Today is the birthday of Art Carney (1918-2003).
I’ve dragged my heels about posting about him here for some time, not because he wasn’t brilliant, but because I’d always thought or assumed or understood incorrectly that his orientation was as a legit actor. Although we do write about those, too, from time to time, the comedians who interest us most tend to have some kind of variety arts background.
But Carney did have a variety arts background it turns out and so our interest in him rises commensurately. He started out as a comical singer with Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights (an orchestra that played vaudeville, night clubs and radio) in the 1930s. From here he went on to be a comic, impressionist and actor on radio throughout the 1940s. Indeed, even his greatest creation Ed Norton had variety origins. The skit was one of several he did with Jackie Gleason as part of the latter’s ensemble on his variety show Cavalcade of Stars starting in 1950. The sit-com grew out of the sketches.
Ed Norton is one of the great comedy characters of the 20th century. Gleason and Carney are often rightly cited as the natural heirs apparent to the classic comedians of the first half of the 20th century in the cinema (Chaplin, Keaton, et al). In my new book Chain of Fools, I talk about Gleason and Carney as the proper successors to Laurel and Hardy. Carney was adept both at vocal work and physical business — one thinks of him as one of the great clowns of his time. Interestingly, for someone who later distinguished himself in dramatic work, pathos was never part of Carney’s contribution to the Honeymooners equation. Like Laurel, he was so epically stupid, he was almost a supernatural being — too dumb to even have feelings.
For more on comedy history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc