Mel Brooks is often regarded as one of the masters of comedy, but his greatest cinematic achievements are his three collaborations with Gene Wilder, who recently passed in August. In 1974, Brooks and Wilder made two classic films that remain hilarious and have shaped modern comedy: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Parody is a difficult subgenre to perfect, but Wilder and Brooks’ one-two punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein serves as the quintessence of the genre. Although both borrowed heavily from other sources (and spoofed them lovingly), both films work well even without the jokes. Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) is instantly relatable and sympathetic: He’s a black sheriff forced to protect a racist town. Similarly, Young Frankenstein’s “Froderick Fronkensteen” (Gene Wilder) tries to distance himself from his grandfather’s notoriety but nevertheless becomes another Frankenstein.
Despite the constant jokes, both scripts focus on the main characters, and neither film would be as memorable or—dare I say—as moving without the relationships between Bart and the Waco Kid (Wilder) or Freddie and The Monster (Peter Boyle). The worst comedies focus on jokes rather than character, but Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein have endured for decades because the audience cares about the characters, characters who have specific goals (for Bart, it’s to keep the town safe; for Freddie, it’s to succeed where his grandfather failed), many obstacles (both scripts pit the main characters against their new towns, among other conflicts), and a healthy sense of humor (these are comedies after all).
The influence of Blazing Saddles can be seen in many R-rated comedies since then, in everything from National Lampoon’s movies to Wet Hot American Summer, American Pie, and South Park. Written by Brooks, Richard Pryor, Andrew Bergman (1979’s The In-Laws, The Freshman), Norman Steinberg (the underrated My Favorite Year), and Al Uger, the film remains timely and provides an important commentary on racism. And at three laughs per minute (minimum), it is one of the funniest movies ever made and features the amazing Madeline Kahn in a hilarious, Academy Award–nominated performance.
Young Frankenstein, on the other hand, is perhaps the most well-made comedy in not only Mel Brooks’ oeuvre but also film history. Brooks and Wilder’s screenplay was deservingly nominated for an Oscar, the directing and cinematography perfectly capture the look and feel of James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, the music by frequent Brooks collaborator Howard Morris is spectacular, and the film’s pacing and timing serve as an excellent masterclass for anyone who wants to write, direct, act, or do literally anything comedy-related. Wilder anchors the film as the manic younger Frankenstein, and his performance remains one of the greatest in comedy history in a film that features tons of great performances.
Many members of both casts and crews have died over the past few decades. Wilder’s Blazing Saddles co-star David Huddleston, better known for his role as the Big Lebowski, passed in August as well and earned plenty of laughs as the town’s mayor, Olson Johnson. The world has also lost Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn, Richard Pryor, Harvey Korman, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Slim Pickens, Kenneth Mars, and Dom DeLuise, all of whom left their marks on these cinematic masterpieces as well many other films and shows.
And with that, R.I.P., Gene and everyone else, and thank you all for the many laughs. You each helped make the world a brighter place.