favorite Year," which drew on his own experiences working as a comedy writer in an early TV variety show; he’s even produced films directed by David Lynch and David Cronenberg, two filmmakers who are not exactly known for their lighthearted comedic romps. Brooks has never been content to view popular culture as a closed box, instead exploring different creative outlets and experimenting with alternative formats and styles.
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