What Happened to the Comedy Western? Seth MacFarlane’s Attempts to Revive a Dead Genre

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Let's give credit to Seth MacFarlane for always being abstractly creative, even if the actual material might instigate divided opinions. Nobody would have thought a movie about a profanity-laced teddy bear would become a massive comedy hit. The same could be said about a comedy western, Seth MacFarlane's next proposed movie project that he'll either brilliantly or mistakenly star in alongside Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron.

If you think this is a questionable idea, then consider how much the comedy western thrived in movie houses during a more profusely creative era for Hollywood. Next to all those serious cinematic and TV westerns of past decades were various comedic movie westerns that could be called more classic than their straight-faced counterparts. The apotheosis of it all was unarguably Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles", which may be where Seth MacFarlane has to pick up. That is, unless you consider "Three Amigos" and its pelvic thrusts or "City Slickers" to be equals.

But decades before a satire about an African-American sheriff in a numbskull-filled western town, there was Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy taking credit for starting the comedy western. Although in "Go West" and "Way Out West", it was more about fishes out of water. By the time "Destry Rides Again" debuted in 1939 with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it was all about comedy with the people endemic to the western universe.

The above film was ironically fried in "Blazing Saddles" when Madeline Kahn played Lili von Shtupp as an uproarious satire on Marlene Dietrich's Frenchy character in "Destry." In fact, no comedy western between "Destry" and "Saddles" ever took things as far and as insane as Brooks did. The only one before that came close in pure comedic exuberance is "Cat Ballou" in 1965, completed by a recurring Greek chorus of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as shouters.

Regardless, "Cat Ballou" was influenced from the raucous comedy westerns of John Wayne and Bob Hope not many years prior. Bob Hope's "The Paleface" (and its sequel) set up the idea of slapstick being a logical progression in a western. Wayne eventually took that home with slapstick fistfights "North to Alaska" and especially "McLintock!" during the early 1960s.

After "Ballou", though, slapstick was the name of the game in various comedy westerns, which was only enhanced by Brooks adding racial issues and word play into the mix with "Saddles." Only Disney managed to bring it down a notch into family friendlier territory with their successful "The Apple Dumpling Gang" franchise. Much like Don Knotts playing recurring comedic western characters in the above and a couple of his own movies, Seth MacFarlane seems destined to tap the same well.

If he follows the path of so many directors giving homage to what came before, we may be seeing a new attempt at either a new Don Knotts in "The Shakiest Gun in the West", or perhaps more of a satiric romantic hybrid of the Man With No Name. What he can't do is attempt to copy "Blazing Saddles" and expect to get away with it. Then again, the sick absurdity of "Ted" may bring all new comedic ideas to the western, especially with the western suddenly becoming serious again.

Eventually, we may see a repeat of what happened 50 years ago: The juxtaposition of the serious western and the comedic western existing yet again. That only helps Seth MacFarlane, particularly when serious tropes become so much easier to lambast than how Mel Brooks had it.

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