Not helicopter parents, not coma parents, my parents were more like casting agent parents: don’t call us, we’ll call you. It was the late-70s, okay? They made sure we were fed, clothed, law-abiding citizens, but beyond those basic things, they didn’t actively try to dictate our activities or aggressively influence our interests. The exception: comedy.
This was my Dad’s department. He was an alcoholic and, likely, suffered from some form of depression. Not laughing matters, but, man, did laughing really matter in our house. Early on he introduced my older brother and me to the funny legends he grew up with: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye as well as the comics shaping his generation like everyone on Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show, George Carlin, and Mel Brooks. Brooks toed the line between silly and slightly naughty. He stacked his films with enough goofy sight gags, puns, and broad comic material to make ding-dong kids like us laugh, which meant that we were delighted and distracted enough not to really notice the more arch, adult humor that, honestly, my Dad had zero interest explaining to either of us. Win/win.
My first Mel Brooks movie was Blazing Saddles. Set in America’s wild west in the 1870s, the plot revolves around a town (Rock Ridge) that unceremoniously inherits an African-American sheriff named Bart (Cleavon Little). This is part of a larger power play by the villainously inept Gov. William J. Le Petomane (Mel Brooks) and his oily political flunky Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to drive the residents from Rock Ridge so that they can take the land, run a railroad through it, and make millions. But really it’s a satire about racism. Also there’s a scene entirely about farting, a fight sequence that devolves into a ludicrously epic pie fight, and this cartoonish bit with an exploding candy box. A guy actually punches a horse, which I would have felt a lot more guilty laughing over if it weren’t for the hilarious look of anthropomorphic shock on the horse’s face. But seriously, racism. Very smart, insightful, sly take down of bigotry American style. Promise.
In my 8-year-old opinion (the same one defending my Barbie lunchbox as very cool), Blazing Saddles was pitch perfect. More pie fighting please! There was only one wrinkle: The weird part where the blonde lady sings some stupid song in her underwear about something stupid.
I’m talking about the venerable, unparalleled Madeline Khan who plays Lili Von Shtupp, a bawdy songstress and seducer-for-hire enlisted by Lamar to ruin Bart and run him out of Rock Ridge. Khan’s part is relatively small, which makes her ability to nearly steal the entire movie all that more impressive.* Her featured scene is a musical number, “I’m Tired,” a torch song alla Marlene Dietrich, complete with German accent and slightly off-key, improvised warbling. This was 1983. We were a “watch it on network TV household.” There was no “fast forward” or “option to skip” because had there been, I would have jammed my thumb on that button and sped through whatever the hell this time-filling scene was about. Slow! Gross! Boring! MORE BEANS, BROOKS!
Feminism is a lot like puberty: It sneaks up on you. One day you barely notice there aren’t any women on American currency and only ONE girl Smurf in the entire village and the next you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “My Body My Choice” and refusing to laugh at some cute boy’s dumb ass jokes, which actually were just recycled, poorly delivered Dana Carvey bits. Sad. This was my experience. Once I had my mind pried open and rearranged around how women were or were not represented, how we were treated (poorly) and considered generally (not great), I couldn’t shut it off, couldn’t adjust the prescription strength of those lady issue lenses. And that’s how, many years later, I eventually appreciated and understood what Lili Von Shtupp was all about in Brooks’ sausage fest of a flick.
Billed as “The Teutonic Titwillow,” Shtupp is set up as a stereotypical saucy showgirl. The entrance music plays her onto the saloon stage. She sashays to center all pure sex in high-heels and red lipstick. And just when you think something lurid might happen, Khan sinks wearily onto a chair and begins to drone in a bored, slightly deflated key:
Sick and tired of love
Tired, tired of being admired
Tired of love uninspired
Let’s face it
What follows is a wry laceration of what men think passes for both romance and women’s sexual gratification:
I’ve been with 1000s of men
Again and again
They promise the moon
They’re always coming and going
Going and coming too soon
The lyrics are funny enough in how they baldly dismantle the idea of someone like Lili Von Shtupp existing for no other reason other than as object of male fantasy fulfillment. It’s the physical and verbal nuances Khan brings to the song that lifts it out of simple parody and puts it in a lane of sophisticated comedy all its own. She delivers each verse with such pronounced disdain and ennui they practically become additional stage companions. There’s no suggestive shimmying or undulating you’d expect from this kind of showgirl piece. There’s zero attempt at sexiness besides what Khan wears. Instead she stalks the stage, hands on hips like a general; she kicks over a chair. She pauses to “work” the crowd. One of the cowboy sits with his feet propped up on the apron:
LVS: Tell me cowboy, what’s your name?
COWBOY: Tex, Ma’am!
LVS: Well, Tex Ma’am, tell me, are you in showbusiness?
LVS: Well then why don’t you get your friggin feet off the stage! (she kicks his feet)
A burly, grimy cowboy climbs up on the stage and comes at her for an embrace. “Put’er there!” he leers, laughing. Khan obliges by laying one hand on his shoulder and giving him a knee to the groin. Throughout the crowd whoops and hollers. They can’t get enough of this woman insulting them, but sort of enticing them, but, no, actually calling them pigs and morons right to their faces, but, also, being a little naughty about it, maybe, and also, really, really telling them to piss off. Lili Von Shtupp is mean! Being a guy is hard!
Near the end, the song switches tempo and a group of Prussian soldiers burst onto the stage because this is still a Mel Brooks movie and that kind of nonsensical thing is bound to happen. They dance and sing a reprise of the early verses. With her shoulders sagging, Khan lumbers over to another chair. She rests her head on her hand. She appears to doze. The less effort she exerts to be seductive or even life-like, the more wild the crowd gets. Again, idiots, which is the point. Here was an unexpected burst of smart, insightful, subversive feminist comedy to dovetail with the film’s comments on race and bigotry and white supremacism. Brooks wrote the lyrics, but Khan deserves all the credit for making the scene truly transformative. It’s her control and confidence in who this character really is—powerful, dangerous, a stand-in for any women “tired of playing the game” and ready to do something about it—that rescues the scene from being a parody of tawdry erotics and Lili Von Shtupp the butt of its joke.
Madeline Khan was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Blazing Saddles. She didn’t win, but she deserved it. At the time, Khan was making her way in film, television, and theatre alongside women like Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, Jo Anne Worley, and Fannie Flagg. Women who were being “discovered” in publications like The New York Times as “a new breed of funny girl who can be both funny and feminine at the same time” (Barf). “I don’t ‘hide,’ Khan wrote in a journal. “I choose to stand out and up for myself at the same time [and] to set an example for others to do so.” Here was another arena where women were also “tired of playing the game,” and there was Khan on and off screen showing them how to change the rules and write a new playbook entirely.
*In his excellent biography of Khan, Madeline Khan: Being the Music, A Life, author William V. Madison writes that Gene Wilder, one of Khan’s other co-stars, had very little screen time with Khan, but made sure to be on set during the filming of “I’m Tired.” Wilder said, “I told Mel that if the movie were just her one number, it would be worth the price of admission.”