April in Glenwood: Happy trails to you, Waco Kid
One of the inescapable realities of growing old is losing our heroes.
I suppose that’s been happening since I started saying goodbye to my own grandparents from the sensitive age of 6, creeping all the way into my 40s. I really don’t think there’s a love that touches us as deeply as our grandparents’. They have all the sleep they were missing when they were parents of little kids. So they’re typically much less tired when handling the antics of a toddler learning to walk or rummage through the cabinets. And since grandparents aren’t usually solely responsible for discipline, they also have the enviable freedom to shower grandkids with candy and fun stuff to play with at their liberal discretion.
They are great sources of wise thoughts and advice, too.
Childhood heroes also come in the form of teachers, club mentors, coaches, sports figures and, often in my case, comedians and musicians. This week I’m mourning the loss of one of my early comedy influences. Actor-comedian Gene Wilder died Monday from complications of Alzheimer’s, a disease I’ve watched devastate loved ones on a firsthand basis.
I’m hoping a cure is found in my lifetime.
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Wilder, who I hold most dearly to my heart as the Waco Kid from my top-5 favorite ’70s comedy, “Blazing Saddles,” was 83. He had an eventful life, still making people smile as he coped with his degenerative disease in his later years. His family has said in keeping his condition private, he could still be recognized in public as the cherished childhood character Willy Wonka, of the original “Willy Wonka at the Chocolate Factory” musical fantasy fame. I recently heard Fred Astaire was considered for that role because of his film and dancing prowess.
I doubt he would’ve brought the sly comedic timing like Wilder did.
That clever comedy skill — a talent I know can be learned and perfected, but I believe comes naturally in truly funny people — is what gave Wilder such originality and authenticity. His timing took sarcasm to a creative level, one that’s rarely replicated today with as much cool style and confidence he possessed. Will Ferrell has it. So does my old Comedy Mercenaries colleague and friend Mark Thomas. We were a lot like Lucy and Ricky when we performed together.
Or maybe it was more like Lucy and Ethel, in light of the shenanigans.
Wilder delivered the most-quoted of the sharp one-liners and zingers best known by generations of fans of Mel Brooks-birthed satire. With direction by Brooks, Wilder and his longtime friend brought us such comedy masterpieces as “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “The Producers.” I’m sure the first time I watched “Blazing Saddles” I probably didn’t get half the jokes or one-liners.
But I laughed, and that made all the difference.
I also likely didn’t fully comprehend the cultural significance of Brooks’ artful parody of the social complexities surrounding racial inequality. In short, they used comedy to have a voice. By making fun of the attitudes and actions of many people who were still passing on close-minded beliefs to their children, Wilder and Brooks hoped to instigate change.
All with writing and humor.
This is my kind of approach, to mock the ridiculousness of racism and parody awkward life situations I can’t quite comprehend. I’m a pro at reacting to problems and confusion with humor. Watching Mel Brooks movies including “History of the World, Part One,” “Space Balls,” and “Young Frankenstein” as I was growing up probably has something to do with that.
Actually, it had a lot to do with my dark wit.
I still I use the line, “Don’t get saucy with me, Bernaise” in everyday conversation, thanks to the timeless retort by one of my favorite film characters, Count de Monet, in “History of the World.”
I’m hoping Part Two, or Part Deux as I envision it, comes out any day now.
As many of my childhood heroes who have gone to the light — from my Grandma Betty to Prince — there won’t be another Gene Wilder. There actually won’t be another one of any of us, as human genealogy goes. But with this recent loss of such a powerful comedy influence, Wilder’s death feels so permanent. Like the end of an era. Maybe it’s because comedy continues to morph, and I’m afraid political correctness will hinder its ability to make a difference or instigate social change. I’m also sad in realizing there will never be another comedy film as brilliant as “Blazing Saddles.”
Happy trails to you, Jim.
April E. Clark wishes for a contest she could enter for the chance to meet Mel Brooks. She can be reached at aprilelizabethclark@gmail.
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