In my dotage, I keep turning back to the classics to make me laugh – the film stars who were mostly gone and dead long before I was even born, the Chaplins and Keatons and Marxes. But I’ve long had one curious blank spot – the stylings of Laurel and Hardy.
I’ve been chewing through a fantastic collection of most of their best shorts and feature films the last few weeks, and enjoying how well many of these 90-year-old gags still work. The basic building blocks of their comedy – the pratfalls, the slow burns, the turns of phrase and the elaborate chaos – can be seen everywhere still in comics today.
Stan and Ollie became an institution, marketed long after their heyday in comic books and products, and even lionised recently in a well-acted (if a little too melancholy) biopic. Today it’s kind of easy to just see them as dusty archetypes and forget the actual comedians who first hit the screen almost a century ago.
Many of their famous shorts spring out of fairly everyday domestic settings – a picnic with the wives, installing a new radio antenna, moving a piano. Yet inevitably these ordinary situations seem to go horribly askew in the hands of Laurel and Hardy, ending with plenty of Ollie’s outraged squeals and Stan’s weeping, all attempts at civility and erudition collapsing into a sea of tears and babble. Unlike the Marx Brothers, they’re not quite as surreal, and they’re not as mean-spirited as the Three Stooges.
You can’t quite imagine the Marx Brothers navigating the bills and obligations of ordinary life in their movies, and while Chaplin and Keaton often took on domestic life, the elaborate performative style of their silent work gave it a more pantomime quality and they generally stumbled more when sound came on. Laurel and Hardy start off grounded, then spiral into chaos.
There’s a formulaic glee to the best of their shorts, which tend to start slowly and ramp up into elaborately orchestrated disasters – a lot like any sample episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does today, for example. That formulaic quality means you don’t really want to binge 12 Laurel and Hardy shorts in a row, but it makes them comforting.
Escalation and repetition is key to Laurel and Hardy. If a piano falling down an endless flight of stairs once is funny, by the third time it’s kind of zen hilarity. The key to Laurel and Hardy comedy to me seems to be that everything falls apart a bit in the end. In 2020 there’s something kind of weirdly comforting about that notion. Same as it ever was.
Laurel and Hardy, in some ways, still feel like our reaction to modern life – Ollie, exasperated and raging; Stan, confused and flailing. In Ollie’s many world-weary double-takes as one of the pioneers in breaking the fourth wall, or Stan’s always-funny “sad cry,” we see some very modern gestures that still echo today. Not everything old is still funny – but Laurel and Hardy hit a gold mine that’s still paying off to this day.