It’s Another 50th Anniversary!

February 22, 2024

It’s Another 50th Anniversary!

HEY PLAYSTERS! Apropos of nothing, I want to share with you an excerpt from Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture. Well, not quite nothing. For the most direct route to Trickster essence is through its Great American Icon, Bugs Bunny.
When I wrote Disruptive Play, not so long ago, I was certain that Bugs was immortal, a  character who would always loom large and ubiquitous. But media saturation, that endless flow content that clogs and floods our honeycombed brains, could shove Bugs right off the pop culture stage. Say it ain’t so! I’m mortified!!! Mortified and motivated to give this essential Trickster all the attention he deserves. Yes, Bugs is now a rescue bunny. America needs Bugs. Now more than ever.
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In Disruptive Play, I present Bugs’ cosmic, comic origin; and his uncanny resemblance to Wakdjunkaga, the Trickster god of the Winnebago tribe. Wakdjunkaga stars in their Trickster tales, the oldest stories known to humanity. But today I’m sharing an excerpt about what Mel Brooks did to bring Bugs Bunnyism and Trickster (non)sensibility center stage in one of his best comedies, Blazing Saddles, which celebrated its 50th anniversary just two weeks ago (released 2/7/74):

Bugs Bunny had been romping through the American psyche for decades, but by 1969 the golden age of animation was coming to a close and the mainstream popularity of this Trickster icon was waning. The entertainment machine was metastasizing and gearing up for new characters and the 500-channel cable reality that was to take over in the 1980s.

But in 1974, Mel Brooks released his masterful satire of the Hollywood western, Blazing Saddles. The film is, in essence, a 90-minute Bugs Bunny cartoon that launches the Trickster myth anew into politics. The plot twists and wanders like a Wakdjunkaga story cycle, evoking the cartoon irrationality of the archetype. Now the Bugs figure is a black man (Cleavon Little as Bart) who ends up as sheriff in a blatantly racist Wild West, where he is demeaned and called the n word in almost every scene. Yet as Trickster he wins battles and sustains the appropriate slapstick mockery that makes for powerful anti-racist satire. The film endures as a signpost for how Americans have yet to come to terms with their most tenacious malignancy.

Trickster mythology pops up everywhere in Blazing Saddles. First and probably the most famous is the fart joke where the bad guy cowpokes are sitting around a campfire eating beans. In another, Bart invents the Candygram, disguises himself as a Western Union courier, and has the candy box explode in the Mongo-the-bad-guy’s face . . . they even appropriate the Looney Tunes music when the prank is set and Bart makes his speedy exit.

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Madeleine Kahn as Lili von Shtupp is the German temptress modeled after Marlene Dietrich…except she talks with a lisp, and even has a line that goes ‘I’m Not a Wabbit’.

The movie takes place in 1874, yet has elements of trickster time travel, like a medieval executioner in the middle of an Old West town, and World War I German soldiers as von Shtupp’s backup dancers in the saloon. Eventually the whole movie breaks the fourth wall, and in oblique homage to Looney Tunes’ Duck Amuck,[1] the action bleeds onto the various Warner Brothers sets, including a crew of male dancers being directed by a fey Dom DeLuise.

The film uses the old gag where our heroes, Bart and the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), subdue a couple of the enemies, in this case two members of the Ku Klux Klan, stealing and donning their costumes. When their disguises are easily discovered (get it, black guy in a KKK robe?), Bart quips ‘And now, for my next impression…Jesse Owens!’ as he skedaddles, just as you would expect in a cartoon.[2] Or, for example, in the Winnebago tale where Wakdjunkaga must elude an angry brother or duped tribe.

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Bugs Bunny and Blazing Saddles are both released and distributed by Warner Brothers. Brooks was inspired, this was the only movie he made for the House of Bugs. This is significant because Blazing Saddles takes risks that, for example, Disney Studios would have never abided, like the frequent use of the N word; and it’s very ribald and R-Rated. Even the Warner Brothers folks almost refused to release it, taking the loss rather than risking condemnation.

And many reviewers did not like it, reacting to its low-brow approach. Yet it is #6 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest comedies; it was a huge box office hit, making more money than any other for Warner Brothers that summer. And Madeleine Kahn received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination.

Thus the trickster elements of a winning and powerful pranksterism, mockery of our follies (in this case racism), hero in disguise, time travel, fart jokes, and references to the hare strike a timeless chord with a broad audience. Carl Jung would nod in satisfaction at how this ancient archetype emerged on the modern stage. And Blazing Saddles is relevant, clearly pointing out that we are still plagued by racism. Yet the film—thanks to screenplay writers Richard Pryor[3] and Mel Brooks—graces us with playfulness about something that more commonly inspires solemnity and testaments of suffering and oppression.Disruptive play strikes again from Bugs Bunny, a trickster demigod. He munches on his eternal carrot and asks us. ‘ehh, what’s up, doc?’ And the best of Western culture nudges us to incorporate Bugs as our own inner Director, bringing us closer to The Play Society.

Oh, come on. How could something as silly as elevating the status of Bugs Bunny, of proposing what essentially amounts to carnival as social model even be worth consideration?




Now get hip to these kindly tips:
Join me for this special one-hour presentation, direct from Chez Chepherd, and brought to you by Humanities Washington, the King County Library System, and Zoom: Click the Coyote to Register
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Click the Coyote to Register
The Trickster in Politics and Culture
Wednesday, March 13, 2024
6:00PM – 7:00PM
Online event
Because when next I post, I’m a-gonna be writing about it. The Trickster is EVERYWHERE in this mind-blowing film

[1] Jones, C. (Director). (1953). Duck Amuck. Warner Brothers.
[3] Richard Pryor was originally cast in the Bart role, but his contract and reputation as a racy comedian kept him off the screen. As part of the writing team, however, his humor is evident throughout.


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