Thursday, August 13, 2015

WHO'S ON FIRST? ANYBODY? by Michael Schlesinger

A long, long time ago—by which I don’t mean around the time of GHOSTBUSTERS, but 70, 80, 90 years back—show biz had a hallowed tradition: the comedy team. These weren’t just actors who frequently worked together, like Adam Sandler and Kevin James, or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but actual, official teams, usually two men, their names separated by an ampersand, generally a comic and a straight man (though the latter could also be funny). Occasionally there were more than two, and even more occasionally, there was a woman (notably Gracie Allen), but two men were the norm.


We know them by their names: Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis, Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson, Burns & Allen and more. As well as the bigger groups: The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, The Ritz Brothers, and that huge aggregate variously known as The Dead End Kids, The Little Tough Guys, The East Side Kids, and The Bowery Boys. (That last bunch requires a flow chart.) But sadly, with a few exceptions (conspicuously the Stooges, arguably more popular now than in their heyday, if they ever actually had a heyday), most people born after Woodstock would not know them on sight.

(One night, Jay Leno was doing “Jaywalking” and asking pedestrians to identify famous movie stars of the past. One identified Laurel & Hardy as The Three Stooges. Even after Leno pointed out that there were only two people in the photo, she still insisted they were The Three Stooges. I still cringe at the thought of this.)

So what happened? Why did the comedy team die out? Hard to say with any certainty, but one very real possibility is that America simply grew up, and so did its entertainment. More often than not, the comic part of the team was a man-child: Laurel, Costello, Wheeler, Lewis, Curly Howard, and Huntz Hall all seemed like eight-year-old boys in the bodies of 40-year-old men. By the 1950s, they were getting older, and that juvenile shtick didn’t seem so funny anymore. Moreover, television had become the new vaudeville, and more adult, romantic comedies were filling the big screen. The funny hats and baggy pants were being replaced by more sophisticated fare starring the likes of Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman, and James Garner, as well as older but still sexy men such as Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and David Niven. (Jerry Lewis continued to have a successful solo film career, but he was an anomaly, while Groucho moved to TV and assumed a new persona as a waggish quiz show host.) The great comedies of the past found a new home on the tube, but as The Late Show or on weekend afternoons. A few newer teams kept fairly busy in night clubs and on variety shows, like Rowan & Martin, Wayne & Shuster, and Allen & Rossi, but the tradition had well and truly passed. (No, I haven’t forgotten Cheech & Chong, but they had an entirely different appeal and an entirely different audience.)

Yet despite their obvious similarities, all the great teams were unique. Their looks, their voices, their body language were distinctive to each, and even when they performed identical material (e.g. “Slowly I Turn”), they put their own spin on it. Laurel & Hardy were slow and methodical, allowing situations to incrementally increase past the point of no return; sometimes just the merest glance was hysterical. Abbott & Costello didn’t sing or dance, but performed elaborate duologues that kept audiences gasping, while the latter took tremendous falls at the drop of a derby. Olsen & Johnson didn’t even pay attention to the plot: just gags, gags and more gags. The Stooges used the plot as a starting point: they just did anything that was funny—the rules be damned—and it worked. The Marx Brothers were a three-ring circus: a fast-talking sharpy, a mime, and a scamp with an Italian accent (as well as a straight man when Zeppo was there), allowing all sorts of permutations depending on who was paired with whom at any given moment.

It can be frustrating when younger people won’t watch this stuff because it’s in black-and-white, or because the content is considered quaint by today's standards. But those of us who treasure comedy in all forms don’t give up. One of the reasons I’ve made the Biffle & Shooster shorts is to prove that this kind of mirth-making can still work in the 21st century, for older and newer generations alike. But if those unfamiliar with its inspiration turn their noses up at it, those who were around back in the good old days when these classics ran on TV every day (or even collected them as home movies) can revel in the goofiness. Funnymen are funnymen, and fortunately, no amount of time can ever change that.

Michael Schlesinger is a trustee of the American Cinematheque, retired movie-studio weasel, scrappy independent film producer, and is the perpetrator of the Biffle & Shooster shorts. He believes Shemp Howard was the great natural comedian ever.