Happy Birthday, Joe E. Brown!

Z Joe E Brown 01Joseph Evans Brown was born on July 28, 1891 in Holgate, Ohio, near Toledo.

In 1902, when only 10 years old, Brown joined a troupe of circus performers known as the Five Marvelous Ashtons. With them, her toured the US, performing at circuses and as part of the vaudeville circuit. Slowly, he added comedy to his performance realizing that he had strong comedic chops and that the audience loved it.

Brown’s athletics went beyond the circus tent. Like his dad, Brown was a huge baseball fan. Because he was also an athlete, he had the opportunity to play in the semi-pros while in his teens. Though we haven’t been able to find specific stats on Brown’s 3-year career, we did learn that he was good enough to be offered a contract with the New York Yankees. Brown decided that he’d rather play a baseball player on the screen (which he did several times) and that he needed to pursue his first love, performing. So, he headed back to the circus and the stage.

Z Joe E Brown 02In the early 1920s his talent led him to the Broadway stage, where he appeared in a musical comedy called “Jim Jam Jems” alongside future silent film star Harry Langdon.

As usually happened in the early days of the film industry, Brown’s popularity onstage gained the attention of Hollywood producers. In 1928, he started making films and signed a contract with Warner Brothers. With his gentle persona and elastic, goofy grin, he quickly became an audience favorite, especially with children. By 1931 he was such a popular star that his name was billed above the title of any film in which he appeared. He was one of the top money making actors in both 1933 and 1936.

It isn’t an unusual story when fame leads to bad decisions. That was the case in Brown’s career. In the late 1930s, he was lured away from Warner Brothers by David L. Loew, the brother of Loew’s Theatre founder Marcus Loew. Unfortunately, David Loew’s films were cheaply made with little consideration of production values. Brown’s career suffered and he transitioned to making “B” movies.

In the late 30s, however, Brown’s attention moved to the plight of European Jews and the possibility of impending war. In 1939, he testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of allowing 20,000 German Jewish refugee children to come to the US. He later adopted two little girls who arrived, in part, because of his plea.

Once America entered the war, both of his sons joined up. The elder son died in a helicopter crash while training with the Army Air Corps near Palm Springs.

Z Joe E Brown 04The loss of his son drove Brown to do all he could for the troops. With his twinkling eyes and wide grin, he traveled at his own expense to visit and entertain soldiers. When in Los Angeles, he was a nightly fixture at the Hollywood Canteen. While in The Philippines, he commandeered a military jeep so he could be driven around to meet as many soldiers as possible.He performed in all weather, under any condition and was happy to do his entire show for a single dying soldier if asked. Whenever he returned to the States, he brought large sacks of mail, making sure they were delivered to the Post Office Department.

Because of his dedicated service during WWII, he was one of only two civilians to be awarded the Bronze Star for heroism and meritorious achievement. (The other was a civilian construction worker named Malcolm Johnson who, at the age of 19, stood alongside the Marines as they defended Wake Island in late December 1941. Johnson was captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.)

In 1947, Brown returned to performing when he joined the road company of Mary Chase’s wonderful play “Harvey.” In 1948 he received a special Tony for his performance as Harvey’s best friend Elwood P. Dowd. The original Broadway production of “Harvey” was directed by Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Awards were named.

Z Joe E Brown 03In 1953 his love of baseball became an important part of his life for a second time when he became the first president of PONY Baseball and Softball. He continued in the post until 1964, traveling thousands of miles to talk about the PONY League in hopes of inspiring communities to start programs for local kids.

Baseball became part of his life even more deeply when, from 1955-1976, he served as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, helping to lead them to World Series championships in 1960 and 1971.

Baseball didn’t eliminate his acting career, however,  In fact, during the ‘50s and ‘60s Brown made cameo appearances in several movie classics, including “Around the World in 80 Days” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Perhaps his most famous performance was in Billy Wilder’s wonderful “Some Like it Hot” in 1959 in which he delivered the film’s last line, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Z Joe E Brown 05

Sadly, in the late 1960s, Brown developed heart issues and, in 1968, he had a serious heart attack. On July 6, 1973, he died from arteriosclerosis at his home in Brentwood, CA, just weeks before his 82nd birthday.

Perhaps Osgood was right when he said, “Nobody’s perfect,” but Joe E. Brown was pretty darned close.

Posted in Comedic Actors, Comedy Movies, History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

British Music Hall

Blog 13 Brit Music Hall 01British Music Hall was born, to some degree, from protest and certainly from business owners seeing and seizing an opportunity. Well before it became a popular form of entertainment, puritan influences in England cast aspersions on the nature of actors and the proliferation of theaters. Rulers, including Elizabeth I, assuaged the fun haters by insisting on patents in order to run a theater within city limits. The patents were given to only a handful of theater owners. Though theaters could be built on the far side of the Thames where The Globe and other famous performance spaces stood, audiences longed for the convenience of affordable entertainment within their neighborhoods.

Tavern owners realized they weren’t covered by the restrictive law. They could offer singers, clowns and other types of entertainment without having a patent. Taverns quickly cleared out a space for entertainment and performers flocked to them seeking employment. Much like the dinner theaters so popular in the US during the 70s and 80s, Music Halls were set up with tables rather than rows of seats, allowing audiences to eat and drink during performances. By the 1850’s Music Halls were common across London and other British cities. When Parliament eradicated the antiquated patent laws in 1853, Music Halls grew both in number and in size.

Blog 13 Brit Music Hall 02

By the mid-1800s, Music Halls were large, seating anywhere from 500 – 5,000 people. And the buildings themselves were growing in opulence and ornamentation. They offered a large variety of acts including singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, contortionists and anything else that made audiences happy.

Though Music Hall was a popular entertainment for a full century, but the early 1900s it faced challenges. In 1914, Parliament banished alcoholic drinks from the auditoriums. A few years later, they stopped the halls from selling alcohol on the premises at all. England was hit hard both literally and figuratively by two world wars. After the first, the jazz craze threatened variety acts. The big band era during World War II cut further into the variety arts business. Between the two, cinema became popular, gramophones became affordable and radio made families want to stay home. That demon rock ‘n roll took over most performance spaces, forcing other acts out of work. By time television became popular, most of the few remaining music halls had become strip clubs.

As happened in the US with vaudeville, however, many British Music Hall performers found a new home in early film and television. There are die-hard fans who still enjoy the clever comedy and jaunty tunes of the great music hall performers and regularly offer performances to nostalgic crowds.

Posted in Comedic Actors, History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Drawing Room Comedy aka “But how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Blog 12.5 Drawing Room 01

With Victorian times, the comedy of manners transformed into a drawing room comedy, a play in which the upper classes could be scoffed at as they tried to remain oh, so proper as crazy events took place around them. The name “drawing room play” or “Drawing room comedy” probably originated because of the short playlets wealthier folk would perform for guests in their drawing rooms after dinner.

One of the most popular drawing room comedies was “Our American Cousin,” the story of an English aristocratic family dealing with a bumpkin American cousin who has come to England to claim their estate. Lord Dundreary, an English nobleman and the estate’s proprietor, must figure out how to keep the brash American from taking over. He enlists the help of a baronet and his two flighty daughters. Hijynx ensue.

Blog 12.5 Drawing Room 02The Lord Dundreary character was immediately popular and mis-spoken adages, called “dundrearyisms” became all the rage. An example would be “a bird in the hand gathers no moss.” The play itself was so popular that sequels were quickly written and produced, including “Our Female American Cousin,” “Our American Cousin at Home, or Lord Dundreary Abroad” and “Dundreary Married and Done For.”

Well beyond that, however “Our American Cousin” is most famous for two things:

When originally casting the role of Lord Dundreary, a British actor named Edward Askew Sothern was approached. He had recently achieved acclaim performing in “Camille” on Broadway and was reluctant to take a role that he believed to be too small for an actor of his caliber. Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the lead role, listened to Sothern lament about the situation then offered the admonishment, “There are no small roles, only small actors.”

Sothern took the role and was a huge success. He even traveled with the show when is opened in London where it did 498 performances and was touted as “the funniest thing in the world.”

Of course, the other claim to fame for the play occurred on April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Blog 12.5 Drawing Room 03The play’s first and second acts had gone incredibly well, delighting everyone in attendance, including America’s war-weary president, Abraham Lincoln. Halfway through the third and final act, Asa, the American cousin, delivers a line considered one of the play’s funniest. It is a retort to Mrs. Mountshessington, an annoying busybody who has accused him of bad manners.

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap!”

The audience burst into applause and gales of laughter. Taking advantage of the distraction, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth burst into the box in which the president was sitting and shot him in the back of the head.

The play and its sequels were instantly aligned with one of the great tragedies of America’s short history. Perhaps the sensationalism helped, but the play and its sequels were crowd-pleasing hits.

Posted in Comedic Actors, History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nasreddin: Trickster or Holy Man?

Blog 11 Nas 01

Yes, there are many ways to spell the name of Mullah Nasreddin. His longevity, legend and stories are known across a great swath of the planet, from Greece to Kurdistan, China to Romania, India to Russia. In Swahili and Indonesian he’s called Abunuwas and Abunawas. In Central Asia he’s known as Afandi. Nasreddin may be spelled Nasruddin, Nasruden, etc., etc., etc. But this is a humor blog, not a study of name etymology, so I hope you‘ll forgive if the list is incomplete.

His origins are unclear, though he was probably born in the early 13th century. Some say he was born in Iran, others say he was born in an area that is now Turkey. The town of Aksehir, near Konya in Turkey claims to be his hometown and it’s the location of his tomb. His humor is reflected in the design of the tomb. Though it sports a heavy iron door with a large padlock, it has no walls (in truth,it’s surrounded by a gate, but that is a modern addition). Each year, July 5-10, Askehir hosts The International Nasreddin Hodja Festival in his honor.

We know the Khalif in Baghdad sent Nasreddin to Anatolia in modern-day Turkey in order to organize an uprising against the Mongols. While living there, he served as a kadi, a judge. This is why so many of his stories address judicial issues rather than religious ones.

Blog 11 Nas 02Nasreddin’s stories have survived the centuries and are told today across the Muslim world.. At this point, he’s become the center of stories he never actually told, but he is always at the center, telling the story from his point of view. There are thousands of jokes and anecdotes about him, enabling tellers to come up with a Nasreddin story for almost any occasion. In some he’s a philosopher, in others he’s witty and wise, and in others he’s the butt of the joke. In all, he’s the embodiment of the wise fool. His stories allow to hear the profound in the profane and the profane in the sanctimonious.

Here is one of my favorite Nasreddin stories:

One day, Nasreddin was asked to give a lecture or sermon. He walked to the podium, turned to the crowd and asked, “Do you know what I’m going to say?” The audience replied, “No.,” so he told them, “I have no desire to talk to people who don’t even know what I’ll be talking about!” He turned away and left.

The next day, the people asked him to come back. They were prepared for his question and, when he asked if they knew what he’d say, they said, “Yes!” So, Nasreddin said, “Well, since you already know what I’m going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time.” Again, he turned away and left.

The people came up with a plan and invited again the next day. Once again, he asked the question, “Do you know what I’m going to say?” This time, half the people said “yes” while the other half replied “no.” They were sure they had bested the Mullah. He thought for a moment and said, “Let the half who know what I’m going to say tell it it to the half who don’t.” And he left.

Posted in History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tricksters – Clowning For Conscience

Blog 10 Trickster 01Tricksters are among the most ancient mythological figures. They are archetypal characters from folklore and religion that use intelligence and supernatural knowledge to make up for physical weakness while employing cunning and subversive humor to play tricks on mortals.

In a 1998 New York Times article, Paul Mattick described the behavior of tricksters by claiming they “ violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life then re-establishing it on a new basis.” He might have said further that they display the behaviors that people living in communities learn to control so social order can be maintained.

Tricksters show us how a seemingly powerless creature can triumph over dominant, sometimes oppressive ones. They can be foolish or cunning and they are often both.

Some tricksters are messengers of gods who use their skills to completely invert situations, ensuring they come out on top and that, if looked at closely, a lesson can be learned. Roguish and disorderly, the trickster in a jack of all trades, unafraid to deceive others and openly mock authority.

Blog 10 Trickster 03We don’t know the origin of the trickster, but they’re evident in many cultures. The ancient Greeks had Hermes, the patron of thieves and inventor of lying. Norse mythology has Loki, the gender-bending shapeshifter. African cultures have animal tricksters in the form of rabbits or spiders. Native Americans have several animal tricksters as well, the most famous of which is Coyote.

In literature, film and pop culture, tricksters are often catalysts whose antics cause discomfort for other characters. They often induce those around them to engage in outrageous, sometimes dangerous antics while they stand untouched by the consequences of their actions.

Occasionally, the trickster becomes ensnarled in its own trap as its deeds backfire. Usually, these stories are created to teach a lesson on morality and the world’s kharmic nature. However, even when punished, the trickster’s innate spirit and love of foolishness and pranks keeps it coming back for more.

Blog 10 Trickster 02Famous modern tricksters:

Bugs Bunny

Bart Simpson

Puck from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Pippi Longstocking

Blog 10 Trickster 04Groucho Marx

Tyler Durden

The Doctor



Posted in History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stan Laurel

Today is June 16th, Stan Laurel’s birthday. Let’s toast one of the greatest comedic geniuses of all time!

Stan Laurel 01

Born in England on June 16, 1890, Stan Laurel’s birth name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Since both parents were theatre professionals, the family willingly moved to Glasgow where Laurel’s father became the manager of the Metropole Theatre.

The young Laurel had an affinity for performing and was a big fan of Music Hall comedy. It’s no wonder that, at 16, Laurel started performing at Glasgow’s Panopticon, working in pantomimes and comedy sketches under the name Stan Jefferson.

In 1910, he joined Fred Karno’s acting troupe working, at least in part, as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy. When Karno took his troupe to the US in 1917, Laurel went along. He traveled the US as part of Karno’s company for several years. In 1921, while still traveling with Karno, he became friends with Australian actress Mae Dahlberg who though the name Stan Jefferson was unlucky because it contained 13 letters. At her suggestion he changed his name to Stan Laurel.

Laurel followed the path of colleagues and friends, choosing movies over stage. In 1917, he made his first film, “Nuts In May.” Chaplin attended the premiere as did producer Carl Laemmle, both of whom were impressed with Laurel’s abilities. IN 1921, Laurel was teamed with a newcomer named Babe Hardy for the film “The Lucky Dog.” The film didn’t make a huge splash and the two performers went their separate ways.

By 1924, Laurel worked exclusively in the film industry and signed a contract with producer Joe Rock to make a dozen two-reel comedies. Though Laurel and Dahlberg had originally billed themselves as a team, Rock felt that Laurel was the star and that Dahlberg’s difficult temperament would hold him back. Rock offered her a large cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to Australia, which she accepted. Laurel was available to either work alone or to find a new partner.

Laurel didn’t work exclusively as an actor, he also wrote and directed. In truth, after he signed with Hal Roach, he thought his career would exclude acting. In 1925, he wrote and directed a couple well-received films, “Yes, Yes Nanette” and “Wandering Papas”, both of which featured his partner from “The Lucky Dog,” who was now working under the name Oliver Hardy.

A couple years later, Oliver Hardy was injured while shooting a film and Stan Laurel was asked to move in front of the camera as Hardy’s replacement so the film could stay on schedule. Director Leo McCarthy saw real potential in putting the two men together and did just that in 1927. Their first films together at Roach, “Slipping Wives,” “Duck Soup” and “With Love and Hisses,” demonstrated a wonderful chemistry both with each other and with the audience. Soon they were the stars of a series of films.

Stan Laurel 02Unlike so many silent stars, Laurel and Hardy smoothly transitioned to talkies. Their first sound film, was “Unaccustomed As We Are” in 1929. A few years later, they made a three-reeler called “The Music Box,” which featured the comedic duo trying, with great difficulty, to move an upright piano up a very steep set of steps. The film won the Academy Award for best short subject. The two worked for Hal Roach until 1935, making both short- and feature films.

In 1941, the team signed with 20th Century Fox to make ten films over five years. During that time, Laurel developed diabetes with complications. He became ill enough that he encouraged Hardy to make two films without him in order to meet their contractual obligations.

Just after WWII, in 1947, Laurel and Hardy went on a 6-week tour of England. They were mobbed by adoring fans at every turn. They even did a command performance for King George VI and his family, which included the future Queen Elizabeth II. The tour was such a success that the team did several tours of the UK and Europe over the next 7 years until when, in 1954, Hardy had a heart attack and the tour had to be canceled.

Stan Laurel 04In 1955, Laurel and Hardy developed a TV series to be called “Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables.” In April of that year, Laurel had a stroke, so production was postponed. He seemed on the mend when, in September, Hardy suffered a massive stroke, ending his career. It ended both careers as Laurel couldn’t imagine ever performing without his partner who he called Babe – the name Hardy was using when they first met.

Oliver Hardy died in 1957. Laurel, who was a heavy smoker in addition to being diabetic, was too ill to attend the funeral. Though he never performed again, Laurel enjoyed interacting with fans. He appreciated fans so much that his phone number was listed in the public directory. He frequently answered the phone and chatted with surprised, thrilled callers.

In 1965, Stan Laurel died. At his funeral, Buster Keaton was overheard saying, “ Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.”

Posted in Comedic Actors, Comedy Movies, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joseph Grimaldi – The Big Clown Daddy

Maybe you love clowns and maybe they give you the creeps. Either way, you can thank this guy:

Blog 9 Grimaldi 01

Joseph Grimaldi was an English actor, dancer, comedian and was the most popular performer of the Regency era. He is most famous for his portrayal of clowns, so much so that the word “Joey,” the name Grimaldi gave his character, was synonymous with the word clown for many years throughout England.

As is true of many comedic performers, Grimaldi’s early life was challenging to say the least. He was born in one of London’s slums; his mother a theatre dancer and father a popular performer who was such a philanderer that he fathered at least 10 children by three different women and divided his time between two of the households.

Young Grimaldi’s father trained him to perform and, by the age of three, he was performing onstage with his father, sometimes playing a young clown and at others playing strange sidekick roles including that of his father’s pet monkey. When Grimaldi was only nine years old, his father died, making him the main breadwinner for his mother and siblings. The Drury Lane Theatre, where he’d performed regularly with his dad, gave him the substantial salary of £1 per week, which was considerably higher than the three shillings per week he was paid at another theatre.

Around that time, the big clown in London was an acrobatic singer and strongman from France named Jean-Baptiste Dubois. Grimaldi worked as his assistant, though he would later deny that he’d ever been his student. Perhaps influenced by Dubois, Grimaldi’s performances improved and, by the mid-1790s, he was getting rave reviews. He also married the daughter of the owner of the Sadler Wells theater, which proved a wise business choice.

Drury Lane’s pantomime in 1800 featured not one but two clowns, which were to be portrayed by Grimaldi and Dubois. A new kind of clown costume was designed for them to wear: large, colorful diamonds and polka dots adorned with ruffs and golden tassels replaced the usual tatty servant costumes. The design was highly touted by critics and were soon copied throughout London and beyond. More important, Grimaldi received better reviews than Dubois and was favored by the audiences, making him the top clown of the London stage.

Later that year, sadness returned when Grimaldi’s wife and child died in childbirth. To cope with his grief, he threw himself into his work. Within a year he was a regular performer at the Covent Garden Theatre and at his father-in-law’s theatre in Essex. He also appeared in provincial theaters, earning as much as £150 per night, a far cry from the £1 per week of his youth.

By 1802, life was improving. Grimaldi was remarried and his life seemed stable. He returned to Sadler’s Wells to perform in their Easter pantomime and, for the occasion, designed a new look for his clown character “Joey.” He covered his face and neck in white then added thick eyebrows, bright red triangles on his cheeks and big, red lips painted in a permanent, mischievous grin. Scholars have declared the design one of the most important designs of the 1800s.

Blog 9 Grimaldi 02

Unfortunately, the falls and pranks of being a clown performer took its toll on Grimaldi, who retired from the stage in 1823. He used alcohol to ease his pain and became an alcoholic. When he died in 1837, he was broke.

Though most people no longer know the name Joseph Grimaldi, his influence is seen on the face of every clown performing in circuses, walking in parades or scaring the bejeesus out of children today.


Posted in History of Comedy, Slapstick Comedy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment