The campfire scene, or as we all know it ‘the Campfire Scene,’ in Blazing Saddles is the gross-out comedy film version of “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Mine is a common one. I first saw Blazing Saddles with my mother, my brother and a buddy of his, in a drive-in, in 1980. (It was the middle of a triple feature; the opener was Oh, God! and the closer was Clint Eastwood’s The Enforcer. Lordy, what a 70s trilogy!) None of us had seen it before, but we were all fans of Young Frankenstein. Sure, there were plenty of jokes only my mother got, i.e. Hedley Lamarr, but we all laughed plenty. But then there was the Campfire Scene…
I laughed more than I ever had in my life. All of us did. The whole car was shaking. I remember hitting the dashboard with my fists, doubled over. In retrospect, I thought the scene had lasted minutes, but that’s what can happen when you stop breathing.
That was 1980. Now let’s go back to the summer of 1973. While Mel Brooks was finishing Blazing Saddles, he gave an interview to the late, great Crawdaddy! , the first U.S. magazine of rock and roll music and pop culture criticism. The article ran that October, four months before the film’s release. Even though The Twelve Chairs, his prior film—and his second film—flopped, which might have condemned him to One Hit Wonder status for The Producers, he was incredibly confident in his conversation with interviewer Peter Knobler. He knew he had a hit on his hands. What really caught my eye is how liberally he quotes his film—verbatim (i.e. “Somebody has to go back and get a shitload of dimes!”)—at times spoiling plot points. This seems unusual for an article he knows will be published before his film is released.
But when he describes the Campfire Scene, he does something particularly interesting. Here’s the quote:
“Fifteen guys sitting around a campfire…And I have a close-up on beans. Pull back…a greptz [burp] to begin with. And then fifteen guys…farting…for two minutes.”
OK, now, since we can never get enough of this, let’s watch it again, with Mel’s quote in mind:
The actual hardcore ‘action’ in the Campfire Scene is less than 40 seconds, so why does he say “two minutes”? Because Mel Brooks knows that in print “farting for 40 seconds” isn’t funny and that seeing farting for forty seconds will feel like two minutes. To verbally describe that scene accurately would be a disservice to the impact of the scene.
In my case, I know after I saw the film I ran back to my chums and told them Blazing Saddles has “this scene where a bunch of guys fart for ten minutes!”
Feel free to share the story of your First Time.
By the way, I must plug the book Very Seventies: A Cultural History of the 70s From the Pages of Crawdaddy!, edited by Peter Knobler and Greg Mitchell. It’s great profiles, interviews and reviews about that decade. I half expect more blog posts to be inspired by the essays in this book.
Also, if you’d like more insight into the inexplicability of being “funny,” check out Dick Cavett’s 2007 NY Times blog entry, “A Life in Rim Shots”.