Cinematic heroes 11: Abbott and Costello

 

From mynewsla.com

 

Before I write about the film-comedy double-act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, here’s a digression – an entry from The Ian Smith Life Story.

 

In the early 1970s I attended a primary school in rural Northern Ireland and occasionally the school would receive visits from entertainers and impresarios who’d put on shows for the pupils.  These included a stage magician, a puppeteer and a couple with a mobile zoo, which in reality was some animals in tiny cages crammed into the back of a van.  In today’s climate, with British educationalists placing huge emphasis on child protection, it’s hard to believe these assorted oddballs and chancers were ever allowed to saunter into a school and be in close proximity to young kids.  Plus, of course, that mobile zoo would’ve been busted immediately on grounds of animal cruelty.

 

Not that we cared.  Anything to provide a break from the drudgery of our lessons.

 

Another of these visitors was someone I thought of as the ‘film-man’.  He’d commandeer a classroom and set up a screen and a hulking projector with reels rotating on top and a lens sending out a beam that highlighted the swirling dust patterns in the air.  Once the lights were turned off, he’d show us short comedy films featuring the Three Stooges and sequences from full-length comedy films featuring Abbott and Costello – among the latter, I remember watching the finales of 1943’s It Ain’t Hay and 1947’s Buck Privates Come Home.  In the early 1970s, the BBC broadcast Laurel and Hardy movies all the time.  However, neither the Stooges nor Abbott and Costello seemed to have been on TV for a while and they were new to kids our age.

 

Yes, I lived in a low-tech world back then.  I thought it was the height of excitement to be shown black-and-white film clips from the 1940s by a travelling showman with a creaking movie projector.  That’s an experience lost on the Youtube generation.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Anyway, it was thanks to the film-man that I discovered Abbott and Costello.  Later, I made a point of watching as many of their movies as I could – it helped that, in the mid-1970s, the BBC acquired the broadcasting rights to some of their movies and ran a season of them.  And for a few years I believed them to be the funniest thing on the planet, better even than Laurel and Hardy.  It wasn’t hard to see how they appealed to a ten-year-old like myself.  Their comedy was broad – few comic figures came broader than Lou Costello’s loud, bumbling, sentimental, harassed but occasionally crafty man-child – and their films contained plenty of slapstick and crash-bang-wallop chases.  Also, they lacked that undercurrent of melancholia and pathos that I sometimes found unsettling when I watched Laurel and Hardy.

 

Fast-forward a decade to my college-years and my opinion had changed.  When I watched Abbott and Costello movies on TV, I’d cringe – finding them painfully dated.  Also, by then, I’d realised that the melancholia and pathos in the Laurel and Hardy films was indicative of comedy genius.  So Laurel and Hardy had become the funniest, Abbot and Costello the unfunniest.  (Well, not quite.  They still didn’t seem as dire as the Three Stooges.)

 

Today, I’ve yet another opinion of Abbott and Costello.  I like them again.  It’s largely because now I perceive them for what they were, a pair of sharp stand-ups from the burlesque circuit – Abbot had been producing and performing in burlesque shows since 1923, Costello became a burlesque comedian in 1928 and they started working together in 1935 – who ended up in a different medium, film, where the necessity for slapstick and visual gags sometimes got in the way of their true comic talents, which were verbal.  Mind you, the verbal routines that do appear in Abbott and Costello’s movies are often funny.  No more so than the famous ‘Who’s on first?’ one, which the duo had performed on stage and radio before essaying it in the movies One Night in the Tropics (1940) and The Naughty Nineties (1945).  Taking as its premise that there’s a baseball team whose players have unusual nicknames like Who, What and Because, a fact that Abbott is aware of but Costello isn’t, ‘Who’s on first?’ sees comic confusion escalate along these lines:

 

ABBOTT: Well, that’s all you have to do.

COSTELLO: Is to throw it to first base?

ABBOTT: Yes.

COSTELLO: Now who’s got it?

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Who has it?

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Naturally.

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Okay.

ABBOTT: Now you’ve got it.

COSTELLO: I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally.

ABBOTT: No, you don’t, you throw the ball to first base!

COSTELLO: Then who gets it?

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Okay!

 

So popular was the ‘Who’s on first?’ routine that Abbott and Costello performed it live for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and it led to their induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a rare honour for people not directly involved in baseball.  There’s also a 1999 episode of The Simpsons where Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers attempt, and fail, to perform ‘Who’s on first’ at a school show – Skinner blows it by blurting, “Yes, not the pronoun, but a player with the unlikely name of ‘Who’ is on first!”  Coincidentally, the actor supplying the voice of Principal Skinner, Harry Shearer, made his film debut at the age of eight in the 1953 movie Abbott and Costello go to Mars.

 

© 20th Century Fox Television

 

I also like the duo’s ‘7 into 28’ routine, which today seems to form the basis of Donald Trump’s economic programme.

 

For me, another positive about Abbott and Costello is a particular group of their movies that I still find enjoyable – the scary ones, where they perform their comic shtick in horror-film settings, though obviously the horror is watered down to suit family audiences.  It’s a formula combining laughs and chills that continues today in children’s cartoon-shows like Scooby Doo; and children especially seem to find this combination delightful.  They love being scared but not too scared, with the comedy providing a safety valve.  In the late 1940s, Abbott and Costello’s studio, Universal, had the bright idea of teaming them with the monstrous characters who’d populated the same studio’s famous horror films during the past two decades: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Mummy.

 

The first three of these characters – well, four, as the Invisible Man makes a cameo ‘appearance’ right at the end, voiced by Vincent Price – appeared in 1948’s Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, which is one of the best horror-comedies of all time.  Partly this is because, despite the presence of Abbott and Costello, the monsters are presented as serious threats rather than as comic stooges.  For instance, Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr) have a bruising confrontation at the finale, and the scene where Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) throws supporting actress Lenore Aubert to her death though a window is unexpectedly nasty.

 

On the other hand, there are some priceless moments of humour, such as when Abbott and Costello stand over Dracula’s coffin in a wax museum: “I know there’s no such person as Dracula.  You know there’s no such person as Dracula.”  “But does Dracula know it?”  Also good is this exchange between Lawrence Talbot, aka the Wolfman, and Costello: “I know you think I’m crazy, but in half an hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.”  “You and twenty million other guys.”  No wonder Quentin Tarantino claims he was fascinated by this movie as a kid, because it taught him how successfully the hilarious and the horrific could be blended together – something Tarantino’s done throughout his career.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein was a big success, so more movies with Abbott and Costello meet… in their titles followed.  In 1951 there was …meet the Invisible Man, with Arthur Franz, not Vincent Price, voicing the titular creature.  1953 saw the underrated …meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which has an atmospheric Victorian London setting and the great Boris Karloff playing Robert Louis Stevenson’s transformative mad scientist.  It contains a weird sequence where Costello accidentally drinks a potion in Jekyll’s laboratory that changes him into a giant fluffy mouse, prompting the line: “How do you like that Dr Jekyll?  He turned me into a mouse – the rat!”  And in 1955 there was …meet the Mummy, which while not great, was still better than the several ‘serious’ Mummy films that Universal made during the 1940s.

 

Like many people who found fame being funny onscreen, Abbott and Costello’s lives offscreen weren’t always a barrel of laughs.  The grumpy, gravelly Abbott, greatly underrated as a straight man, suffered from epilepsy and became too fond of the bottle.  Costello had to endure bouts of rheumatic fever and was devastated in 1943 when, just before he was due to do a radio show, he was informed that his one-year-old son had fallen into the family swimming pool and drowned.  He went ahead with the radio show, saying, “Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me.”  By the mid-1940s the pair of them had clashed about money and even their act’s name – Costello wanted it to be ‘Costello and Abbott’.  That’s why their gentle 1946 ghost / fantasy movie The Time of their Lives seems so strange – they’re in it but scarcely have any screen-time together, because in real life in 1946 they weren’t on speaking terms.

 

By the mid-1950s, the writing was on the wall.  Cinema audiences were more interested in a younger and hipper comedy double-act, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and to compound the misery the US Inland Revenue Service gave both of them a hammering.  In 1959, two years after they’d ended their partnership, Costello died of a heart attack aged just 52.  Abbott lived until 1974, but his final years were blighted by financial insecurity, strokes, a hip injury and, finally, cancer.

 

Abbott and Costello are too much of-their-time to be considered in the same league as comic legends like Laurel and Hardy or the fabulously surreal and anarchic Marx Brothers; but if you’re a connoisseur of wordplay and smart comedic patter, or if you just have a liking for offbeat movies where funny men meet scary monsters, then the pair retain their charm.

 

And I like the fact that in 2016’s impressively intelligent science-fiction movie about alien contact, Arrival, the scientists who’re tasked with communicating with the giant cuttlefish-like aliens nickname the pair of creatures they encounter ‘Abbott and Costello’.  In a movie about the importance of communication, I assume this is a sly reference to the unfortunate consequences of miscommunication.  Who’s on first?!

 

© Paramount Pictures / FilmNation Entertainment

 

Favourite TV comedy songs

 

(c) Channel 4

 

With The Thick of It finished and Peep Show on a long hiatus, I’d assumed there was no decent comedy on British television at the moment.  Yes, I know some people like Miranda Hart’s sitcom Miranda but any time I’ve encountered it, I’m afraid, my facial muscles haven’t come remotely close to forming a smile.  And yes, the BBC4 comedy The Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook and starring Crook and the excellent Toby Jones, won acclaim a little while ago.  But though I liked Crook’s show, about a pair of hopeless metal-detecting enthusiasts whose love-lives are even more hopeless than their metal detecting, I didn’t find it particularly comic.  Rather, it seemed to me a gentle, melancholy drama with a streak of wry humour.

 

And as for asking me if I like watching Citizen Khan or Mrs Brown’s Boys…  Well, you might as well as ask me if I like eating dumplings that have been fashioned out of dried vomit and then deep-fried in manure.

 

However, over the last month, my negativity about the state of British TV comedy has been proven wrong.  For I have greatly enjoyed the latest season of Toast of London, the Channel 4 sitcom starring Matt Berry as a middle-aged actor struggling to make ends meet in the recording studios, on the film sets and on the theatre stages of showbiz London.  Among other things, Toast has to endure the belligerence of his agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackichan), who comes across as half-Mary Poppins and half-dominatrix; and various nefarious plots hatched against him by his acting rival and arch-enemy Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock).  At the same time, Toast takes every opportunity going to shag Purchase’s desperate-housewife missus (Tracy-Ann Oberman).  In fact, the mellifluous, baritone-voiced and altogether hammy Toast is a splendid comic creation.  He’s a variation on those barnstorming over-the-top actors that in real life the British drama world has churned out by the dozen: Todd Slaughter, Donald Wolfit, Graham Crowden, Steven Berkoff and Brian Blessed.

 

The show’s style complements its main character.  An endearing mixture of absurdity, stupidity, surrealism, catchphrases (“Yes, I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”) and occasional showbiz satire, it also contains enough good-natured smut to float a fleet of Carry On films.  If its whimsical nature feels familiar, that’s probably because it’s co-written (with Berry) by Arthur Matthews, who co-wrote the legendary Irish-priest sitcom Father Ted back in the 1990s.

 

One thing I particularly like about Toast of London is its musical interludes.  Berry and Matthews know the value of slipping an occasional, good comic song in among the humorous scenes.  This is to be expected because, in addition to acting and comedy, Berry has an excellent track record in making music – serious music as well as silly stuff.  His albums Witchazel and Kill the Wolf are laudable confections of non-cheesy pop, non-pompous progressive rock and slightly-spooky Wicker Man-y folk music and can be listened to at YouTube, here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5E13AF0E5205D540

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8zVDNg2iCm5CzQKty-VoId9IXBohxUyM

 

Anyway, Toast of London has set me thinking.  What are the best comic songs to have appeared on TV comedy shows over the years?  By ‘comic song’, I don’t mean a simple parody of a ‘serious’ song or musical genre (which is what Not the Nine o’Clock News used to do in the early 1980s).  No, I mean a song that holds up as a song in its own right, with a proper tune and lyrics, whilst also managing to be funny.  Here are my favourites.

 

In the world of TV comedy songs, one name that looms large is Monty Python – and for this we should thank the musical and lyrical talents of the Python team’s second-youngest member, Eric Idle.  It’s fashionable nowadays to knock Idle for being a sell-out, because he was the one who transformed the second Python movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot!, a money-making juggernaut of a stage musical.  And apparently he was the driving force behind the team getting back together this year and mounting some indifferently-reviewed (but, again, massively lucrative) farewell shows at London’s O2 Arena.

 

But at least Idle was the man who put the music into Monty Python.  Because of him, you can rarely utter the show’s name in a British pub without middle-aged men around you bursting into lusty renditions of The Lumberjack Song.  My favourite Idle-penned Python song, though, is Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song, in which some Australian philosophy lecturers sing about the drinking prowess of history’s greatest abstract thinkers.  I probably like it because I studied philosophy at college and, after a gruelling lecture where I’d squirmed and sweated and tried to get my head around the basics of classical Greek philosophy, it was nice to hear this song and have Idle assure me that “Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle” and “Socrates himself was permanently pissed.”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQycQ8DABvc

 

It’s just a shame that Idle’s most famous song is the dirge-like Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  It was funny enough when it was sung during the crucifixion sequence in the third Python move, Life of Brian, but over the years, irritatingly, it’s become a ubiquitous anthem extolling the supposed British virtue of keeping calm and carrying on.  And I have to confess I cringed when Idle turned up and sang it during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.  (Although he was still better than the Spice Girls.)

 

One man who shouldn’t be forgotten when talking about Monty Python music is the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and pianist Neil Innes, whose CV includes stints in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, GRIMMS, Beatles piss-take The Rutles and The Idiot Bastard Band, as well as an association with Python that started in 1974 (after John Cleese, temporarily, left the troupe).  In addition to Python song-writing duties, which included penning the tunes for Holy Grail, Innes has the distinction of being one of only two people who wrote sketches for Python who weren’t in the core team of six – the other person, coincidentally, was Douglas Adams.   I thought it was a bit off of the Python gang not to invite Innes back to participate in the O2 Arena concerts – an invitation that they did extend to the show’s resident female performer, Carol Cleveland.  But Innes himself didn’t seem that bothered.  In an interview for www.musicradar.com, he said: “…Eric Idle is in charge.  And he’s got Arlene Philips, and boy and girl dancers, and a band.  You don’t really need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.  Now Eric’s gone all show business, he sees it as he sees it.  It fills me with horror to be honest.”  And no, he didn’t like Idle’s performance at the Olympics closing ceremony, either.

 

(c) BBC

 

Moving from the 1970s to the 1990s, no round-up of great TV comedy songs would be complete without a mention of one of Arthur Matthews’ previous credits, the much-loved Father Ted.  Responsible for the musical component of Father Ted was Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish frontman with the celebrated ‘chamber pop group’ The Divine Comedy.  After the theme music (which was reworked as Songs of Love on The Divine Comedy album Casanova), Hannon’s best-known work on the show is surely My Lovely Horse, the song sung by Ted and his gormless side-kick Father Dougal in the episode A Song for Europe when they were bidding to become Ireland’s entry for the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest.  Incidentally, Hannon also wrote the overwrought anthem The Miracle is Mine, sung by Ted’s nemesis Father Dick Byrne, who wanted to be Ireland’s entry too.

 

My Lovely Horse is ghastly, in a uniquely Eurovision way, but it’s brilliantly ghastly.  It’s no surprise that, recently, life tried to imitate art and a petition was launched in Ireland demanding that My Lovely Horse really be Ireland’s entry for the next Eurovision Song Contest.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzYzVMcgWhg

 

Incidentally, Hannon made a guest appearance in the latest episode of Toast of London, performing half of the vocals on a duet that Toast sings with his old friend, the debauched Soho-loving artist Francis Bacon.  Yes, I know Francis Bacon died in 1992.  But Berry and Matthews cunningly get around this in their script by stating that no, Bacon didn’t actually die.

 

Moving from the British Isles to America, and from live action to animation, we inevitably come to The Simpsons.  The show’s head honcho Matt Groening is a big music buff – he’s curated two of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festivals, one in the US in 2003 and the other in England in 2010, and performed in the ‘literary’ rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders alongside Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Stephen King.  So it’s no surprise that The Simpsons has always been choc-a-bloc with songs and music.

 

My favourite Simpsons’ comedy song is probably Dr Zaius, performed in the episode where Troy McClure wins a role in Planet of the Apes: The Musical.  However, because it’s really a spoof of an existing song – Rock Me, Amadeus by the Austrian musician Falco – I can’t nominate it here as a bona-fide comedy song.  Instead, I’ll opt for Your Wife Don’t Understand You, But I Do, that brief but glorious encapsulation of everything that’s bad (and good) about country-and-western music, sung to Homer by Lurleen the Waitress when he retreats to her honky-tonk bar to drown his sorrows following a particularly bitter bust-up with Marge.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCzPAaIGOZM

 

(c) South Park Studios

 

But when it comes to funny music, The Simpsons is outdone by its more scatological cartoon rival South Park.  From the beginning, South Park wore its musical interests on its sleeve – the theme tune was performed by Primus, The Cure’s Robert Smith made a guest appearance in an early episode, and of course its Chef character was voiced by the late, great soul-funk-jazz legend Isaac Hayes.  However, it wasn’t until the release of the South Park movie in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, that the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker unleashed their inner Stephen Sondheims – they packed the movie with spiffy song-and-dance numbers like Blame Canada, Uncle-F*cka and Kyle’s Mom is a Big, Fat Bitch.  (Curiously, Eric Idle made a guest vocal appearance in the film too.)

 

Since then, the show has been a parade of musical delights.  I particularly liked Butters’ version of What, What (in the Butt) and Cartman’s swashbuckling song, Somalian Pirates, We (which includes the jolly lines, “We’ll shoot you in the face with glee / We’ll cut off your cock / And feed it to a croc / Somalian pirates, we!”).  But at the end of the day I guess my favourite South Park song is a typically salacious, but nonetheless funky number sung by Chef, Simultaneous.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QHL_JkVgj8

 

From beatcrave.com

 

One live-action American comedy show that should be saluted for its musical greatness, meanwhile, is the HBO sitcom Flight of the Conchords, about a hapless singing duo from New Zealand trying, wholly unsuccessfully, to make a name for themselves in New York.  Written and performed by the show’s two Kiwi stars, Jermaine Clement and Brett McKenzie, the songs in Flight of the Conchords are guaranteed to raise a smile; but the one that made me laugh out loud was their attempted debut in the rap world, Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenocerus.  Actually, lyrics like “They call me the hiphopopotamus / Flows that glow like phosphorus / Poppin’ off the top of this oesophagus / Rockin’ this metropolis” are better than what you’d get in 95 percent of serious rap songs.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FArZxLj6DLk

 

Incidentally, I can’t wait to see Clement’s new mockumentary-vampire movie We Live in the Shadows.

 

Finally, and especially because I mentioned him at the start of this post, I should add something by Matt Berry to my list of favourite TV comedy songs.  Not, however, from Toast of London.  Rather, I think his funniest musical moment came when he sang One Track Lover during the 2004 spoof horror show Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place.  The song is a piss-take of those toe-curlingly rubbish 1980s soft-rock power ballads.  However, when Richard Ayoade suddenly breaks in with his attempted rap, it becomes a thing of genius.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO-ZGP68-3w

 

(c) Channel 4