Some thoughts I’ve been kicking around about the great movie comedy teams and the role of the straight man…
The genesis of this train of thought was a revelation I had the other day (probably an obvious fact to some of you) about what makes the Abbott and Costello movies unique and a way in which they excel (if perhaps don’t completely succeed). Their films are perhaps the most successful attempts to integrate a certain kind of old-style verbal two-man comedy act into a feature length narrative. This is simultaneously faint praise (when you come right down to it, there were very few other attempts) and high praise (what they attempted was darn nigh impossible.)
When I say the attempts were rare, I mean they were rarer than you think. I am talking about something very specific. There were many kinds of comedy teams in vaudeville and burlesque. One of the most common had its roots in the minstrel show.** This was the comedy duo or double act which paired a sillier comic with a straight man or feeder, a guy whose job was to do the set ups for the punchlines delivered by the comic. The original straight man was the Interlocutor in minstrelsy; the End Men were the comics. In the two man act, the straight man became a specialty unto itself. The straight man is like the puppet master, the Power Behind the Throne, a magician who skillfully and selflessly directs the audience’s attention onto the comic, and (truth be known) even cues them when to laugh. Bud Abbott was considered the very best of this species of creature in burlesque. Both vaudeville and burlesque were full of these kind of two man acts, hundreds of them. But very few of them made it to movies. People often lump other comedy teams in with them and speak of them in similar terms, but I think it’s important to make some distinctions so that you can see what’s unique about Abbott and Costello.
Most of the successful and famous comedy teams in films were actually NOT of the type I am describing. Most don’t have a guy who is a simple “feeder”. He is not a straight man in that sense. You might more accurately call him the “straighter man” than the straight man. Both the members of such comedy teams are funny. They have distinct characters, and one of the pair is slightly less silly. But he’s not a feeder. In Laurel and Hardy that person is Oliver Hardy. In Wheeler and Woolsey that person is Bob Woolsey. In Hope and Crosby, that person is Bing. In Carney and Brown (heaven forfend) that person is Wally Brown. With Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, it’s Thelma. And so on, through the years. In Laverne and Shirley, it’s Shirley. Both members of the team have fleshed out, funny characters. They are comic actors in stories, not just joke tellers. Yes, they deliver jokes, but not for their own sake, in a routine. The main thing is the story. Of necessity, one of the pair is slightly straighter, but in no sense is he or she just a feeder.
Integrating into a story a vaudeville team with their pre-established rhythm of pat routines is quite a different thing. Who are these kinds of teams, with this kind of straight man? There were hundreds back in the day, but because of this hurdle, very few made it into movies so you’ll only know a few of them. Jay Brennan of Savoy and Brennan was that kind of straight man. Accompanist Ted Shapiro played the role to Sophie Tucker. Bob Hope was straight man to a Dumb Dora character named Honey Chile (and later on tv to countless comedians). Frank Fay was straight man to his stooge, Patsy Kelly. Ted Healy was straight man to his Three Stooges (and I have a heretical theory that they would have made better movies together if he hadn’t dropped them).
Every ventriloquist plays the straight man to his dummy. Thus Edgar Bergen, in addition to his many other gifts, was one of the great straight men of all time. (NOTE: he’s in many movies. How many does he star in?).
George Burns and Gracie Allen were in films throughout the 1930s, but ALWAYS as parts of ensembles. They weren’t expected to carry a 90 minute or two-hour picture themselves, because no one could figure out what to do with George. In their last one Honolulu (1939), they separated the two completely. (The half-hour sit com format suited them best).
And the Marx Brothers had a great straight man. And contrary to what people usually say, it WASN’T Zeppo! Most of the time, Zeppo was more like a vestigal, underused juvenile. On only a couple of occasions on film is he a straight man in a comedy routine. More often, GROUCHO plays straight man to CHICO, in select scenes in their first six or seven pictures. But notice, once MGM began privileging plots over comedy, those sections of their films evaporated. And later of course, Groucho was straight man to his many contestants on You Bet Your Life. Basically all hosts of variety shows, talk shows and game shows play straight men to their guests.
In all these cases, the straight man is just feeding lines: “No, what IS black and white and red all over, Mr. Bones?”
Then there are two interesting vaudeville teams which lacked a straight man but were nonetheless dependent on artificial routines, thus making it just as hard to integrate them into a plot. Clark and McCullough were surrealists like the Marx Brothers. Interestingly, Paul McCullough was not a straight man, but a stooge, but since Bobby Clark was such a ham, the role wound up just as thankless. They never made it out of two reel comedy shorts as a team, and McCullough’s early suicide prevented possible future exploration. And then there are the Ritz Brothers, whose stock in trade was eccentric musical numbers. Like Burns and Allen they were usually employed best in large ensembles — how do you make them the heroes? They’re essentially a three headed insect!
And so we begin to see what Abbott and Costello (and their producers, writers, handlers) began to accomplish in their films: an integration, an uneasy grafting of such routines into plots. It’s imperfect. Properly speaking, neither member of the team actually has a character, just the faintest of pencil outlines. And normally the plot is non-comical and exceedingly dull. But it is a kind of stepping stone, and given the nature of the team and their experience (delivering five minute verbal comedy routines) kind of miraculous. Martin and Lewis took it a step further, treading a line somewhere between Abbott and Costello and the likes of Wheeler and Woolsey or Hope and Crosby. (They were helped along by the fact that their comedy routines weren’t based on verbal, dialogue based jokes but revolved around Lewis’s bizarre physical antics). But — and here’s what’s instructive — later, similar teams failed. Watch Allen and Rossi in The Last of the Secret Agents (1966) or Rowan and Martin in The Maltese Bippy (1969).
Credit where credit is due! I won’t concede what many seem to claim, that Abbott and Costello are somehow “geniuses”. But you do have to acknowledge that they got farther than just about anybody at solving a certain comedy/ story problem, and so deserve their cherished niche in the film comedy pantheon.
(I have a solution, a secret solution about how to solve the problem, by the way, but I prefer to try to demonstrate it in practice sometime rather than spill it here. Essentially, Shakespeare solved this 400 years ago. And if you think there’s not lowbrow comedy in Shakespeare, look again).
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.