Simcha Fisher: Mental Health according to Mel Brooks

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Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart in the 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles.

A classic comedy is an unlikely treasure trove of wisdom

You know the phrase “It’s never your successful friends posting the inspirational quotes?” This is a pretty elastic concept. I would posit that it’s never your sane friends who are constantly posting insights about mental health.

Let’s take it even a step further. You know who knows the most about good mental health? That’s right: Mel Brooks. Specifically, Mel Brooks at the absolute apex of his powers, when he made Blazing Saddles. You might think of the film as a one hour and thirty-five minute spoof of westerns that skewers racism and includes more than the average number of fart and uh schnitzengruben jokes, but it’s actually also rich treasure trove of good role models for mental hygiene. Shut up, it is. I’ll tell you all about it.

Then, because my friend Nora asked me to, I’ll include which drinks pair well with each concept. Nora is a nurse, and you have to do whatever nurses want.

Okay, here we go:

Mental health according to Blazing Saddles

1.Who doesn’t get enough credit? Rev. Johnson, who, despite his limited scope of experience ministering to an unsophisticated congregation, makes an effort to pour oil on the societal waters, urging the people to accept their new sheriff, even though, as a dazzling urbanite, his entire persona falls well outside their expectations.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, allow not hatred to rule the day!” he urges, holding up a Bible.
“As your spiritual leader, I implore you to pay heed to this good book and what it has to say!”

Someone then shoots the Bible. He then turns to the sheriff and smoothly informs him: “Son, you’re on your own.”

This demonstrates a good grasp of BOUNDARIES. Even when others do not clearly understand the proper limits of their sphere of influence, as demonstrated by their willingness to shoot him, he does, and he does not allow others’ inappropriate behaviour to dictate his sense of self. His role, as he sees it, is to invite his flock to be their best selves; but he knows he cannot compel. He can influence others, but he cannot control them. He can only control his own behaviour, and his own behaviour does not include getting shot.

  1. Perhaps having been influenced by this example of setting and abiding by boundaries, Bart himself later sets his own boundaries with Lily, politely but clearly pushing back against her peer pressure by expressing that 15 is his limit on schnitzengruben.
  2. When Sheriff Bart ventures out on a good will tour to try to mend some fences with his new constituents, he is summarily rejected by a populace still mired in generational prejudice. He returns home dejected, where his friend Jim offers some wise perspective, saying:

“What did you expect? Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know . . . morons.”

This is what’s called ESTABLISHING REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS, and it’s the key to maintaining emotional equilibrium. If you don’t expect something that you’re highly unlikely to receive, you’ll be less disappointed when the nice old lady tells you, “up yours”.

  1. When Mayor Hedley Lamarr offers the insight, “My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening thru a cosmic vapor of invention,” Taggart does his best to respond in a way that tells his friend, “I am bearing witness to the complex emotional landscape on which you are journeying. Even though I may not be capable of full intellectual engagement, I affirm that what you are experiencing is true and it is real.”

    This is called VALIDATION, and Taggart expresses it in one concise word when he fervently tells Lamarr, “Ditto”. Unfortunately, Lamarr allows his personal turmoil to lead him to inflict some transference onto the well-meaning Taggart, burdening him with the frustration that properly belongs in the larger sphere of his frustrations with his inability to actualise his creative potential, and he calls him a “provincial putz”. Lamarr would do well to have more frequent recourse to less vulnerable target for his unmanageable emotional overload; i.e., that little metal statue.

  2. Lily Von Schtupp, who capably represents the whore-madonna archetype, and is also a whore, self-advocates for herself magnificently, demonstrating from a literal stage what SELF-CARE and SELF-ADVOCACY looks like. She wants the audience, and any man she encounters, to understand the information that she is tired, and she expresses herself clearly and directly, saying, “I’m tired,” in the song, “I’m Tired”. She says this because she is tired. She then lies down. Kudos for this crystal clear communication!
  3. Sheriff Bart and Jim release Mongo from jail, but he chooses not to leave. In a poignant scene, he stands inside an open cell with literal chains still around his neck but gives us a glimpse into the interior chains that still bind him: He is very much still subjugated by intractable dysfunctional family roles (society itself being the family writ large), and states plaintively, “Mongo only pawn in game of life”. But by this very statement, by RECOGNISING, NAMING, AND OWNING his perception of his narrow role in relation to others, he takes a vital and necessary step toward arming himself to break free from them. Also important: Mongo straight.
  4. A similar principle — this simple power inherent in naming and claiming our own identities — is demonstrated by Jim, when we first meet him, and he introduces himself, saying, “My name is Jim, but most people call me . . . Jim.”
  5. Returning once again to Hedley Lamarr, who can forget his rousing anthem to multiculturalism, when he announces: “I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists!”

A startlingly progressive thought from an unlikely source. Indeed, there is strength in EMBRACING DIVERSITY, even, or especially, when it pushes us outside our accustomed set of resources, i.e., just shit kickers.

Oh shoot, I forgot I was going to pair these with drinks. Well, the very fact that I could write this entire essay from memory and didn’t have to look anything up prove that I’m the one who needs it more than you, anyway.

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