"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."
--The Waco Kid, in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (The attribution for the quote as published has been corrected in this text.)Chicago audiences thought Gene Wilder's line in that 1974 movie was hilarious.
There's a real good chance Jim Stafford, if he saw the film, didn't laugh at all.
And let's be clear about this: Whatever Jim Stafford is--singer, songwriter, comedian, businessman, husband and father--he is not a moron.
What we're dealing with is a cultural divide that, to a degree, defines Branson. And the amiable Stafford, a man from an "itty-bitty town in Arkansas" in his 16th season headlining at his own theater here, can articulate it as well as anybody.
"A while back," he said, sipping from a bottle of water in his dressing room, "somebody came by from, I think it was [a high-profile Eastern newspaper] and said, `I'm here to do a story on what's hip in Branson.'
"And I said, `Let me tell you . . .'--I wasn't trying to be sarcastic, but I said, `What's hip about New York City? What's hip about anything?'
"I said, `I just went to see a show there called `The Producers' . . . "
Quick note: "The Producers," like "Blazing Saddles" a Mel Brooks product, was a smash hit on Broadway and won a record 12 Tony awards. I saw it with the original stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, in Chicago. Most outrageously funny show I've ever seen. Back to Jim.
". . . and I said, `One of the first jokes I saw was the old "Walk this way" thing' . . . "
Another quick note: In Chicago, that line--Brooks borrowed it from another of his movies, "Young Frankenstein," and yes, it's an old joke--got a huge laugh. Back to Jim.
" . . . `and the blond with the big boobs and the guys with the funny outfits, and the oldest tiredest jokes I've ever heard in my life.' I mean, guys in Branson wouldn't do some of that stuff.
"But it was `hip' in New York. It was `cool,' I guess. And I thought to myself, `I don't know what it is.'"
There are 49 theaters in Branson, with two more in the works, and more than 100 shows. Contrary to impressions carried by most folks who have never been here, the shows aren't all variations of "Hee-Haw" and the Grand Ole Opry.
Ten years ago, according to Dan Lennon, vice president of marketing for the Branson Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, maybe 75 percent of the shows were country shows. "It's about 45 percent now," he said.
"I know there are some older acts here," Stafford said, "and there are some country acts, and it has a kind of a country feel about it, but there's more diversity here than people think.
"The Shanghai Circus is terrific. And we have magicians and we have a big band [Les Brown Jr., playing his dad's hits]--that's 20 pieces up there and real excellent musicians--and we have Cirque . . . "
Speaking of magicians: David Copperfield is coming.
"Presleys' Country Jubilee"--not those Presleys--has been on The Strip in Branson since 1967, longer than "Cats" did Broadway. "The Baldknobbers" have been there since '68. Andy Williams, on the same Strip that couldn't keep Wayne Newton, is in his 14th season in his own Moon River Theatre.
What do they have in common? Hard to figure.
How can a guy who loved both "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers"--me--still look forward to every visit (this was my fourth) to Branson?
Some things defy explanation.
"There's a great commercial in England that kind of applies to this," said Stafford. "It was a beer commercial. Now, it sounds weird to compare a place like Branson to a beer commercial, but the beer commercial was this: `I haven't tried it, so I don't like it.'
"That might be how we might want to look at this town. `Don't dislike it until you tried it.'"
And after you try it, as the preacher said to the new sheriff in "Blazing Saddles":
"Son, you're on your own."