If you’re looking for the ingredients for a hit comedy, here’s the Mel Brooks recipe: joke about Nazis, self-deprecate Jews, launch into unabashed racism, mock Star Wars and then re-commence the poking fun at Jewish people. Sounds more like the formula for stepping on a bunch of politically correct land-mines than for churning out iconic comedies, doesn’t it? Well, we can all learn a valuable lesson from Mel: If you’re funny, nobody is going to take offense Here are the ten performances in his movies that pushed the envelope.
1. Mel Brooks as everyone in History of the World Part I (1981)
Not content to stop with Moses, Brooks also gave life to Louis XIV, Jacques the garcon de pisse,
15th Century Spanish grand inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, and Comicus,
the stand-up philosopher. When else do we get to see an actor receive
the Ten Commandments, perform stand-up for Julius Caesar and play “gang-bang chess”? And it gets riskier: As Comicus, Brooks’ opening joke is directed at the vast majority of the director’s audience: “Have you heard about this new cult, the Christians? They’re so
poor they have only ONE god!!!”
2. Mel Brooks as Frederick Bronski as Adolf Hitler in To Be or Not to Be (1983)
Brooks has worked with some great actors over the years, but in To Be or Not to Be,
he reserved the most outrageous part for himself, as
Frederick Bronski, a Polish actor in 1939’s Warsaw who takes the stage
as Hitler in a musical called “The Naughty Nazis.” Brooks, playing
Bronski playing Hitler, dances on stage while singing
lyrics like, “I just wants peace… A little piece of Poland, a little
piece of France.” It sounds a lot like The Producers , but here’s what’s different: Brooks recorded a music video of himself rapping as Hitler
for the soundtrack, featuring leather-clad, shirtless men and, of
course, break-dancing. And we all know you can’t top a rapping,
break-dancing, middle-aged Jewish man dressed as Hitler.
3. Kenneth Mars as Franz Liebkind in The Producers (1968)
Some things that aren’t supposed to be funny. One might think that
portraying Hitler’s biggest fan might just fall into that category. But
then, one would be underestimating the talents of Mars and Brooks. As
Liebkind, the writer of “Springtime for Hitler,” the intentionally
preposterous musical, Mars plays the Fuhrer’s unabashed admirer,
regularly extolling his dancing skills and making preposterous claims
such as that Hitler could “paint an entire apartment in one afternoon”
with “two coats!”
4. Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles (1974)
The movie’s liberal use of the N-word is enough to
make a rapper blush, but proves if you’re funny, you can do anything (like
Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder). Blazing Saddles
was co-written by Richard Pryor and you can see his outrageous sense of
humor in Sheriff Bart. Little makes a difficult part
work while simultaneously embracing and defying stereotypes. Yes, he
has a Gucci saddle, and he’s just a railroad worker — but he’s also
smarter than all the racist residents of Rock Ridge.
5. Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Spaceballs! (1987)
They aren’t exactly an aggrieved minority, but if you’re an entertainer: You don’t want to alienate Star Wars fans. With Spaceballs! Brooks
mined the scifi genre for comedy. In lesser hands, the Vader impersonation might have ended up ridiculous, but Moranis
knocks it out of the solar system by seemingly asking “what if Woody
Allen was a intergalactic super-villain?” Hey, it’s not like Brooks didn’t predict Jews in space.
6. Gene Wilder as Jim in Blazing Saddles (1974)
In Blazing Saddles,
Wilder managed to pull off a twofold spoof. As the vanilla to Cleavon
Little’s chocolate, “The Waco Kid,” lampoons race relations and
the Clint Eastwoods and John Waynes of the world in one swift blow.
Parodying Westerns may not seem as perilous as making fun of Star Wars, but any reader of this site can tell you that cowboy icons have hardcore
fans too. It’s not every day you get to see a man sneak
into a KKK rally with his black partner one minute and shoot the guns
out of the bad guy’s hands the next.
7. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock in The Producers (1968)
Released only a quarter century
after the end of World War II, there was no reason to think a movie with Nazi jokes would succeed. Can you imagine a movie that draws its
humor from the happy-go-lucky hidden side of Osama Bin Laden being a
wild success in 2024? But Mostel,
himself at the end of a long career, is able to exploit tragedy, and
evoke sympathy and laughter for the desperate Bialystock. And just like “Springtime For Hitler,”
The Producers became a huge hit.
8. Mark Blankfield as Blinkin in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
We’ve covered race, religion, Star Wars
and Nazis. What’s left but disability? Hence, Blinkin, blind servant to
Robin Hood. Blinkin’s lack of sight makes for never-ending
physical comedy, which while not quite as clever as many of the
aforementioned characters, is endlessly effective. Blinkin hugs a
statue of a woman he thinks to be Robin and remarks “You lost your arms
in battle! But you grew some nice boobs.” He runs into a tree and
thinks he can see… until he runs immediately into another.
9. Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa in Spaceballs! (1987)
She’s a Druish princess. Get it? As Princess Vespa, Zuniga plays
directly to stereotype with hilarious results. Yet, like Cleavon Little
as Sheriff Bart, she exceeds the limits set by the stereotype.
Sure this Druish Princess has a Mercedes Spaceship and got a nose job
for her birthday, but by movie’s end, Vespa is shooting Dark
Helmet’s guards and marrying the rogue Captain Lone Star.
10. Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
An unknown at the time of its release, Chapelle is introduced to audience in the edgiest scene of the movie, one that referenced a major racial flash point of the time: As he’s
being pummeled by soldiers, Ahchoo shouts, “I hope someone is getting
video of this!” The movie was released
just a year after the L.A. riots and in the manner he would become
known for years later, Chappelle stands there and jokes about it.