Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Why, I Oughtta...."

Comedy has its epochs. What was funny to audiences in, say, 1920 might bore us to death today. That's probably because humor is so reflective of the current events and circumstances that generated it and provide its backdrop. But some comedic pairings will always endure. Laurel and Hardy, for example, are still funny 80 years later because they established such indelible comedic archetypes: the put-upon straight man and the imbecilic man-child (a template revised by comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and even Rowan and Martin). The physical comedy of their routines is flawlessly executed, and the pair is inherently likable whatever the context. Likewise, the Marx Brothers are still hilarious, though they're grounded in a world of ocean liners and dowagers that's so long-lost it seems like you're looking through a wormhole to an era centuries ago. The Three Stooges are literally hit and miss; you have to think seltzer bottles and eye pokes are amusing to get to the brief enjoyable bits, and there were enough third-Stooge replacements that you're bound to like one. Of course Lucille Ball's brand of physical comedy will always be funny; it's something about the willingness of a truly beautiful actress to immerse herself in awkward situations and gags, melded with the universality of domestic situations the audience can relate to easily.

But then we come to the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, so popular in the '40s and '50s. Were they ever funny? Their "Who's On First?" routine still endures, and it's the wordplay that's sustained it all this time. But their comedic dynamic was so dependent on Abbott relentlessly bullying the chubby, marginally more likable Costello that it's hard to watch. You can't imagine these two men being friends, the way you might convince yourself that other comedy teams were, or why they would have cast their lots together. In fact whatever chemistry held their act together was so tenuous they spent their entire career replaying the same few dependable routines, starting in radio in the 1930s right up through the end of their film and television careers in the mid-'50s. They didn't trust audiences to accept them with fresh material, and in the end the public tired of them, though they had a substantial run. Ironically, they were replaced by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, a far more talented team they supposedly discovered who could each branch off and enjoy successful solo careers.

Abbott and Costello made just one good film, though, and when I was a little kid I was completely enchanted by it. It's called The Time of Their Lives, from 1946, and it's one of only two films they made together where they're not actually a team. Costello plays a New England tinker during the Revolutionary War who, along with a woman played by a pretty brunette actress named Elizabeth Reynolds, is branded a traitor. Their ghosts are cursed to remain near the well where their bodies were thrown after they were shot (a heavy premise for a comedy of the day) for supposedly being in league with Benedict Arnold, and when a group of people in the 20th century take over the adjacent farmhouse, they attempt to clear their names from beyond the ectoplasm. I think the premise fascinated me -- the fact that these two people were bound together for nearly 200 years in a strangely benign, asexual limbo. Best of all, it's the one film where Abbott is on the receiving end of the punishment for a change, as the ghostly and invisible Costello pulls gags on him from the great beyond. It's wonderfully satisfying when the two manage to clear their names and are released from their curse; they advance at last on the pearly gates of Heaven, which flash with electric light bulbs like a broadway theatre marquee.

Like many comedic teams, the two feuded constantly, and weren't even speaking during the making of this film. That only served to enhance the story of a wronged ghost harassing a bully, something enjoyable to watch after all those years of shouting and harranging. Costello died in his early 50s, and though Abbott lived for many more years, he simply performed the same routines with a series of comedic partners for the rest of his life, as if who was on first really didn't matter after all.

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