Oh, Ben Turpin, Where Art Thou?

Courtesy Photo (Cliff Ennico)
Cliff Ennico
Succeeding In Your Business

As summertime approaches and we all get out for some (long overdue) fun in the sun, it’s time to get a little philosophical and take a longer-range view of some things that are happening in the world.

Few people would disagree that the United States is facing some tough times ahead. Not only business owners but all Americans will need some morale boosting to get us through these tough times. Yet so much we’re seeing in the media today is designed to push us even deeper into our current national funk.

During a recent bout with illness, when I desperately needed some cheering up, I had Netflix send me a whole bunch of classic comedies -- Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chase, Harry Langdon (look them up on Wikipedia), the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello.

Their comedy was simplicity itself -- lots of pratfalls, sight gags and simple wordplay. No college or graduate degree required. Even though some of this stuff is going on 100 years old, it can still make you laugh.

Shortly after my recovery, I read a review of a recent “Jackass” movie by a prominent critic (identity withheld) who described the movie, among other things, as “a disgusting, repellent, R-rated extension of the kind of slapstick that made The Three Stooges so popular.”

“The term ‘slapstick’ comes from the name of a paddle once used in farces to whack the actors, making a loud noise,” the review continued. “Slapstick generally involves using humiliation and pain to elicit laughter: someone hit with a pie in the face or slipping on a banana peel. Because early movies, or ‘flickers,’ were designed as entertainment for the poor and uneducated, the lowbrow appeal of slapstick was universal.”

OK, I’m no real fan of the “Jackass” series either, but to say The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields were “disgusting,” “repellent” “entertainment for the poor and uneducated”? Sorry, but as the graduate of an Ivy League institution with a law degree who has authored 15 books, I respectfully disagree. These people were artists -- some of the most gifted mimes, clowns and acrobats who ever lived. (Remember that many started their careers as circus performers.)

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Carol Burnett give a live performance in St. Louis. For those of my younger readers, Burnett was a comedienne who hosted an extremely popular comedy-variety show on television during the 1960s and 1970s. (Search “Carol Burnett Show” on YouTube for selected sketches.) When an audience member asked Burnett to comment on today’s comedy -- television programs such as “The Daily Show” and “The Office” -- she replied, “Well, comedy today is a lot more edgy than it used to be. It’s not so much funny as it is witty. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with irony, but give me a few belly laughs any day.”

I couldn’t agree with her more.

The greatest of the slapstick comedians perfected their art during some of the toughest times America ever saw -- World War I (in the case of the silent comedians), the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II (the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges and their ilk). People needed laughter then, and they need laughter now. Belly laughs, not wit. Sight gags, not irony. We need fewer smirking Jon Stewarts and Jimmy Kimmels and more Charlie Chaplins, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckles, Buddy Hacketts, Curlies and Shemps who aren’t afraid to let us laugh “at” them rather than “with” them.

If you doubt this, watch the famous 1940s movie “Sullivan’s Travels.” In that classic Preston Sturges comedy, a jaded movie director, planning to produce a big-budget melodrama about the conflict between the working class and wealthy capitalists (called “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”), hits the road disguised as a homeless person to see for himself what the working-class life is really all about. After a series of misadventures, he finds himself wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to a prison chain gang. At the bottom of his rope and ready to end it all, he attends a movie screening in the prison compound and watches while a Walt Disney “Pluto” cartoon sends both him and his fellow prisoners into fits of hysteric laughter -- a cathartic relief from the most miserable life imaginable. He resolves that if he ever gets back to the “real” world, he will direct only comedies.

American media companies need to have that “Pluto” moment, and the sooner they do, the better for all of us.

The idea that today’s educated Americans are “more evolved” than their predecessors and have outgrown slapstick is poppycock. The people who adopt this superior attitude are precisely the people -- like the upper-crust Margaret Dumont character in the Marx Brothers movies -- who deserve a pie in the face. Ironically, it was precisely that -- the “little person” thumbing his nose at the pretensions and hypocrisy of his social betters and bringing them down to his level -- that made lots of those movies so funny. 

Would television dare launch a show poking fun at politically correct, self-righteous, elitist and oh-so-superior people? Well, it so happens that there is such a show. It’s called “South Park.” I never miss an episode, and it never fails to make me laugh.


Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.


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