Having re-posted last year’s piece about “When Classic Comedy Died” yesterday and having gotten some of the usual expected chagrined replies, I offer this long-germinating blanket rebuttal.
What you get a lot when you write criticism is the age-old retort that “opinions are subjective” and “that it’s all just a matter of taste.” That is certainly a partial truth, and you’ll find my own defenses of that point of view in numerous writings of mine, including this one on Ed Wood and this one on John Waters. I don’t expect everyone to love these highly idiosyncratic film-makers as I do. I simply champion them and share my enjoyment with others. That said, I’ll also express what has come to be something of a heresy in America: all opinions are not equal. For someone who dares to call himself a professional critic, the weight of his opinion is partly a matter of instinct but also a matter of cultivation.
What does cultivation consist of? It consists of education. I don’t mean a university degree (I don’t possess one, although I did study criticism at the college level). I mean exposure — to as much relevant human culture as possible over as long a time as possible. In the case of comedy film that refers to the work of particular comedians (in their entirety), the work of particular directors and producers and writers and studios (in their entirety), the entire history of comedy film, the entire history of cinema…and THEN everything that’s relevant to THAT: the entire history of theatre, of visual art, of literature, of dance, of music…and THEN, because cinema is a form of cultural expression, everything that’s relevant to that, which essentially means a solid grounding in world history. And, then, because you are writing as a critic, it also means reading widely the work of the greatest past critics in every artistic field. And, then, if you want to be a truly great critic of comedy, it doesn’t hurt to be an actual PRACTITIONER of comedy, to study and perform it and write it and make it, and to live and work among other professionals within its myriad forms, whether it’s stand-up, or clowning, or acting in Noel Coward. Beyond that, it is helpful to have had the experience of doing all these things over several decades.
To have to done all that is to have the ability to look at something and know –with great assurance — what is possible. I have a better than sketchy awareness of what has been accomplished over the past two millennia in western culture, so I can easily imagine what CAN be done. And thus I have an opinion about what OUGHT to be done. The usual response is a sort of chagrined, infantile, sputtering “How can you say that? How dare you say that?” My answer is: Well, because I have seen this, this , this, and this. The feeble thing you champion is very sparing in virtues I know to exist and are fully within the ability of an artist to concoct, execute and share. You come to me with the scribblings and caterwauling of toddlers, the makework of yawning time-servers, and you say it is a classic and it is “great” and I tell you it’s not. What do I care what someone who knows less than me thinks? The Village Idiot may laugh at a dog on fire in the middle of the street; does that mean I have to be impressed and respect that opinion? I have been to the Himalayas, trekked through the Sahara, Sailed the Seven Seas. Those who haven’t can call a foothill “Everest”, but I won’t be fooled.
Some people who don’t read very well claimed that my take-down of Lou Costello in my book Chain of Fools was not supported. NOPE. The entire book draws a very careful picture of my idea of what an excellent comedian is and does, what the challenges are, what the criteria for excellence are. And then I go on to point out that Costello does not learn from the wisdom of the artists who had solved the same comedy problems 30 years earlier and does NOT follow in their footsteps. I don’t know that Costello even grappled with the problems, he just blew them off, probably wasn’t even aware that they existed. But they do. Expertise IS A THING. Knowledge and skill EXIST. We now live in a society where those attributes are so disrespected and shunted aside that a man (and I use the term loosely) with neither expertise or knowledge or any other virtue has assumed THE HIGHEST OFFICE IN THE LAND. In the ideal world, pretenders aren’t even worth talking about. In the real world, they attain places of prominence and power and popularity all the time, and so they must be pointed out, exposed, confronted, ridiculed, and whatever else it takes to crack open whatever mass delusion has allowed them to pollute human culture.
I don’t care if you – or billions of people — “like Lou Costello” or “find him funny”. I’ve never said I don’t laugh at him, by the way, or that I didn’t “like” portions of the boring, ill-made movies he co-starred in. As I say in Chain of Fools, we all laugh at the contortions of idiots all the time in our lives. I am going to ride the subway later today. Inevitably, some real life characters out there are going to make me privately smile. But there are standards in any field. Having watched thousands of movies, read and seen hundreds of plays and novels, and performed myself for decades, my standards for comedy are extremely high. These include:
- Physical skill. Chaplin or Keaton or any of the great physical comedians of the silent era could take a pratfall (for example) with laser accurate precision. “You want me to fall? Where should I land? How should I land? You need a backflip? A nip-up? I can land with my ass in this bucket if you want.” The level of skill is important because it allows us to draw a line between the artist’s intention and the execution. Did he do what he set out to do? This is fundamental for all criticism, and we are talking about criticism, are we not? Costello has zero chops in this area. In this regard, he never deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great physical comedians. He is a great mass of imprecision. He simply lets fly and gravity does the rest. Costello is just randomly fooling around, like a dog or a chimp does onstage when it stops listening to its trainer. But he’s worse than that, because unlike the dog or the monkey, HE DOESN’T KNOW ANY TRICKS. Buster Keaton or Lupino Lane or Al St. John can do a no-hands somersault. What can Costello do? Don’t call him a “slapstick master” if he hasn’t mastered any slapstick! (BTW, his size? not an excuse. It’s not about that. It’s about knowing your beans. Fatty Arbuckle could do all those physical moves I have mentioned and was a great director as well.)
- Acting ability. This is just as crucial in comedy as in drama, at least in any comedy with a plot. This isn’t necessarily an argument for verisimilitude or truth or believability, although in the best comedians even that can be quite funny. But a comedian’s performance, unless he intends to purposely be subversive, is ideally to serve the narrative by responding to plot developments as the character in the story would. As a clown, the responses can and should be exaggerated. But they must purposeful, not RANDOM. Costello’s reactions very rarely match what is called for in the script. Some can, and probably will, argue that he is being subversive. My question would be, to what end? OF COURSE, a case can be made for doing the wrong things the wrong way for the sake of comedy. Harry Langdon, the Marx Brothers? But I KNOW what they’re doing, I know HOW they are being subversive and defying our expectations. Costello makes faces, squirms, flinches, falls down, but not in ways that serve the story, not in ways that mirror human behavior or human experience, but simply as a selfish, scene stealing plea for attention — so it’s neither art, nor craft nor even a good show. He short circuits whatever’s going on, stops the movie cold, shuts out all his scene partners, and makes a direct demand to the audience that they laugh at his funny faces for the sake alone of THAT. By his actions he is telling us not to care about the story, nor even to care about the character he is playing. The only thing that matters, he tells us with his actions, is the gratification, of him, Lou Costello. He acts out like a kindergartner with A.D.D., with neither logic nor coherence NOR intentional illogic or incoherence. He’s just an idiot. Not a comedian PLAYING an idiot. I mean documentary footage of an ACTUAL idiot, fucking around. It’s about as rewarding as laughing at the Titticut Follies. It may be temporarily amusing, but I don’t see where I’m obligated to RESPECT that, let alone EXPRESS respect for that.
Attached to these evaluationary measurements, my reactions to Costello’s comedy are much less like “mere opinions” and much more like objectivity. I am literally MEASURING his films against those of much more skilled comedians (there are many of them). If you like him uncritically, I consider it much more likely that YOUR’S is a “mere opinion” — an unexamined reflex action, an outgrowth of an impression you first formed when you were about four years old. Naturally we love things we first encountered when we were young. Here is a list of mine. I don’t argue that they are all brilliant or classics or that they need to mean anything to anyone else. Some are quite bad; I just happen to love them. So let it be, for God’s Sake, with Lou Costello.
Right? So this isn’t about “I don’t like Lou Costello.” There are very definite reasons why Lou Costello fails to fulfill his function as a movie comedian on just about every single level. People always come back with “Well, he makes me laugh”. Well he occasionally makes me laugh too, but so can a Youtube video of a pig splashing around in its own shit. That doesn’t cause me to respect him, or call him “one of the greats”, or call his fuckin’ terrible assembly line movies “classics”! Give me a fuckin’ break here! It depends what you want out of a movie I guess. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a film that’s 70% filler, punctuated with sporadic comedy routines starring a comedian who can neither act nor take a decent pratfall nor even hit his mark. But hey if that’s good enough for you, be my guest! By this measure, I guess Johnny Knoxville is Grimaldi.