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A few nights ago, I watched Lou Costello’s turn on This Is Your Life. I’ve previously watched the episodes featuring Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton, and as usual the show did its level best to be traumatizing by bringing up memories that nobody wants to remember. In these two cases, they mentioned Ollie’s brother drowning when they were kids and Buster’s struggles during the middle years of his life, and in Lou Costello’s case, they went and did an entire section of the show about the drowning of his son, Butch. I really hate how insensitive this show could be; they also featured a Hiroshima survivor and a Holocaust survivor at one point. “You survived a really traumatic experience? Let’s relieve it on national TV for everyone’s amusement!”
The rest of Lou’s episode, however, is charming, and it’s nice to see him and Bud Abbott on good terms since they had periods wherein they didn’t get along too well over the course of their careers together. It’s also especially relevant to me as a resident of New Jersey who lives within half an hour of Paterson, Lou’s hometown – I love learning about my own state’s history, and the little tidbits about life in Paterson that can be gleamed from watching this are really neat.
Here’s the video! If you don’t want to hear about Butch, as I’m sure Lou and his wife didn’t, you can skip over that part and nobody will blame you.
This is the first post in what will likely be a lengthy series of posts about double acts and how they work. I think about this way too much.
I have an awful lot to say on the subject of double acts. I adore them to death and I’ve found that there’s a dearth of scholarly exploration of them and their psychology.
I’ve found two books on Amazon that cover the topic of comedy teams – one by Leonard Maltin and another by Lawrence J. Epstein. Neither of these books appears to specifically delve into the concept of the double act itself, instead focusing on how all the different comedy teams covered operated. I’m going to try to explore the psychology of the double act in more depth here and see what my brain spits out.
The origins of what we know as the modern comedy double act are something I briefly discussed on another blog last week:
The double act itself has its origins in the 19th century in music hall and vaudeville – a straight man would stand up with a comedian [initially elsewhere in the theatre, later on stage] and repeat the comic’s lines so that the audience would know a joke was coming up, i.e.:
First Performer: So I went to the races last week, and…
Second Performer: Oh, you went to the races last week?
Audience: (shuts up)
First Performer: (tells joke)
And so forth.
By the end of the 19th century, though, double acts evolved into what we know them as today.
This is, of course, an extremely abridged version of what actually happened, but it gets the general point across. As time went on, the performer repeating the comic’s lines developed into what we know as a proper straight man today, delivering lines that would instead set up jokes for the comic (i.e. acting as a feed). By the time Weber and Fields popped up in the late 1800s, the dynamic had evolved into something recognizable to us – two individuals bantering and cross-talking on the vaudeville or music hall stage to the delight of the crowd. Often, things got rowdy between the pairs, and slapstick violence was incorporated. Weber and Fields were particularly adept at arguing, and indeed, arguing became a very common element of double act routines. The characters on the stage just never got along no matter what, and audiences loved it.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, things began to take a more genteel shift, with Gallagher and Shean emphasizing less slapstick and more singing. (Al Shean was the uncle of the Marx Brothers.) Although the team’s Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean song was wildly popular, the two fought often and broke up twice, revealing another commonality we find in many double acts – they often don’t get along in real life.
The most famous double act in the history of the world, however, got along perfectly fine.
I could go into great detail about how Laurel and Hardy were initially paired together in 1927 and whatnot, but that’s covered in a purposely bad PowerPoint I made and put up on Tumblr. (It’s a meme, guys.) What I’d like to approach here instead is the psychology of their particular double act and why it changed the preset rules. As mentioned, before these two showed up, the characters double acts portrayed generally didn’t get along on stage – and when they did get along on some level, like Gallagher and Shean, they didn’t get along off-stage. Stan and Ollie pretty much got along everywhere. Their characters were clearly friends, and as unintentionally destructive as they were you knew their friendship would be intact at the end of every single film in some way, shape or form. (Yes, even The Flying Deuces.) The characters stuck together no matter what, and if a threat arose towards one of them, both of them would stand firmly together to face it. Well, not always, but at least if they ran away they always ran away together, too.
Off-screen, they didn’t see each other very much initially due to differing hobbies (Ollie spent most of his time golfing and Stan preferred to fish – and edit basically everything, write new scripts, etc., but he was a workaholic to the max). As they worked together more and more and even toured together, however, they became very close and by the time they retired from performing they were undeniably best friends. It was at the point that when Ollie passed away Stan kept jotting down ideas for gags they could perform together until he joined Ollie in Comedian Heaven eight years later. (In my webcomic of the same name, they’re still inseparable and as such are easily my favorites to write for, but let’s not get sidetracked here. I could ramble about how cute they were forever.)
Here’s the point, though – up until Laurel and Hardy became the most famous double act in the world, double acts mainly entertained people by either being violent towards each other or by singing comic songs and bantering back and forth. The key to Laurel and Hardy’s success as an act is the fact that their act revolved instead around the relationship between the two characters, a model that redefined how double acts work. Most double acts that came after them relied on the interplay and bonding between the two characters (or, in the very interesting case of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the relationship between the actual actors) – the Stan and Ollie model stuck.
In the double acts that follow (Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Morecambe and Wise) we see that the characters are good friends, even if they do bicker over things. The actors, of course, were often another story. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello reportedly had a rocky relationship, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had a major breakup before reuniting in the 1970s and reconnecting. Morecambe and Wise, however, followed the Stan and Ollie model to a tee, with their characters sharing a bed on screen (like Stan and Ollie did) and by being extremely good friends in real life. In other cases, such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the characters’ interactions suspiciously mirrored the real-life tensions between the two comedians – Cook and Moore’s fictional alter egos got into it more and more until they broke up.
Most English-language double acts since the early 1980s have come from the UK, with US double acts mostly evolving into the characters we see in buddy movies. (Note the main photo for the Wikipedia article.) However, some American comedians in larger ensembles (SNL, the cast of Whose Line is it Anyway?, etc.) often end up falling into double act roles the longer they work together, which reinforces the fact that double act partners do frequently become friends. (Not that these friendships always last, of course, but that will be a good post for another time.) Double acts often appear in fiction, as well, with two fictional characters filling the traditional roles of the characters the comedians portray. It’s clear that the double act is very deeply engrained in popular culture – and indeed in human culture, since humans quite often do ‘pair off’ socially.
In subsequent articles, I’ll explore the psychology behind many of these pairs specifically and discuss them in greater depth, hopefully tracing the development of the double act from its origins in music hall and vaudeville up to the present day – and what each depiction’s social ramifications are and what these portrayals can tell us about the social climate and culture from whence they came.
I rewatched It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the first time in years last night. (A large portion of the cast of that comic I’m doing appears in this thing, amongst other reasons.) Besides possibly disturbing my parents a little bit by recognizing the way Buster Keaton (who cameos) walked, I did a little bit of thinking last night – and it’s true, comedy really does travel in cycles stylistically.
When comedy films first started appearing, Mack Sennett more or less ran the show. Sennett films relied on heavy slapstick – watch anything featuring the Keystone Kops and you’ll see what I mean. Watching Sennett’s Chaplin, Arbuckle and Normand films reveals…basically the same thing. There were no scripts back then – the actors would just go out with the director and a cameraman, find a scene somewhere, and improvise a little story. They’d then add title cards later after the film was edited and cut.
Then one day, Charlie Chaplin decided to believe all the critics calling him an artist, and things changed drastically. Films became longer, with proper plots carried throughout them. There weren’t scripts, because there was still no dialogue, but by the middle of the 1920s, the Big Three – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd – were well-established, with Harry Langdon more or less keeping up with them (until he decided he was an artist, too, but let’s not get into that now). These films moved away from slapstick and became more situational, with the characters spending most of their time on film trying to get out of bizarre – yet realistic – situations.
And then sound came.
Now, you don’t need sound to make a comedy, but when sound arrived, everyone decided that now was the time for snappy scripts and puns. There was an over-reliance on dialogue, which naturally ruined quite a few potentially good films. By the time films and moviegoers had gotten used to sound, quite a few of the great comedians of the 1920s had fallen off the wagon. (The Big Three continued to make and appear in films, but their work during this period isn’t considered their best output, and Harry Langdon did quite a few talkies, as well, but eventually joined the writing team at Hal Roach Studios.)
If we look at the sort of comedy that was popular during the 1930s, we see two or three distinct branches. The first branch, which involves scripts heavily reliant on wordplay and puns, is primarily dominated by the Marx Brothers, but there were quite a few other acts falling under this umbrella, as well. Remember Wheeler and Woolsey? No? Anyway, they were here, too.
The second branch involves a return to slapstick. Columbia decided that at the height of the Great Depression what people really wanted to see was three idiots beating each other up for twenty minutes, so they signed these three and set them to work. Apparently Columbia was right, since they turned out to be a massive draw at the box office.
The third branch – my favorite – is probably the best-remembered of the three because they seem to be involved in almost everyone’s childhoods, even now. To be fair, the thing that makes Laurel and Hardy so special to me is that the two of them ended up becoming best friends over the course of their careers, which is the most adorable thing ever. From a comedy standpoint, they’re very different from the other two branches because of their pacing. Whilst the other acts relied on quick, snappy dialogue and non-stop cartoon violence, Stan and Ollie took things very, very slowly. They reacted to what happened to them – slowly – and stretched sequences that would have taken other comedians thirty seconds to do out over several minutes. It worked brilliantly.
By the 1940s, things needed to be freshened up some, and although the Stooges and Stan and Ollie were still around, it was Abbott and Costello who popped up and grew in popularity during the war years. (This may have reflected the general culture in America at the time, as Bud and Lou’s comedy style was more aggressive.) They hung around in the ’50s for a little while, but Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis picked up the baton from there and brought comedy into more of a screwball direction. At the same time, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road To… movies were further solidifying the genre. Television comedy also began its rise, with many radio stars eventually making the jump and bringing sketch comedy and sitcoms to the small screen.
Which brings us to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which came out in 1963. There are elements of several styles of comedy in this movie – which makes sense, because there are several styles of comedians in it. If we take a closer look at it, we can dissect it a little bit:
- Mack Sennett would have loved this movie. There’s plenty of slapstick violence in here – the film even ends on a banana peel gag, a staple of the Sennett era. Although there isn’t a pie fight, there’s a bit where an entire gas station is systematically dismantled and destroyed by Jonathan Winters, which is close enough.
- There’s a ton of situational comedy, too. The entire movie is fueled by one situation – Jimmy Durante’s character hid money somewhere in Southern California under something called a ‘big W,’ and everyone’s attempts to get there first place them into precarious situations: hitchhiking with strangers and ‘borrowing’ their cars, flying an airplane after the pilot passes out drunk, locked in a hardware store basement, and so on.
- The script is phenomenal. It allows all the comedians making cameos to get their trademark lines in (ZaSu Pitts gets to show off her Midwestern accent as the switchboard operator, Jack Benny gets to deliver a “…Well!” and Joe E. Brown gets to scream “HEEEEEEEEY!” near the end). It also lets the feature players shine (Buddy Hackett’s delivery of “What are you, the hostess?” to Mickey Rooney as they’re trying to land a plane is my dad’s favorite line in the entire film). The script is snappy and rapid-fire where it needs to be and quiet when all the audience needs to follow the plot is the action.
- For a three-hour movie, the pacing is incredible – you never get bored because the plot never drags for a second, even when the scene cuts to the police station for a breather.
You watch this film, and cameos aside, the films of the 1910s and 1920s are back – in color and in a much longer format, but there you go. Styles of comedy tend to cycle around. In the early 1960s, there was a satire boom which started in the UK and made its way to the US. Although Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were at the forefront of the movement by being in Beyond the Fringe, lasted as a double act for twenty some-odd years afterwards by moving into sketch comedy, satire itself faded quickly out of vogue, only to return with a vengeance in the 2000s. My brother loves films like Dodgeball. Dodgeball is pure slapstick.
Think for a moment about what you like watching. There might just be some older – or newer – films in the ilk of what you’re into. Why don’t you go and check those out for a change and see what you think?