The comedy western is something that’s needed a revival for a long time after years of being mired in overly serious characters behind giant mustaches, bandanas, and romances. While the western has seen some brief glimpses of returning to movies, it’s mostly worked as a TV product over the last 25 years. After the TV success of “Lonesome Dove” in the late 1980s and early ’90s, we saw a huge spate of one-shot western movies done on network TV and mostly cable. Along the way, cable kept airing one movie that seemed to never be matched in the way of comedy in a western: Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”
At 40 years old now, “Blazing Saddles” had much more influence on comedies to come than it did in influencing any westerns. In fact, it’s a miracle any western was taken seriously again after every western plot contrivance was taken to the cleaners in “Saddles.” Also, in the rare chance you ever have a homework assignment on the origins of farts in movie history, you can start with the “Blazing Saddles” campfire scene.
There isn’t a doubt that the influence of Brooks’ western classic also influenced Seth MacFarlane and his brand of comedy. While Brooks added real artistic edges to his crude comedy, some argue that MacFarlane doesn’t come close to the same. Others say otherwise based on the continual success of “Family Guy” and its astute insights into pop culture. Now we may determine just how much “Blazing Saddles” influenced MacFarlane by seeing how his “A Million Ways to Die in the West” goes over with mainstream audiences.
Will America Embrace a Raunchy Western Comedy?
If you’ve seen the red-band trailer for “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, then you know the film obviously takes the same approach Brooks used in “Blazing Saddles.” The only difference is that the gags are even raunchier, including adding plenty of blood. The falling block of ice scene at the beginning of the trailer is one-half Brooks gag, and the other half very MacFarlane with the sight of a bloody handler squashed under the ice.
From then on, you can see MacFarlane giving nods to “Blazing Saddles” while also taking their gags and taking them even further over the line. The final gunfight scene showing MacFarlane mimicking a certain male organ in shadow tells you that even those who saw “Blazing Saddles” in its original theatrical run will raise an eyebrow.
The question is whether MacFarlane can kick off a new renaissance of comedy westerns without necessarily having to be raunchy. Is that possible after the raunch bar has already been set and there’s no other precedent to go on?
The Wild West in Comedy May Always Be Raunchy
Historians who talk about the real Wild West may say “Blazing Saddles” and “A Million Ways to Die in the West” perhaps show more of the spirit of what really went on than in the serious tales. One thing about Mel Brooks movie and “Saddles” is that he was always brazenly honest about everything, including elements of race. He could make the most uncomfortable subject hilarious without worrying about bags of angry letters being delivered to his door.
MacFarlane, on the other hand, has a number of detractors to his brand of comedy. He may not fare as well on “A Million Ways” without getting some who protest the idea of going a little too far without adding some charm to the mix. Then again, he was also smart to bring Charlize Theron in to perhaps add the dose of charm the movie needs so it doesn’t look like a 120-minute crude trip. Based on the trailer, it’s still going to have more than its share of “I can’t believe they did that” moments.
It all depends on how much human truth MacFarlane can squeeze out of all the garish gags. There’s a considerable difference between showing ranchers letting out loud farts around a campfire compared to a guy getting squashed to a bloody pulp under a block of ice.
The same can be said of Madeline Kahn giving her comment about African-American male genitalia over Sarah Silverman’s prostitute graphically describing her vagina in detail to a naive Giovanni Ribisi.
While a couple of light comedy westerns were made after “Blazing Saddles”, the comedy western is an elusive genre that may be stuck in place. Whether one can be made that gives the same timeless charm as say “The Princess Bride” was for the genre of comedy fantasy, there may be a chance for it to go other places other than having it perpetually accused of being a Mel Brooks-Seth MacFarlane hybrid.