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Though the subtitle suggests that great comedy teams lasted at least into the 70s-80s and the cover's inclusion of a couple characters from Friends would suggest they lasted in the 90s-00s, the reality is that they were pretty much through by the end of the 50s, but what a run they had. Though the heyday of the teams came in vaudeville, Golden Age movies, and early television, those of us in the Baby Boom generation -- especially those of us born later on, who grew up with television -- were probably more thoroughly exposed than any other demographic group and seem most likely to love this book. We got to watch The Little Rascals, Three Stooges, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and even Amos 'n Andy in syndication every afternoon when we got home from school. Abbot and Costello was a Sunday morning staple and Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Hope and Crosby's Road movies made perfect cheap filler for non-network broadcast stations. There were enough variety shows still going that older teams and solo comedians would still show up from time to time. We may not have gotten all the jokes, but we spent an awful lot of time laughing at their varied antics. In Mixed Nuts Lawrence J. Epstein treats us not just to a history of these acts but a sociological dissertation on American humor. The anecdote and joke-filled history, though brisk and though it extends several decades too far, is informative and fun, but it's the context he adds that makes the book fascinating.

No one will agree with all his analyses, and sometimes he's obviously reaching in order to give comedy acts a significance they just don't warrant, but the text is so rich in ideas and so thought-provoking that the few misfires are easily forgiven. Consider, for example, this discussion of George Burns and Gracie Allen:
[C]omic timing was a crucial part of their professional craft. In comedy, the straight man's "timing" refers to his ability to wait to speak until the laughter has peaked, receded, and finally stopped so that audiences can hear the next line, but not wait for so long after it has stopped that audiences might get confused or bored. The comic's timing refers to the response after the straight man has finished a line. The term "beat" is used to measure the pause between lines, and it and the "pace," or speed of the delivery, had to be perfect. The comic in the team needed an appropriate appearance and funny lines. Both the straight man and the comic needed rhythm.

Burns and Allen were experts at all of this. They knew which words to emphasize. They learned to control their voices. The staccato rhythm of their delivery was perfect. Other performers would have spoken too slowly or too fast or fallen out of the rhythm, which had to be maintained with each line and each silence. They even used pauses well. Gracie would giggle, an infectious sound and a prompt for even further audience laughter. George's repetition of much of the material was also crucial to the pacing, allowing the audience to grasp the premise precisely and be set up by George for the line to follow. It was impossible for Burns to be a comedian in such a structure. Any joke he interjected would break the patented Burns and Allen patter.
Note how deftly he establishes the general concepts he'll need throughout the book, but illustrates with a specific team, describing what made them masters of the form.

Likewise, here he discusses an irony that I've always found especially delicious, that two of the most conservative men in Hollywood politically were also the great innovators of post-modernism, years before academics and intellectuals imagined they were inventing a new phenomena:
Beyond creating an alternative to classic teams, Hope and Crosby signaled the decline of the traditional comedy team in two ways. First, they helped erase the line between the two worlds created by classic comedy teams. They developed the fourth and final model of the relationship between reality and the comic world created by teams, which negated the three previous models developed by Burns and Allen, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. In this new model, there was no necessity for one member of a team to have a tenuous hold on reality while another character brought the team back to the real world, or for the team to create a fantasy world in which the team members banded together to overcome a strange, hostile reality represented by an outside straight man, or a team in which a straight man represented a tricky world seeking to con us.

Hope and Crosby developed a realistic humor that mocked the illusory world their movie producers had arranged for them. [...]

[I]f you didn't take the real world too seriously there was no great need to create a fantasy comic world. Such an approach required a lack of sentimentality, an ability to avoid so strong an attachment to any person or place that you couldn't face the inevitable disappointments inherent in those people and places.
The earlier portion of that is bang on, but by the end seems quite wrong. Rather it is precisely because we are realistic about the inevitability of being disappointed by people and places that we can find the disappointments comic when they come, rather than tragic. Therein lies the secret to the notion that all comedy is conservative.

Let's end with one more, a look at Ralph Kramden that let's us see The Honeymooners in an almost religious context:
The character goes through a transformation in each show -- but then returns to his old form for the next show, only to be transformed again. Audiences wanted to see that transformation -- that change from the angry loser, the guy with a thousand get-rich ideas that all fail, that yells at his wife and his neighbor, that never seems to get ahead -- to the Chaplin-like, sad and sympathetic soul who is touched by love and, in Gleason's view, by grace and somehow finds the means to express it. As an episode was about to close, he often gazed lovingly at his wife and said, "Alice, you're the greatest."

Audiences saw in Ralph's transformation hopes for redemption in their own marriages and lives.
That's good stuff. Even if you disagree you're forced to grapple with what you think is wrong about it, an edifying exercise in itself. I suspect though that as you read you'll find more you agree with than disagree, and while it would have been better to end the story before we get to the point of considering Rowan and Martin and Cheech and Chong to be peers of the greats, all of it worthwhile.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Humor
Lawrence Epstein Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Mixed Nuts: America's Love Affair with Comedy Teams from Burns and Allen to Belushi and Aykroyd
    -BOOK SITE: The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America
    -ESSAY: Laughing all the way to the White House: Bush successfully plays the joker to Cheney's straight man. But will Kerry and Edwards have the comic chemistry to upstage them? (Lawrence J. Epstein, July 20, 2004, Salon)
    -PROFILE: TalkingComedy.com Books Profile: LAWRENCE J. EPSTEIN (Joanne Johnson, Spring 2002, TalkingComedy.com)
    -REVIEW: of Mixed Nuts (Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW)
    -REVIEW: of Mixed Nuts (Sarah D. Bunting, MSNBC)
    -REVIEW: of Mixed Nuts (Rob Mitchell, Boston Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Mixed Nuts (GEOFFREY BERKSHIRE, Variety)
    -REVIEW: of Mixed Nuts (Ben Varkentine, Ink 19)
    -REVIEW: of Mixed Nuts (Ron Kaplan, NJ Jewish News)

Book-related and General Links:

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Groucho Marx (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Bob Hope (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Bing Crosby (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Stan Laurel (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Oliver Hardy (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Bud Abbott (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Lou Costello (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: George Burns (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Jack Benny (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Lucille Ball (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Sid Caesar (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Moe Howard (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Jackie Gleason (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Mel Brooks (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Dean Martin (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Jerry Lewis (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Our Gang (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Keystone Kops (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Amos 'n Andy (Imdb.com)

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