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Standing the test of time: a look at comedy DVDs

John DeFore

Last weekend, the leader of the United States stood before a distinguished gathering and praised an artist whose oeuvre includes the most famous cowboy-flatulence jokes ever made.

President Obama looked genuinely pleased to laud Mel Brooks (alongside Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro and others) at the Kennedy Center Honors, going so far as to joke about using a fake ID to see "Blazing Saddles" when he was 10. He made a good case for the satiric value of Brooks' films, which have always poked fun at racism and other prejudice, but I'm glad he didn't do so at the expense of the pure, dumb fun of the filmmaker's silliest gags.

Those needing proof that some dumb comedy stands the test of time can check out Tuesday's Blu-ray release "The Mel Brooks Collection" (Fox), which gathers most of his best work as a director. (Brooks' debut, "The Producers," is lamentably absent, as are a couple of minor films; but by adding "Spaceballs," this set is one step closer to complete than its standard-DVD predecessor.)

Brooks sometimes wore his social concerns on his sleeve, as in "Blazing Saddles," and sometimes, as with "Young Frankenstein," went for yuks with little discernible satiric angle.

One could argue that a comedy's bigger meaning isn't always apparent when it's released: What looks like an innocuous joke might prove, years later, to be more meaningful.

Certainly the reverse is true: Dig back through old stuff that was meant to be edgy and political, like skits on the latest "Saturday Night Live" box set (Season 5, released Dec. 1 by Universal), and it's easy to see that just because somebody's impersonating a political figure doesn't make the content substantive or biting.

Deeper meanings or no, next week the video store offers a couple of movies that aimed low with enthusiasm. "The Hangover" (Warner) was a surprise hit with audiences; "The Goods" (Paramount) was a complete bomb in comparison. The laugh differential between the two isn't nearly as extreme as their box office figures — around $460 million versus $15 million or so, according to one source — would suggest, but "The Goods" did turn out to be a pretty inappropriate name for a movie that did so little with the often acidly funny Jeremy Piven.

You can be sure that, with "Br?no," (Universal), the immensely gifted Sasha Baron Cohen thought he was delivering not only a truckload of dirty jokes but also a piercing critique of homophobia in America. Maybe 20 years from now we'll all agree, but it seems unlikely. At the moment, the movie looks like a dust bunny in the shadow of the anarchy of "Borat."

I wouldn't recommend any of those three films over Judd Apatow's "Funny People" (Nov. 24 from Universal).

Yes, the film's structure tested the patience of many viewers. But how much had they laughed before they started to tire of the plot? More than they did in "The Hangover," I'm guessing.

I'd also wager that, down the road, more movie lovers will be interested in the Apatow film for its smart, sensitive depiction of the private lives of the people whose job is to make us laugh.

Maybe 30 years from now, some president will even be singing Judd Apatow's praises. Is that any more far-fetched than a Kennedy Center medal for the guy who wrote "Springtime for Hitler"?