As a member of the legendary writing staff of NBC's "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s, Mel Brooks played a key role in pushing the formal boundaries of television comedy, so it stands to reason that he would be equally adventurous behind the lens of a film camera. Taking his cues from such pioneering entertainments as Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" and H.C. Potter's "Hellzapoppin'," Brooks played broadly to viewers, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to get them involved in the front. He does this multiple times in "Blazing Saddles:" in one instance, he has Harvey Korman's Hedley Lamarr pause his direct-to-camera scheming to ponder to the audience, "Why am I asking you?" There's also the moment where the film's climactic melee crashes into the set of a Busby Berkeley musical, prompting Slim Pickens to blurt out "P*** on you, I'm working for Mel Brooks" before walloping the movie's snarky director (Dom DeLuise).

As with many weapons in a comedy filmmaker's arsenal, the fourth wall break is to be used sparingly. Break it out too often, and you'll render it ineffective. For Brooks, knowing when and how to do it is a matter of feel.

Breaking The Fourth Wall Is For Closers

In an illuminating 2021 interview with The New Yorker's Michael Schulman, Mel Brooks was asked about his deployment of the comedic device. His answer was amusingly practical:

"That's a very good question. That may be in your bones, to know, O.K., it's time to shatter the illusion of make-believe and bring it into the real world — because it's going to get a big laugh, and a big laugh is worth a lot. That was when I gave in to a new kind of comedy. Like in 'High Anxiety,' the camera getting closer and closer to the glass door and then finally not knowing when to stop, and it shatters the door, and everybody at the table turns."

Brooks has gone to this well several times since "High Anxiety," most notably in "History of the World Part I" ("It's Good to Be the King") and "Spaceballs" (the rewinding and fast-forwarding of the film's VHS cassette), and he always scores belly laughs. It's also a staple of comedies from the ZAZ team ("Airplane") and John Landis ("Trading Places") of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker. You'll also find it on occasion in a Martin Scorsese movie (like Henry Hill's courtroom scene in "Goodfellas" where he exits the witness stand and speaks directly to the audience).

It's a jarringly effective technique, but one reserved for advanced/genius filmmakers. When in doubt, don't do it. Let your characters keep their thoughts to themselves.

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The post One Key to Mel Brooks' Comedy Was Knowing Exactly When to Break the Fourth Wall appeared first on /Film.