How to Enjoy ‘70s Comedy Classics With a Woke Preteen
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Family & Fatherhood

How to Enjoy ‘70s Comedy Classics With a Woke Preteen

From ‘Blazing Saddles’ to ‘Taxi,’ it’s getting increasingly difficult to revisit our favorite comedies

Actor Gene Wilder (right) puts his arm around the shoulder of Cleavon Little in a still from the film, 'Blazing Saddles,' directed by Mel Brooks, 1974.
Getty Images

As the Gen X father of a 10-year-old girl, I couldn’t wait to bridge the generational divide in our humor and show her the funniest film ever made — 1974’s Blazing Saddles, in all its horse-punching, bean-farting, not-censored-for-TV glory. 

Of course, I remembered the nearly 20 times the N-word was uttered. So, I paused during one of these cringeworthy flurries for a teachable moment. 

This is exactly the small-minded way of seeing the world that Mel Brooks was lampooning, I explained, which is why it’s OK to enjoy this. Kind of like how Michael Scott being all racist and sexist on The Office is funny because of how wrong he is about everything. 

My daughter just glared at me with stunned disappointment.

This wasn’t the first time she was horrified by one of the comedies from my youth. I sat her down to watch the sitcom Taxi, which seemed so progressive and smart to me when it first aired in the late ‘70s. But all my daughter could focus on was Latka Gravas, the goofball foreign mechanic played by Andy Kaufman.

I tried to explain how Latka taught my generation valuable lessons about the people we unintentionally marginalize. But she was having none of it. “Cancelled,” she yelled, before running out of the room.

I found solidarity among my fellow Gen X dads on Facebook — one argued that the Latka character was 100 percent acceptable because it didn’t target any real-world ethnic group — but a nagging thought wouldn’t leave my mind. That look of disappointment on my daughter’s face, it was the same one I had at her age when my grandfather played me a 1951 episode of The Amos ’n Andy Show.

I clearly remember him trying to convince me why the show was hilarious — how it showed larger-than-life characters getting snared by common human foibles. Also, it wasn’t really offensive to Black people, my white grandfather explained, because it was the first medium to portray them with jobs other than butlers or maids and it had the first all-Black cast ever.

Needless to say, Grandpa didn’t convince me. Frankly, I thought less of him for trying.

And the more I thought about Latka, the more I realized that my daughter had a point. An American portraying a foreigner so that American TV viewers can feel more comfortable laughing at foreigners is, well, it’s basically foreigner-face, the ugly cousin of blackface. 

So, what are we supposed to do? Never share all that great comedy footage with our kids because of the parts that didn’t age well? 

Perhaps some advice from Mel Brooks himself is appropriate here. When Warner Bros. Studios handed him a mile-long list of Blazing Saddles script changes that absolutely had to be made, including not just removing the N-words but the farting and (blasphemy!) the horse-punching.

So, what did Mel do? He agreed 100 percent with every note. 

“I said, ‘You’ll never see it again,’” Mel told The New Yorker recently. “I kept saying, ‘You’re absolutely right. It’s out!’ Then, when he left, I crumpled up all his notes.” 

And this is how I propose to show my daughter the classics. I will enjoy each one of them with her — until we hit a snag. Whatever her objection, it will be absolutely correct, of course, and I’ll promise never to watch that movie or show again — a promise I’ll probably break later that night when she goes to bed, and I finish watching alone. 

You don’t need to convince our kids that they’re wrong. Because they’re not wrong. Those comedies are offensive. But Blazing Saddles is still a brilliant film, and you should watch it again whenever possible. Both of those disparate ideas can exist simultaneously.

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