Leigh B. Pennington
Leigh B. Pennington

Reacting to Humanity: YouTube and Mel Brooks

(Twitter)
(Twitter)

We all know the satisfying feeling of introducing someone else to a movie or TV show that is near and dear to our own hearts, our sense of identity. The YouTube reaction channel is nothing new in the world of media and entertainment, but it is still one of the best and most fascinating phenomena in my humble opinion. Not only does it scratch my anthropological itch, but it renews my faith in people’s ability to want to understand one another, as cliche as that sounds.

Sue me, I really like watching someone discover a new piece of culture, media, or information that they had never encountered before and that alters their perception of the world. People connect to one another based on their shared feelings or experiences. YouTube is one of the best places to catch these glimpses of humanity and to see Jewish stories and history interact and affect other entire demographics of people.

One film that seems to have received a substantial amount of reactions is the 1974 comedy classic Blazing Saddles. Some of these are Half and Jai, IT’S MR. VIDEO, Frankenstein’s Lab, and James VS Cinema. These reactors hail from different backgrounds but they all come from the Black community, each bringing a new perspective. It is interesting to see how these Black reactors relate to a story about the stupidity of racism told through the lens of Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor.

Let’s start with one of my all time favorite reactors, the man who ain’t afraid to smoke a joint on camera, and has some of the most genuine and emotion filled reactions that I have come across. The incomparable MR. VIDEO. He feels with the characters he watches, taking on the emotional portrait that each film projects. It takes me back to my own memories of the first time I watched some of the most life changing and staple films of my childhood. Films like Lord of the Rings, Legally Blonde, There Is Something About Mary and more. Movies that defined generations and still continue to do so.

Now Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (for those of you who haven’t seen it I will try not to include any spoilers) is no shrinking violet of a film. It has been dubbed by many to be the funniest movie of all time, surpassing even great comedy works like Monty Python. The film is known for its tendency towards outlandish, chaotic, and frankly offensive satirical rhetoric. Mel Brooks told all his writers, “Write whatever you want, we will all be going to jail after this film.” 

Initially MR. VIDEO is outraged and shocked at the outright racism of some of the jokes but overtime the shock of offense turns into the shock of amusement. Overall, he seems to understand Mel Brook’s outrageous and satirical comedy style talking with the characters offering dialogue back and forth, a testament to his style of full interaction. “They got the Black dude with a Gucci bag!?”

In giving his final thoughts for the film, he says, “That movie was out of control, a lot of stuff said holy smokes, it was a lot of stuff said if I gotta say that again but it was funny if you could get past the little…. you know it was funny. I am pretty sure it was just all humor behind it.” Clearly MR. VIDEO was struggling between wanting to laugh at this satire on racism and not wanting to laugh at something deemed highly inappropriate and deliberately offensive even if to make fun of racism.

One reactor who speaks more to this complicated nature of such a film in today’s world is James vs. Cinema. James is currently a film student at Temple University. In fact his reason for picking Blazing Saddles to review is because one of his film professors recommended that he watch the movie for his channel. James gives a lot of useful commentary on film background, technicalities, and history. He is definitely what one would call “learned” in his craft and his interests. 

Still initially shocked like everyone else by the film’s outright racist nature, but seems more amused than anything else. He even congratulates the filmmakers for having the cojones to go through with a film of this nature. “I am laughing at the absolute absurdity of this…I am surprised at how unfiltered this is… it is something I am not used to seeing and it’s more hilarious because of that.”

James understands the satirical social commentary intention of the film better than most. “I am happy that this film is making fun of how people thought about color and just race back then and how idiotic it made people look. Hence the characters.” He likes that Sheriff Bart is tackling difficult situations with his wits. He is arguably the smartest man in the film which was not an unconscious decision.

James also recognizes that this movie could probably not survive if it were released today. However he acknowledges that the movie’s ability to tell the ugly truth is something super rare and of its time. “This film would get so canceled….You know I feel like comedy films rather or comedy as a whole are not able to get away with this texture of comedy. I just don’t think it would fly, which is sad.” James acknowledges that it is a pity that despite the obvious merit in telling these kinds of jokes, jokes that match the insanity of the topic which they are critiquing, it could not happen today.

Reactions to major Jewish movie blockbusters from people across the vast spectrum of humanity provides me with a sense of hope. It speaks volumes about the breadth and depth of such people who seek to experience and to understand. Those who go looking for other perspectives and share those perspectives. In doing so they uplift the work of Jewish artists and filmmakers like Mel Brooks, and help usher in and introduce these films to new generations.

About the Author
Born and raised in Richmond Virginia Leigh Pennington currently attends The Hebrew University of Jerusalem pursuing a Masters degree in Jewish Studies at the Rothberg International School. Prior to moving to Israel Leigh studied Anthropology, Art History, and Religion at Concordia University in Montreal. She has been involved in several cultural preservation and historical institutions and currently interns for The Ethiopian National Project as an oral history consultant for Project Ti'ud.
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