Episode 514: Jena Friedman, The History of Cheap Trick, “Blazing Saddles”

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Heard On BETA
Comedian Jena Friedman on stage in her Peacock stand-up comedy special, "Ladykiller"
Photo courtesy of Peacock

Comedian Jena Friedman on her Peacock comedy special, “Ladykiller.” Also, author Brian J. Kramp on the history of the legendary Midwest band Cheap Trick. And Milwaukee’s Patrick McGilligan on Mel Brooks’ Western satire, “Blazing Saddles.”

Featured in this Show

  • Comedian Jena Friedman is not trying to make you feel comfortable

    Editor’s note: This story contains language and videos that may not be appropriate for some audiences.

    Jena Friedman‘s Peacock stand-up special, “Ladykiller,” delivers definitive proof that she is one of the bravest and smartest comedians working these days.

    Friedman has described “Ladykiller” as “an hour of dark feminist stand-up comedy” and it most definitely is that — an hour of comedy that may make you uncomfortable, but will also make you think about issues in ways you’ve probably never thought about them before.

    “Yeah. It is pretty dark,” Friedman told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    “I think people have a very different reaction to you when you’re on stage pregnant. And definitely my comedy has always been pretty morbid, but to be pregnant while you’re doing it — that disconnect, I think, is a lot for people. But it was so much fun to actually perform,” she continued.

    Friedman gave birth to her child this fall and reached out to fans on Twitter to thank them for their support.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Doug Gordon: You sold your special before you became pregnant and before Roe v. Wade was overturned. How did those two events change the way you wrote jokes for the special?

    Jena Friedman: Well, typically, comedians, before we tape specials, we will be working out jokes for at least six months or longer. Sometimes people will be touring a show for a couple of years before they tape, do like 100 or more shows before they tape.

    Because I was pregnant during a pandemic, I wasn’t really performing indoors at the clubs and I was writing jokes on the fly a lot more than I would have liked to. There are definitely timely jokes in there. Are they all as polished as I would have liked them to be? Maybe not. But that was just a function of trying to write material as the news is changing. And as I was physically changing.

    DG: Abortion isn’t a laughing matter for a lot of people, but you’ve covered it a lot before with your 2016 special, “American C*nt.” Why is this subject important to you?

    JF: Everything I do, I think is a laughing matter, to be honest. I think you can make jokes about everything.

    When you say abortion is no laughing matter, I understand that people have sensitivities across the board. But the fact that we’re not talking about it, we’re letting people who really have no grasp of science or medicine or women’s health dominate the conversation. And because they’re dominating it, they’re able to pass policies that are actually killing people.

    The fact that if you have an ectopic pregnancy — which will never be viable — and you can’t get it removed in certain states is atrocious. There are so many things going on right now that I think because everyone is so afraid to talk about them, we’ve let people who don’t have the best intentions dictate policy, and we’re in a really, really dangerous position. So I think not only is it a moot point whether or not abortion is funny, I think we have to just talk about it and take back the narrative because women’s lives are on the line.

    DG: You come across as very fearless on stage. You’re not afraid if the joke doesn’t land. Your comedy has been described as confrontational. Is that how you see it?

    JF: I don’t know. I just always joke about what I find interesting or funny or absurd or what makes me angry.

    I’m not trying to shock people. But I will say that there’s one specific joke in the show that is a joke about miscarriage. And miscarriage is a sensitive issue. But as I’ve gotten older, a lot of my friends have gone through it. And I think because there’s such a stigma around it, when it happens to you, you feel even more alone because you don’t realize how common it is.

    And I did that joke before I was pregnant. And it definitely got groans, but people laughed. But then doing that joke, being visibly pregnant, the audience is so much more uncomfortable. And I think because I knew the joke worked when I wasn’t pregnant, it gave me the confidence to tease and bait the audience because I knew that that reaction was really just because they were looking at me and judging me for being pregnant, as opposed to actually taking in the joke and enjoying the joke.

    (Here’s the joke as delivered by Friedman in “Ladykiller: “In Indiana, there is a law where they want women who miscarry to have to bury the goop. And there’s no word for the byproducts of conception. So let’s just call it Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand.”)

    JF: I think I kind of come more from a place of “what do I want to say?” And it’s taken a lot longer for that to resonate with people. But when it does, it’s even more rewarding personally.

    DG: The fact that you are one of the few comedians who is taking a more intelligent and thought-provoking approach to comedy makes your style that much more important and valuable.

    JF: I’ll take it. I did a show in Wisconsin at the Stoughton Opera House, a really fun show. And a lot of people came, I think, because they listened to (“BETA”) and it was cool. It’s more fun provided that everyone’s civil. It’s more fun for me to perform for people who don’t know my comedy or know what I’m doing.

  • The history of Cheap Trick, a band with no past

    When Cheap Trick released their self-titled first album in 1977, author Eric Van Lustbader wrote in the inner sleeve liner notes: “This band has no past. Literally. We can tell you some things — a little bit of this and a little bit of that — but Cheap Trick is, in fact, a band without a history.”

    Van Lustbader concocted an outrageous tale about the individual band members’ origins.

    However, first-time author Brian J. Kramp has put together an exhaustive and complete history of the band from childhood until the release of their live album, “Cheap Trick at Budokan.” Kramp’s book is titled “This Band Has No Past: How Cheap Trick Became Cheap Trick.”

    The journey starts in Rockford, Illinois, and winds through Milwaukee, Madison, and Rock & Roll bars and clubs throughout Wisconsin, Iowa, northern Illinois and Michigan.

    Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” talked with Kramp about the band’s real past and why he ended the book where he did.

    “The plan,” said Kramp, “was to end it right before Budokan came out and broke big in the United States. Kind of a big cliffhanger. And then basically everybody knows what happens after that.”

    For many, the first three albums by Cheap Trick are favorites. Kramp’s book covers those years in great detail through research and transcripts of interviews with many of the people associated with the band at the time.

    Rick Nielsen found his way to Tom Petersson after playing in high school bands ending up with both in Nielson’s band, the Grim Reapers, which eventually became Fuse.

    The experience in those early bands helped make the band members well-honed stage performers, but Fuse’s sound didn’t influence what would become Cheap Trick.

    “By the time all those guys came together as Cheap Trick, they were already such seasoned musicians and experienced performers. But if you listen to the Fuse album, there’s not even a hint of what would come with Cheap Trick,” Kramp said. “They were all teenagers when they recorded that record, and I think it took Rick Nielsen a while to figure out his songwriting style. And many of the bands that would influence what Cheap Trick became didn’t even exist when he made his first foray into writing original songs with the Grim Reapers and Fuse.”

    That all changed in 1973 when Petersson and Nielsen started Cheap Trick. Bun E Carlos joined as drummer, and finally, Robin Zander took over lead vocals from original singer Randy “Zeno” Hogan, and by 1974 the lineup was complete.

    The band explored and blended new styles of rock that were coming onto the scene.

    They were punk before punk. They were metal before metal. In 74, 75, and 76, they were writing and performing songs that, at the time, were adventurous, crazy, experimental and unique. They incorporated so many different influences,” said Kramp.

    After three strong studio albums, “Cheap Trick,” “In Color,” and “Heaven Tonight,” the band finally hit big in the U.S. with the song “I Want You To Want Me” from the album “Cheap Trick at Budokan.”

    The album intended for release in Japan only.

    “It was recorded because they were so popular in Japan, the record label just wanted to put it out in Japan, not expecting it would sell in America. So the band didn’t pay much attention to it. But then, when it started selling as an import, the label picked up on that and decided to put it out,” Kramp said.

    “I Want You To Want Me” rose to No. 7 on the Billboard chart, and the album went triple platinum, establishing Cheap Trick as international stars.

    In 2016, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, affirming their status as one of the all-time great rock & roll bands.

    Kramp thinks that appreciation is well deserved.

    “I’m so glad they got that recognition from all their peers who love them. They’ve always been the band’s band. Almost every guy in every band from the 80s and 90s loves Cheap Trick — all the hair metal guys, all the grunge guys and everybody in between,” he said. “They are one of the quintessential bands. That’s probably the most important thing: they have great respect from their peers, the critics and the big rock fans.”

  • How Mel Brooks broke new ground (and wind) with 'Blazing Saddles'

    Editor’s note: Some content in the videos may not be suitable for all audiences

    In his memoir, “All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business,” the legendary director, producer, writer and actor Mel Brooks reflected on his 1974 movie, “Blazing Saddles.”

    “When you parody something, you move the truth sideways. With ‘Blazing Saddles,’ we moved the truth out onto the street. I told the writers: ‘Write anything you want. We will never be heard from again. We will all be in jail for making this movie.’”

    “Blazing Saddles” was a success. And some of that success traces back to screenwriter Andrew Bergman, explained Milwaukee film historian Patrick McGilligan, author of the comprehensive biography, “Funny Man: Mel Brooks.

    Bergman was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. While there, he conceived the idea of a Black western called “Tex X,” a play on “Malcolm X,” McGilligan told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    “He had this idea of this Black sheriff on a stallion coming down Main Street in a frontier town. And it’s a white racist frontier town. And it was going to be a comedy,” McGilligan said.

    Bergman returned to New York after graduate school and while working as a publicist, he wrote the novel, “Tex X,” McGilligan explained.

    The novel was so good that it was optioned. Bergman wrote a draft of a script and at one point it was scheduled to be filmed, only to be dropped by Warner Brothers.

    And this is where Mel Brooks enters the story.

    “He’s kind of down on his luck from his own point of view, because neither ‘The Producers‘ nor ‘The Twelve Chairs‘ have made him rich. And he runs into his agent and his agent takes him out to lunch and then into his office and says, you know, the script came across and it’s really good, but it really needs your crazy touch.”

    Brooks told him that he only does his own material.

    “But of course, he’s doing other people’s stuff over and over again throughout his career,” McGilligan said. “And that’s one of the ways in which he’s been very fortunate and also very shrewd, by picking up on other people’s ideas.”

    Brooks read the script, and he loved it so much that he called Bergman to ask if he would work on the screenplay with him. Bergman was a big Brooks fan, so he agreed.

    Casting chaos

    Brooks flew off to Acapulco to do a TV special. While there, he ran into an attorney named Norman Steinberg. Sternberg hated practicing law and wanted to be a comedy writer. Brooks invited him to work on the screenplay.

    Sternberg told Brooks that he had written some comedy with a dentist friend named Alan Uger. Brooks welcomed the idea of a comedy writing team featuring a lawyer and a dentist.

    “So he gets these three guys together in a room,” McGilligan said, referring to Sternberg, Uger and Bergman. “And he says, ‘I see four Jews here, and I think we need a Black person because of all the scenes with this Black sheriff.’”

    So, casting Richard Pryor as the sheriff became the next step. Both Steinberg and Brooks claim casting him was their idea.

    “They bring Richard Pryor in, and he doesn’t last too long because he’s drinking and doing coke,” McGilligan said. “But he lasts long enough to really, really put his imprint on the film.”

    Why didn’t Pryor end up playing the part of the sheriff?

    “I think there was a sincere wish that he would,” McGilligan said. “And Mel always said that Warner Brothers vetoed him because they were afraid that he wouldn’t show up and that they wanted a bigger box office name. Pryor wasn’t really established as a film personality at this point in time.”

    Cleavon Little ended up being cast as the sheriff. That was at the suggestion of Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft, who was very important to the early casting of Mel’s first films.

    “I think Cleavon Little is just spectacular in the film,” McGilligan said.

    Brooks also hired veteran actor Gig Young to play the part of the Waco Kid. Young was a recovering alcoholic who, it turned out, was not actually recovering. On the first day of the shoot, he started vomiting while trying to say his line. An ambulance rushed Young to the local hospital.

    Brooks ran to a phone booth outside the sound stage and called Gene Wilder. Wilder was preparing to go to London to film “The Little Prince.” Brooks begged him to come out west to save the film. And he did.

    One of the most famous, funniest and flatulent scenes in “Blazing Saddles” is the campfire scene.

    McGilligan is unable to figure out who came up with that idea. As Brooks writes in his memoir: “There was a scene that I was kind of afraid of putting in the movie … What I’m referring to is the campfire scene, in which, like they do in every Western, the cowhands sit around a campfire drinking black coffee from tin mugs while they scrape a pile of beans off a tin plate. But you never hear a sound. You never hear the utter reality of breaking wind across the prairie.”

    McGilligan explained that the scene’s shooting was elaborate, where Brooks would tell the actors to “lift one side of your body, lift the other side of your buttocks.”

    “(Brooks) loved putting noises in post-production, including noises out of his own mouth. And so he and all the sound people had great fun, flapping their arms with making fart noises. And yet the way it’s staged and how it happens is still very, very funny. It’s not dated at all,” he said.

    For all its comedy gold, it’s impossible to ignore the frequent use of racial slurs.

    McGilligan said some words were used frequently in Pryor’s act, as well as in many other films at the time. And, he added, slurs were sprinkled throughout Bergman’s original script.

    “That was part of the joke of the story, as it is an important part of the joke of the film,” McGilligan said.

    McGilligan said Brooks points to the use of slurs in the movie as an “anti-racist point” because the words are only used by the “bad guys.”

    “Mel gives interviews nowadays where he says: ‘We couldn’t make that kind of film nowadays because it’s politically incorrect,’” he said.

    In 2020, HBO Max added a disclaimer to “Blazing Saddles.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Tyler Ditter Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Steve Gotcher Interviewer
  • Jena Friedman Guest
  • Brian J Kramp Guest
  • Patrick McGilligan Guest

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