Mixed Nuts: America’s Love Affair with Comedy Teams
by Lawrence J. Epstein
We’re told that it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but this one makes it too easy. It promises to look at “Comedy Teams From Burns and Allen to Belushi and Aykroyd.” But the cover tells the story. Apart from Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer, none of the teams pictured are more contemporary than the ’50s, and author Lawrence J. Epstein is clearly more comfortable discussing their work than anything from the last 35 years.
Which is a pity; because he missed connections he could have made that help support his statement that “the spirit of comedy lives on in a variety of inheritors.” For example, he spends a lot of time in the early chapters telling us how one team or another helped get the country through one bad patch or another–the depression, World War II. But he doesn’t see the parallel that following September 11, Friends saw its ratings go up, had one of its most acclaimed seasons, and won the Emmy. This is all-but unheard of for a series in its eighth year, and many have put it down, at least in part, to Americans need to escape and laugh. Which is exactly the need Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and his cast, and Hope and Crosby served in World War II and the depression.
As a historian, Epstein uncovers some interesting nuggets in this attempt to illuminate both the lives and reasons for the success of some of America’s best-loved comedy teams. If you’ve ever wanted to know who first said “that was no lady, that was my wife,” this is the book for you. He writes insightfully about comedy teams in radio, noting of the controversial Amos ‘n’ Andy “…the telling fact that these stereotypes were basically the only portrayals of blacks on radio…After all, stereotypes of blacks didn’t just affect whites by perpetuating the belief that blacks were lazy, for example, but also affected young blacks who might, like any minority in any culture, come to accept and believe the majority’s negative stereotypes.” Although he does not observe, as Donald Bogle did in Primetime Blues, that Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Jack Benny were the forebears of future African and European-American comic pairings, all the way up to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the Men In Black films.
I also enjoyed Epstein’s vivid theory of the Marx Brothers’ appeal to a still-largely immigrant audience, particularly Harpo, who “like many watching the movie…stood outside commercial life and was too emotionally vulnerable to succeed without the kindness of others–who usually ignored or mocked him or were embarrassed by him” And in the Three Stooges chapter he gives a little piece of info with which you can annoy your friends, namely an answer to the question: Who was the first actor to portray Adolf Hitler? I’m not sure I agree with the answer, but it’s an answer.
In fact, “I’m not sure I agree, but–“describes my reaction to many of this books passages. I wish Epstein had been a bit more detailed in his references; I’m fairly well-versed in this field–I think I’d already read almost half of the works he cites–but some of his assertions are news to me. And I’d like to know where he got his information.
Then there are the mistakes and curious omissions, and there are enough of those to make me suspicious of the rest. This book perpetuates the common misconception that Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Woody Allen all worked together on Your Show of Shows. They did not; all wrote for Sid Caesar at one time or another on one show or another (though Reiner was mainly a performer, a fact Epstein omits), but not all on Your Show of Shows.
And how do you misquote one of Jackie Gleason’s most memorable catchphrases (“Baby, you’re the greatest”)?
Lilly Tomlin played “a telephone operator” on Laugh-in? Yeah, she was called Ernestine, one of her most famous characters. I’m not even a Lilly Tomlin fan and I knew that. And Epstein mentions that “Mel Brooks attempted to cast Richard Pryor in Blazing Saddles, an idea vetoed by nervous executives.” True. But he leaves out the fact that Pryor co-wrote the script, a not insignificant detail.
Those are actual mistakes, not conclusions with which I disagree, but the book has its share of those too. “Pryor off the screen didn’t have any of the soft inner core of the characters he played on it?” John Belushi was “threatening, manic, and charmless?”
Anyone who writes about comedy or comedians must be aware of Mark Twain’s famous aphorism that the analysis of humor is like the dissection of a frog: It can be done, but the subject tends to die in the process. Epstein walks that line, and ultimately fails — the patient dies. Sometimes he writes as if his left hand doesn’t know what his right hand is doing, and sometimes he seems like the academic describing a joke with no sense of timing. Speaking of no sense of timing, he also seems completely confused as to the sequence of some events.
And…I understand that space prohibits the inclusion of every comedy team under the sun. I was prepared to accept the absence of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on the grounds that this book is about American comedy teams. But then there’s Monty Python, right in the book, making Pete and Dud’s omission more inexplicable.
The problem with this book, really, is that it’s dishonest. It doesn’t want to be a survey of all comedy teams past and present, it wants to be a book about certain “classic” ones, the author’s favorites. Which is fine — more than fine. I’ll match any one of you on old time radio references. But it’s not what it’s sold to be.
But that does not mean there is nothing of worth on the way to the unsuccessful end.
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