Friday, February 17, 2012

Send In The Clones: The Sin of Comedic Necromancy

When I was a younger aficionado of the great movie comedians, I appreciated the legacy of laughter they had left us, but could not yet fathom what they hadn't left us; a dishonest caricature of themselves. Lost in hero worship and naivety, I fantasized new adventures for them; ones that transcended anachronism and the confines of their natural lifespans.

Why was there not even one full-length Three Stooges film more satisfying than their two-reelers? Especially in Curly Howard's era, or at the very least, Shemp's?

Why hadn't Laurel & Hardy, or the Marx Brothers, starred in a technicolor epic or two, on par with say, 1965's "The Great Race?" My starry-eyed pondering was tinted with denial. By the year that film was produced, my heroes were all housebound with arthritis and possibly dementia, or metal hips, sporting drool bibs, if not moved on to Forest Lawn.

The most expensive movie that my beloved Stooges – albeit their pale 1960s incarnation – ever appeared in, was "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!" (1963). It was a walk-on. Anything more, and the Magi of Slapstick would have been symbolically redundant – if not physically overwhelmed.

Vogueing, Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe (Derita) summed up a quarter-century of film comedy. No other team, save the Marxes, could have pulled it off. The Stooges formed their career capstone in the blink of an eye, motionless. Buster Keaton's bit part in the same film blistered with equal irony; the human monolith of the silent era was given a line of dialogue.

More clueless than insensitive, it was all merely symbolic. By the 1960s, these aged icons were no longer considered box office by any major studio.

Were these men still in their primes, would modern audiences have accepted them? The question lingers unanswered because it lingers in doubt. Moreover, sadly, it may be for the best.

The silent comedians, and respectively those of the early talkies, quite possibly had come along at a time that was perfect for them. They were in context.

Abbott & Costello were ideally situated by destiny, into the WWII era. With uncertainty mounting and a global conflict on the horizon, Americans needed to feel in control of something. Cherubic, naive, flawed Lou; conniving, transparent, flawed Bud – they made audiences feel like parents.

The post-war period belonged rightfully to Martin & Lewis; all that pent-up wartime testosterone and emotional self-deprivation needed an escape valve. Dean subliminally stood for "sexual," while Jerry was "freedom." Their comedic Freudianism embodied a reluctant, chased but giddily emerging inner jubilance. Born twenty years earlier, Martin & Lewis might have been as huge in the pre-depression 20s – they may even have beat out Al Jolson for star(s) of the first talkie.

The baby-boomers, however, embraced cultural rebellion without restraint, and from that point on, never again would a mere comedy team be the hottest ticket. Martin & Lewis were arguably as big as the Beatles... until the Beatles arrived.

Today, the young post-post-modern generation live in a world that offers them everything in abundance, yet nothing it seems, to repletion. Comedy is simply another item on a gluttonous menu.

Hollywood no longer surrenders to comedians an autonomous berth to self-brand, as was given to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd... or Jerry Lewis. The comedian himself – however gifted – cannot qualify as the sole focal point of a film anymore.

Briefly, Rowan Atkinson defied the current comedic model, with his Tatiesque "Mr. Bean's Holiday" (2007), but some audiences were confused by it. Movie geeks, despite being more prolific than ever before, simply no longer had a mental category for this kind of film. Too long has Hollywood comedy relied on ensemble concepts... garnished freely with fart cues and dick jokes. "Hangover" anyone?*

Steve Martin may be the only comedy star who can still get a film over, based on his mere presence – but his output has been too sporadic. His last full-bodied work, "Novocaine" (2001), was strangely formulated – an attempt more at a neo-Lynchian instant cult-classic, rather than just another comedy.

Will Farrell could not promote a new release sight-unseen by theaters simply posting his portrait in a marquee window, emblazoned with "I AM HERE TODAY." That level of resonance belonged only to Chaplin. No one currently seems to possess that ongoing "franchise" singularity – a career based upon audience anticipation. Without need of a pre-sell.

In short, there are no comic geniuses with transcending screen presence anymore. That quality might be something that develops over time, but not without a type of cultivation that Hollywood no longer has a garden for, nor audiences the patience.

A latent trend in the music industry has been the retro movement – current stars and/or producers attempting to recreate, literally note for note, an iconic pop recording from the past. Yet, even sparkling with pristine, digital audio, it still comes across as an imitation of something much better and far more preferable despite its age and analogue-ness.

The classic comedians have too been under attack by a league of such hacks. Only in some cases these "hacks" have otherwise formidable résumés and more money to shovel into a single production than the combined budgets of the victimized comic's entire filmography.

The "retro movement" in comedy is really not a movement, but a siren's song. As Ulysses learned, following the call leads to the rocks. Occasionally moguls with childhood idolatries, combined with access to monster-sized budgets and undisciplined autonomy, fall prey to a kind of dark self-hypnosis. Power clouds over reason, and they attempt artistic necromancy.

In Great Britain, the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation literally dug a dead comic from his grave, with the aid of computer graphics and magical editing. Comedian Bob Monkhouse was the star-spokesman for a 2007 PSA urging viewers to donate – "give a few bob" – to benefit prevention research, even though he himself died of prostate cancer in 2003.

The late funnyman stands in front of, and contemplates, his own very real gravestone in the commercial, quipping, "I'd have paid good money to stay out of here."

Monkhouse's face is digitally – near flawlessly – grafted onto a body-double, and an uncanny sound-alike voice actor caulks the verbal gaps in a soundtrack comprised of Monkhouse's actual words, to create a believable posthumous narration. The ad is a jolting experience. As if God has allowed him back across the cosmic divide, to make a shoot date. Give it a look.

The notion is deceptively tantalizing. Cloning iconic clowns may even seem an ultimate act of fan worship in the minds of Hollywood creatives, but the back office has a much different motivation for green-lighting a star resurrection.

The seemingly sure-fire potential of creating a new franchise from an old one, with no need for creativity, is as big a no-brainer (and a rip-off) as porn. A classic, deceased comedian's post-mortem fanbase is seen as an endless parade of marks, to certain types of Hollywood investors.

Not only is the fanbase's loyalty mocked, but just as well the legacy of the performer, and even the sensibility of the film's producers who may naively believe their misguided project is an homage.

Everybody loses.

But nobody loses more than a newbie audience unfamiliar with the original commodity, who witness the on-screen facsimile, and assume they've sampled something genuine. It's often disconcerting to old-schoolers like myself, just how contentedly unaware the current generation, raised on digital-retro pabulum, can be.

The most frustrating conversation an aficionado must endure, is with a neophyte who will not acknowledge he's been duped, by "dupes."

It isn't quite the same as, say, a cartoon series starring the likenesses of the Stooges, or Abbott & Costello; an obvious attempt to cash in on a comedian's resonance beyond his years of ability. It's the subliminal insult; the insinuation that the original comedians could be reverse-engineered down to an easily imitable formula, minus their souls.

Laurel & Hardy are probably the most impersonated movie comedy team in history. Two names that come to mind instantly are perhaps Chuck McCann as Oliver Hardy and Dick Van Dyke as Stan Laurel. Not only can these men ape Ollie & Stan, they are both hardcore fans** as well, and inject their immense love of the original team into their impersonation. Whenever Van Dyke and McCann became L&H, most often separately with other partners, it was always an obvious tribute – not an attempt to deceive.

Groucho and W.C. Fields impersonators are so common they've become cliché – only the near-impeccable, vocationally practiced dare try to earn a dollar at it.

Laurel and Hardy were the first high-profile victims of attempted Hollywood cloning.

"The All New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy: For Love or Mummy" (1999) was a sin against everything holy to L&H fans; insult upon insult, the film was marketed directly at them. As if.

Filmed 34 years after the death of Stan Laurel, it was hyped as a brand new Laurel & Hardy feature. The creative force behind the production was Larry Harmon, creator of Bozo The Clown, and a personal latter-year acquaintance of Laurel. Harmon likely thought the film somehow a tribute with broad artistic license.

Gaylord Sartain and Bronson Pinchot, though listed in the credits, were not promoted as themselves, but as the real deal (or pointlessly, their nephews, according to the plot). Stan and Ollie are back, folks, just like the good old days!

Though Sartain and Pinchot are talented comic actors in their own right, and could certainly have been candidates to star in a biographical film based on the team's lives, they soiled any hopes of that with this unapologetic masquerade. The film was, to put it gently, forgettable. Fortunately.

Another, somewhat more successful, venture in the same vein, was "Brain Donors" (1992), which sought to rein in the muse of The Marx Brothers. Wisely, Paramount decided to make its stars – John Turturro, Mel Smith and Bob Nelson – merely Marxesque rather than outright replicants. This, it turns out, was the key to the film's success.

By avoiding direct comparison to the real Marx Brothers – all long dead – the film earned a favorable bye from audiences more willing to view it conceptually, instead of resent being taken for rubes.

Another cloning attempt is now scheduled for release in 2012, this one bigger, more saturated in market hype than ever before, targeting the Three Stooges. Rumors about the production began to spread in 2009, not just of a symbolic revival, but a star-studded casting coup.

Benicio del Toro and Sean Penn had allegedly signed on as Moe and Larry respectively, and excitement redoubled when Jim Carrey seemed penciled in as Curly. The proposed spectacle promised to be at least genuinely surreal if only superficially Stoogian.

Then suddenly the grandiose roster proved too good to be true, or more likely too faustian for such high-profile stars. The roles were pitched backward, to Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso, who at least offered audiences a familiar résumé to help sell the trio.

As of this writing, only the film's trailer is available for viewing, but like the other two aforementioned films, "The Three Stooges" (2012) only promises as best an imitation as can be gleaned from the imaginations of its producers – Peter and Robert Farrelly.

A few other notables lend their presence to the mix, like audience favorites Jane Lynch, Larry David and Jennifer Hudson – even an appearance by Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi – as insurance. But once their respective fans parade through the ticket turnstile, who will be left?

Bona fide Stoogephiles won't hang around long – it's not their feast. No matter how stellar the performances of the three Stooge-alikes, they are still imposters. That's the bottom line; though well-intentioned, perhaps even "lovingly" on some level, it's still a merry con-job.

The only hope this film may have, at the box office or the dvd vending machine at the supermarket, is if it can garner genuine laughs. It has to be funny – not just Stoogey. It must register viscerally with the audience, and they have to want to hang with it for 90 minutes or more. There are dissuading obstacles to hurdle, to be sure.

A large roadblock will be getting past the embedded anachronism, since it will place these Sim-Stooges in the present day, not the era for which the real Stooges were within context. The trailer itself offers a not-too-reassuring glimpse of the basic problem – Curly is shown an iPhone, and tries to "see" the caller on the other end. Get it? An "eye-phone?" Laugh it up.


The Farrelly's distributors will likely find they have a very expensive hunk of junk on their hands – a heavily blustered money-pit of a project that will embarrass retailers; nothing says "poorly judged bullshit on a breathtaking level" like a bargain bin crowded with stacks and stacks of a single title.

Collectors of bad cinema may horde copies before they disappear, to where ever over-produced and overstocked duds are secreted away to be melted down in the furnace, or turned into beverage coasters. It will be obvious even to non-fans: why buy that, when the real Stooges are so accessible?

It's nice to fantasize. It would be wonderful if The Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy could have gone on living, and filming, forever. But their mortality was a key component of their appeal.

As their careers progressed year by year and they aged before our eyes, it became visually apparent that they were a vanishing resource, a rare treasure. Men like Jerome "Curly" Howard and Lou Costello sacrificed their health and met untimely demises directly relatable to their output as physical comedians.

That level of inner-being and lifelong refinement cannot be reincarnated by an impersonator, no matter how well-honed. It's what audiences subconsciously seek to connect with. Broad comedy already asks viewers to suspend disbelief, to accept conceited plots and personas that are blatantly over-the-top. A comedy starring imitators asks them to accept a layer of fraudulence as well.

"Here's your birthday cake. Would you be so kind as to eat the candles too, so they won't go to waste after they're blown out?"

Plus, it is doubly sad when producers blessed with so much – disposable budgets, abundant material resources, technological wizardry, and nebulous clout with industry contacts – will shy away from the challenge of creation, and attempt only to safely reinvent.

"For Love or Mummy" art copyright ©Coast Entertainment, "Brain Donors" art copyright ©Paramount Pictures Corporation, "The Three Stooges" art copyright ©20th Century Fox (not Columbia?) Photo will be courteously removed at copyright holders' request.

*"Hangover" (2009) was deservedly a hit, but was also a textbook "ensemble" comedy, of the type which Hollywood seems now to churn out exclusively.

**Chuck McCann, himself a comedy legend, is co-founder of the Sons of the Desert, the official Laurel & Hardy fan organization, boasting over a quarter-million members world-wide. The club's name was coined after the title of Laurel & Hardy's 1933 comedy. Each local chapter is known as a "tent" with a number designation.


  1. First of all, this is the best blog I have stumbled across in ages. Thanks for your terrific work.

    Second, I have been meaning to write in my own blog about the inevitable inadequacy of a re-created Stooges movie, principally because all comedy teams aspire to the state of brotherhood.

    The Howards were actual brothers, as were the Ritzes and the Marxes. Martin and Lewis thought of themselves as brothers (certainly Jerry did). Laurel & Hardy ape the behavior of brothers, Abbott & Costello that of somewhat mistrustful stepbrothers. But they all show that deep familiarity with each other's bodies and souls that come with sprouting from the same family. The sole comedian is a Joseph Campbell-like adventurer outlined against the horizon. The member of a comedy team has baggage -- the brother that you cannot get rid of, cannot ignore and cannot fully co-exist or cooperate with.

    I suppose that is what makes Wheeler & Woolsey and Clark & McCullough so tepid. They are not brothers, but fellow professionals. Respectful, cordial, generally helpful, but not committed to each other like brothers. Oh, their movies are fun and there are laughs to be had from them, but there is none of the intense frustration or intense joy one finds in a true comedy team, a band of boneheaded brothers.

    Consequently, you can't hire three actors and say, "Now, you are brothers and shall ever be." It requires the crucible of real shared experience to make for the brotherhood at the center of a great comedy team.