Human males seem genetically wired to respond to comic idiocy. I suppose somewhere in our DNA chains are the vestiges of Caveman Oog, who laughed like a hyena when Caveman Blurg got an inadvertent hotfoot by accidentally stepping on a glowing ember from the tribal fire.
Since then, our sex has giggled, guffawed, and grinned over physical and verbal buffoonery.
While our female counterparts either stare uncomprehendingly or judge with eye-rolls of epic proportions.
And yes, that’s generalizing.
I’m sure there are women who find pratfalls and head-bonks funny. But in general, why don’t women laugh at The Three Stooges, for example?
I asked that question to Gary Lassin, founder and curator of The Stoogeum, the only museum in the world dedicated to preserving, promoting, and postulating about Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, and Curly Joe.
“Look at these guys,” he says. “They’re not exactly attractive to your average female. They’re goofy-looking and goofy-acting; there’s not a lot of sex appeal there. There’s not a lot of identity for women.
"Now, The Golden Girls… that is something women find funny. It’s accessible to them.
"A bald fat guy, a frizzle-haired guy, and a thin guy with a cereal bowl haircut slapping each other? It tends to sail over women’s heads,” Lassin concludes.
I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of The Stooges, although I did grow up watching them, both on Sally Starr’s Popeye Theater (RIP, Sal) and on UHF, where Wee Willie Weber hosted an afternoon kids’ show. Both prominently featured Stooges shorts among the cavalcade of cartoons and in-studio contests (I remember Weber hilariously trying to get kids to whistle after they’d stuffed their cheeks with saltines).
I’m also old enough to remember Moe on The Mike Douglas Show, coaching Ted Knight on the finer art of pie-throwing. And I recall Larry Fine, post-stroke, appearing in commercials, where it was difficult for my adolescent brain to put the frail guy in the wheelchair together with the middle-button Stooge who played the violin.
The best part of the Stooge shorts back then was that they were uncut and ran in their full 12-minute timeframes. PC attitudes toward violence have since censored a lot of these gems (when we watched, safety was in the hands of Sally Starr to remind us that eye-pokes were dangerous), and revenue-producing goals now force the insertion of commercials into the hijinks.
But a full-time Stoogeaholic? Not really. Although if forced, I will claim favoritism toward “Violent is the Word for Curly” (1938), because of its bouncy "Swingin' the Alphabet".
Most of my comedy leanings came from my father, leading to another theory of an affinity toward male-oriented mayhem. We learn it from our dads. Who probably learned it from their dads.
My dad adored W.C. Fields, who was always a little too one-note for me (the misogynist drunk) too cruel to find funny. Dad also liked the shorts of Laurel & Hardy, roaring with laughter when, for example, Stan and Ollie struggled to deliver a piano up an epic flight of stairs.
I myself drifted toward the pairing of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
A local UHF channel ran their features each Sunday, and after I roused myself from bed, delivered my route of The Sunday Bulletin, attended Mass, and returned home, I would nestle in front of the set after lunch and watch Bud & Lou.
I’m not quite sure I can explain the attraction. Maybe it was the appeal of Lou’s child-like behavior, constantly lost in a world he didn’t quite understand. Maybe it was Bud’s expert pitching as straight-man, perfecting the art of patter. Maybe it was the beginnings of my ongoing fascination with the films of the 1940s, an affinity I maintain today.
Whatever the source, I came to truly love these comedies, from the unbridled enthusiasm and patriotism apparent in “Buck Privates” (1941) to the role-reversal in “The Time of Their Lives” (1946) to the comedic chills associated with “A&C Meet Frankenstein” (1948). My favorite? “Who Done It?” (1942), a terrific period piece set in a radio station where Bud & Lou solve not only a murder but a spy ring as well. The dialog is snappy, the comedy is are bright (including a terrific self-spoof of “Who’s on first?”), the ad libs are hilarious (Lou serving a limburger cheese sandwich), and the script is smart. A sample: Alexander 22-22.
From that fertile ground, it was a natural extension for me to go toward Marxism. That is, Groucho, Harpo, Chico (and sometimes Zeppo and Gummo). The Marxes, in my mind, require a lot of attention, which is probably why I didn’t latch on to their films until my later teen years or early 20s. Groucho’s lines are delivered at breakneck speed and the insults fly almost faster than they can be caught. Chico’s malapropisms also require diligence to keep pace. And Harpo was a scene-stealer extraordinaire, involving himself in a thousand bits of stage business in the backgrounds, until he finally settled down once a picture to play the harp.
All these teams suffered from bad material as their careers advanced. Bud and Lou went to Mars, which turns out really to be Venus (ho-yawn-ho). The Stooges met Snow White. Laurel and Hardy mess with an atomic bomb. The Marxes appeared with Marilyn Monroe.
These later listless entries also signaled the end of comedy teams in the movies. Martin and Lewis were certainly big in the 1950s, but Lewis was the clown with Martin providing little more than a singing voice. Other attempts would be made to re-launch comedic paring franchises (David Spade and Chris Farley for example), but they never gained much traction.
Thankfully, DVD/Bluray technology preserves these teams at their best (and even, for completists, their not-so-best).
With their help, I’ll forever be able to settle the eternal conundrum and remember what was the name of the man playing first base?