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Go west, young comic: 'Million Ways' should learn from 'Blazing Saddles'

It's been a long time since American movie audiences have saddled up and gone out to a big-screen comic western. "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane is trying to make them do just that with "A Million Ways to Die in the West," which opens Friday. MacFarlane plays an amiable coward in a pioneer town where death lurks behind every pratfall. Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron and
IMAGE: Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlaneAP

It's been a long time since American movie audiences have saddled up and gone out to a big-screen comic western. "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane is trying to make them do just that with "A Million Ways to Die in the West," which opens Friday. MacFarlane plays an amiable coward in a pioneer town where death lurks behind every pratfall. Neil Patrick Harris, Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson also star.

Sheepish? Seth MacFarlane directs, co-wrote and stars in \"A Million Ways to Die in the West.\"Today

Convincing moviegoers to find a home on the range won't be easy. The last genuine success on the comic side of the genre came 40 years ago with the much-beloved "Blazing Saddles."

"They can’t make that movie today because everybody’s so politically correct," director Mel Brooks told Yahoo! Movies about the classic film.

He expanded on that idea with HitFix: "Comedy has to be outrageous. It has to be the jester whispering the most salacious things about that dancing girl into the king's ear." Seth MacFarlane agrees with Brooks: "I think comedy should not be polite. Comedy should be risky."

Amanda Seyfried and Neil Patrick Harris in a scene from \"A Million Ways to Die in the West.\"Today

MacFarlane's tastes lean toward the rude and the randy, but he could take a few lessons from Brooks and his "Blazing" frontier farce.

Know your western clichés
In "Blazing Saddles," Frankie Laine belts out the hilariously painful similes of the spoofing theme song ("He rode a blazing saddle…") with the same gravity he brought to "The Gunfight at O.K. Corral," "3:10 to Yuma" and all the other leathery tunes he sang for the classic westerns. That sets the stage for a film that never met a cowboy convention it didn't lovingly skewer. Brooks' goofs on Gabby Hayes and Randolph Scott may be lost on modern audiences but MacFarlane has a whole new generation of westerns to lampoon, from "Dances With Wolves" to "Unforgiven" to "Deadwood."

… but offer a modern perspective.
The original idea for "Blazing Saddles" was very simple, as Brooks told Yahoo!: "It was like hip talk — 1974 talk and expressions — happening in 1874 in the Old West." Enter Black Bart (Cleavon Little), a street-smart railway hand who croons Cole Porter and rides the plains in Gucci gear to a swinging Count Basie beat. MacFarlane is a veteran pop culture mixologist in his own right —one episode of "Family Guy" proves that — but he should heed Brooks and add a contemporary social sensibility to the recipe. Otherwise, it's all empty allusions to random cultural references.

Give your audience credit for sophistication …
Harvey Korman channels Shakespeare's "Henry V" for Hedley Lamarr's rousing speech to his hordes, then finishes with a punchline out of a Cole Porter song. Brooks simply assumed that his audience would get it. Within this anything-goes spoof of the American western was a raucous satire of racism, and Brooks wasn't coy when it came to taking on bigotry. Audiences clearly got it: "Blazing Saddles" was the comedy hit of 1974.

… and follow it up with a pratfall.
"We did it like the commedia dell'arte," Brooks explained in a new interview for the Blu-ray special edition of "Blazing Saddles." It was all about mixing highbrow and lowbrow. If someone missed a joke, there was always a slapstick gag in the wings. Or better yet, a flatulence joke right out of an adolescent boy's giggling fit. Campfire meals have never been the same since.

If it's funny, then you haven't gone too far
Brooks put a sign up in his writers' room: "Please do not write a polite script." His co-writer Richard Pryor, who was pushing the boundaries of race and comedy in his own stand-up act, obliged. “Every time I said to Richard, ‘Can I use the n-word here?’ he said, ‘Yes,’” remembers Brooks. Decades later, the AFI voted "Saddles" the sixth-funniest film of all time.

You have to love it to lampoon it.
"Blazing Saddles" works for a number of reasons, but it ultimately comes down to Brooks' love of the genre and his commitment to the message. "Racial prejudice is the little choo-choo train that drives all of "Blazing Saddles,"" he explained to Yahoo! "And then I can hang every Western cliché I want to have fun with. And yet, you got to love something, you just can’t make fun of it, you got to make fun with it."