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Blazing Saddles and the Power of Parody

Fri, 1 Mar 2024

Mel Brooks' hilarious, boundary-pushing 1974 Western comedy Blazing Saddles is a masterclass in the art of parody. But why doesn't it violate the copyrights of the classic Western films it relentlessly skewers? The answer is found within the principle of fair use and the transformative nature of parody.

If you ever find yourself accused of copyright violation, an excellent first line of defense might seem to be, "But it was a parody!" Of course, just calling something a parody doesn't make it so, but true parodies often fall under the umbrella of "fair use" within copyright law. This means you can cleverly poke fun at existing works without being immediately sued into oblivion.

Let's look at why parody often gets a thumbs-up from copyright law and use the outrageously hilarious Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles as our prime example of how to do parody correctly.

What is Parody?

In a nutshell, parody is a humorous or satirical imitation of an existing work, poking fun at the original's style, themes, or conventions. It's a form of commentary and a powerful one at that. It borrows elements from the original to create something new with the goal of commentary or criticism. Good parodies cleverly point out the flaws, tropes, or just plain absurdities of the original piece or even the genre it represents.

Parody vs. Copyright Infringement: It's Complicated

Fair use allows exceptions for purposes including:

  • Criticism and commentary: Think of a scathing movie review with some clips.
  • Research or scholarship: Including parts of a text in a historical analysis
  • News reporting: Using a small portion of a song in a news story about the musician.
  • Parody: Where the fun (and the legal arguments) begin!

Fair use is a principle in copyright law that allows using copyrighted material for specific purposes, including parody. Courts consider several factors when evaluating what's "fair":

  • Purpose: Is the new work transformative? Does it add something unique or offer social commentary or critique rather than purely copying for profit? Parody scores big here.
  • Nature of the original work: Fact-based works are given more leeway than purely creative ones.
  • Amount used: Did you use just enough of the original to make your point? Generally, less is better.
  • Effect on the original's market: Is the parody a substitute for the original?

Why Fair Use Matters to Parody

Fair use protects parodies because they promote new creative expression and cultural critique. We gain a rich, humorous, and insightful commentary tradition with it.

What Makes a Good Parody?

A successful parody walks a fine line. It needs to:

  • Target the original work. A parody should reference the work it's poking fun at. It's a commentary on that specific thing, not a vague imitation of a genre.
  • Be transformative. Parodies aren't exact copies - They need to add something new, not just repeat the original work with a weak gag. The best parodies offer a fresh perspective, critique, or humorous jab at the original.

Why Parody Matters

  • Free Speech: Parody falls under the protection of free speech rights, allowing artists to criticize, comment on, and poke fun at existing cultural works.
  • Transformative Art: Parody isn't simple copying. It transforms an existing work into something new, using the original as a foundation for fresh humor and insight.
  • Breaking Conventions: Parody can highlight clich├ęs, challenge cultural norms, and force us to see familiar things with new eyes.

Blazing Saddles: A Wild West Masterclass of Parody

Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles is a hilarious and provocative parody of the Western genre. Let's see how it perfectly exemplifies the power of parody.

The Target: The Western Film, Roasted. The film is a loving (yet relentless) send-up of Western tropes. The film mocks classic Western tropes:

  • The lone gunslinger
  • The besieged town
  • The saloon brawl
  • Racist townsfolk
  • Predictable plotlines
  • Overly dramatic musical scores
  • Those sweeping desert landscapes

It even includes scenes that directly reference older films.

Transformative Take: Brooks doesn't simply copy those tropes of Western scenes; he turns them on their head and subverts them for comedic effect. The hero is a Black sheriff, the villains are hilariously incompetent, and the film gleefully breaks the fourth wall with meta-humor. The classic campfire bean-eating scene explodes into a riotous moment of absurd bodily humor, making us rethink what we expect from the genre. Blazing Saddles doesn't just make us laugh at old Westerns; beneath the fart jokes and slapstick, Blazing Saddles challenges their outdated themes and makes a sharp critique of racism and prejudice.

Blazing Saddles aimed squarely at exposing the racism and tired tropes in classic Westerns. It wasn't just a copy for cheap laughs; it had a pointed social message.

Nature of the Work: Westerns, while creative, lean heavily on established formulas. Parodying those formulas is more straightforward to justify.

Amount Used: Brooks borrowed iconic imagery (showdowns, saloon brawls) but twisted them to absurdity, taking only what was necessary for his commentary.

Market Effect: Did Blazing Saddles stop people from watching classic Westerns? Not likely! It likely boosted interest in the genre, even as it poked fun.

Parody: Not a Free Pass

Fair use isn't an ironclad guarantee. Parody, like satire, walks a fine line. A parody can still be challenged if you change too little of the original or fail to transform it meaningfully. You're probably out of luck if your "parody" lacks any commentary or transformative purpose. However, parody enjoys strong protection if the goal is creating something new that uses the original for commentary. Blazing Saddles succeeds because it offers a fresh, funny perspective on a well-known genre.

The Enduring Power of Parody

Parody is a powerful tool. Blazing Saddles demonstrated the power of parody to poke holes in popular narratives, challenge assumptions, find new meaning in familiar works, and sometimes provide a good laugh. Just don't sit too close to the campfire when those beans come out.