Joined: 25 Jan 2005
Location: Bonnie Scotland
|Posted: Fri Dec 02, 2005 4:13 am Post subject:
by writer/animator Mark Evanier
When the Patron Saint of Stupidity tallies up the truly dumb acts of my life, it will have to rank high on a very long list that I passed up an opportunity to meet Stan Laurel.
Oh, I could offer a good excuse for my lack of smarts: I was twelve years old at the time. But even at that tender age, I should have seized the opportunity. Laurel and Hardy were, then as now, of great importance to me. I loved their movies and I loved them. And though I didn't know it at the time, I picked up from them, a nugget of knowledge more valuable than anything I learned in all those classrooms 'twixt Westwood Elementary and U.C.L.A.. I'll tell you what it was before we're done here.
Oliver Hardy passed away in 1957 when I was five, so I have an alibi there. But Stan Laurel was alive when I was mainlining their films, seeing them anywhere I could, reading everything that was in print about The Boys. And I didn't go up and see him when I had the chance. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
In 1961, John McCabe wrote Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy — at the time, the definitive book on Stan and Ollie. It must have been definitive because it was the only one. Today, there have been around two dozen — I have them all — but McCabe's is still the best. (For the nuts n' bolts of their filmmaking, I highly recommend Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies by Randy Skretvedt.)
In 1964, when I was a dozen years of age, I heard about the McCabe book and began a desperate search for a copy. This was no easy feat, for it was then out of print and near-impossible to find. I hit every second-hand bookstore in town and even put the L.A. Public Library System to work, hunting for a loaner. They had none but their primitive computer system claimed that the big branch of the Beverly Hills Public Library definitely had one (1) copy on its shelves.
We lived just outside Beverly Hills but my Aunt Dot resided well within the city limits. So I could get my mitts on this book, she helped me lie that her address was my address, and the Beverly Hills Public Library issued me a card. The day I went in to use it, I felt like someone sneaking into Fort Knox with forged credentials to pull off the crime of the century. I actually put on good clothes, the better to pass for someone who lived in Beverly Hills. Though nervous and scared, I somehow managed to check out their one copy without having some librarians haul me off to a back room and work me over.
The book was well worth all that I had gone through, affording me a new insight into the lives and work of my two favorite comedians. I read it over and over and over. Then, when the two weeks were up, I took it back to the Beverly Hills Library and renewed it for two more weeks and I continued to read it over and over and over. I was heartbroken when the second two weeks ran out; they wouldn't let you renew a book a second time — and, believe me, I asked.
I briefly contemplated reporting it as lost and paying the fine but I was too honest. Fibbing about my residence was as far into the world of crime as I was willing to descend. Besides, I knew that if they started grilling me, I would crack under the pressure and spill my guts. I had to take the book back.
Fortunately, I discovered a loophole in their system. Once you'd returned a book, no rule said you couldn't check it out again.
I turned the copy back in, waited around until they returned it to the shelf, then picked it out and marched it up to the checkout counter. Two weeks later, I took it back and renewed it again. Then, when that term expired, I took it back and waited for someone to replace it on the shelves...and so on. I actually managed to keep that book checked out for around six months, or until I finally located my own copy in a used book shop in Santa Monica.
Santa Monica, as it happened, was where Stan Laurel lived. I knew this because it said so in McCabe's book and because, as my friend Dean told me, Mr. Laurel was actually listed in the West L.A. telephone directory. I looked him up in there around eighty times the week I learned this. It somehow made me feel closer to one half of my favorite comedy duo to see that his number was in the same phone book as my number. (Well, my father's number...)
But I never called. I didn't have the nerve.
One time, I came close. I thought I'd dial the number and, as soon as someone answered, I'd hang up. I figured I might get to hear Stan Laurel say, "Hello." Trembling, I dialed about half the number but I chickened out.
Dean, however, was fearless. One day, he told me he'd called and a woman had invited him to drop by the following Saturday afternoon and meet Mr. Laurel. Dean thought it would be all right if I came along.
He may have thought that but I didn't. The thought terrified me. Meeting Stan Laurel? In person? The Stan Laurel?
I'm not sure what I was afraid of. No, that's not true; I know exactly what I was afraid of. I was afraid of making a complete idiot of myself in front of Stan Laurel. I was afraid I would do something so egregiously graceless and socially inept that I would never again be able to lay eyes on Stan and Ollie without feeling shame in my every corpuscle.
What would I say to Stan Laurel?
"Mr. Laurel, I want to thank you for all the years of pleasure your films have given me." ( No, that wouldn't do. I was twelve. How many years of pleasure was that? Two?)
"Mr. Laurel, meeting you is the greatest honor of my life." (No. Again, I was twelve and, at that point, the runner-up "greatest honor" would have been being appointed Hall Monitor in sixth grade. Faint praise, indeed.)
"Mr. Laurel, your films have been a source of great inspiration to me." (To do what? Play handball?) You worry about this kind of thing when you're twelve.
Or, at least, I did. I told Dean I couldn't make it, but I'd go with him if he went back a second time. I guess I had in mind that Dean could fill me in on how it went, what not to do, etc., and then I could accompany him on a later visit. Yeah, I know: Pretty cowardly, even for a twelve-year-old kid.
Saturday afternoon, Dean and his father went up and saw Stan Laurel. Monday morn at school, I pumped him for every minute detail. "It was great," he said. "We didn't stay long but he was very nice to us and he signed a picture that I brought along."
"What did he say? Did you call him Mr. Laurel?"
"I did. And he asked me to call him Stan," Dean explained, causing me to curdle with jealousy.
"So," I eagerly asked Dean, "you're gonna go back and see him again soon, aren't you?" (Emerald-hued with envy, I was now determined I would tag along next time...)
"No," Dean nodded. "I don't want to make a pest of myself."
"Yes," I yelled . "Yes, you do! You want to make a pest of yourself!"
I did what I could but I couldn't convince Dean that he really did want to make a pest of himself. Finally, I realized that if I wanted to meet Stan Laurel, I would have to make the call.
This, I put off and put off. "I'll call tomorrow," I said each day for about three months. I always had a good reason — for example, Arbor Day. I decided it would be rude to bother Mr. Laurel on Arbor Day, just in case he was a big tree fan. And then, of course, I had to give him a few days to recover from Arbor Day. When you're twelve, you can find a good reason for anything.
Finally one day, I picked up the phone and made it through all seven numbers. I was relieved to get a busy signal. "Well, I tried," I said to myself. "I'll try again next week when it's not likely to be busy..." Days before I reached that moment, an item popped up in the newspaper: STAN LAUREL HOSPITALIZED. And then, a week or so later, he was gone. (For a time there, I couldn't shake the unlikely thought that my busy signal was because someone there was phoning for the ambulance...)
That's as close as I ever got to meeting Stan Laurel. I still have no idea what I would have said to him but I wish I'd gone and found out.
I like to think I'd have told him what I loved about his films, but I know I wouldn't have been able to verbalize it. Even now it isn't easy, as I am undoubtedly about to prove.
Laurel and Hardy made popular, comedy that presumes the audience has some smarts and already knows how the jokes go. They played the two dumbest guys who ever appeared in the cinema, but they always operated on the assumption that viewers knew what was going on...and usually knew it before anyone on the screen did.
The chronology is important. Silent comedy started as a novelty. People went at first, not to see a story but just to see pictures move. Once the thrill of that wore off, little plotlines came along, usually laced with the simplest forms of slapstick comedy. Busting a bag of flour over someone's head...for a time, that alone made people laugh. Eventually though, audiences demanded more.
Laurel and Hardy did pretty much the same jokes everyone had been doing. By 1927 when they teamed, audiences knew that if there was pie anywhere in the scene, it would wind up across the face of the stuffiest character. They knew that if a well-dressed person wandered anywhere near a body of water, they were going to be knocked into it.
So The Boys never pretended we didn't know what would happen. They stripped every joke down to its essentials and performed each in slow motion, usually with an Instant Replay or two. They told us what they were going to do, they did it, then they told us what they'd done. Then, as often as not, they did it again and again, until they were sure everyone saw it coming.
We laughed not at the surprises, for there were none. We laughed at the inevitability. When Mr. Hardy climbed up the ladder to adjust the antenna on the roof, we knew that he was going to fall off the roof. Even Mr. Laurel, in his thickskulled way, knew that Mr. Hardy was going to fall off the roof.
The joke was no longer about falling off the roof. The joke was that everyone knew Mr. Hardy was going to fall off the roof. Everyone except, of course, for Mr. Hardy.
(And the secondary joke was that Mr. Hardy — would then go back and have Mr. Laurel hold the ladder for him again and he'd fall off the roof again. Just as we knew he would.)
Laurel and Hardy films are filled with Mr. Hardy being hit with boards and rocks and pies...with him falling in ponds and mudholes and out of windows and off piers. He is frequently surprised but we never are. And each time, when it's over, Mr. Hardy sighs and looks out at us in the audience as if to say to us, "You knew this was going to happen. Why didn't you warn me?"
This Comedy of Inevitability even extended to simple fights. When The Boys would war with someone like their perennial foil, Charlie Hall, there were certain rules of engagement...
1. Mr. Hall takes Mr. Hardy's derby off Mr. Hardy's head. Mr. Hardy makes no effort to stop him as Mr. Hall runs it through a meat-slicer and chops off the top of it.
2. Then it is Mr. Hardy's turn. He picks up a large bucket of lard and, with the aid of Mr. Laurel, jams it over Mr. Hall's cranium. Mr. Hall, of course, makes no effort to get away or to stop them.
3. Then it is Mr. Hall's turn once more. And whatever he will do to Mr. Hardy — Mr. Hardy will just stand there and take it, awaiting his turn.
See how it works? No surprises. The slapstick is there, but it's just the means to an end.
Before L&H, the joke would have been the funny sight of a man getting a tub o' lard dumped on his head. With L&H, the joke had two layers. One was the pure physical comedy; the other was about grown men going through these motions, acting out their childish ritual, each stupidly standing his ground as he and/or his property were assaulted.
Depending on your mental age, you could enjoy either joke or both. Fate could not have made a better choice, to bridge the eras of silent and sound comedy, than the two men who brought slapstick to that level.
I wouldn't have been able at age twelve to say any of that to Mr. Laurel. Even today, as a 45-year-old theoretically-professional writer, I'm not explaining it very well.
And if by some miracle, I had been able to articulate this, I'm pretty sure Mr. Laurel wouldn't have cared. He was asked once to define comedy and he replied, "How the hell should I know?", which always struck me as the definitive statement on the subject.
What would have mattered to him is what I now realize is the main thing that matters to me about their films, which is that they're very funny. Never mind why, they're just funny. They never fail to make me laugh. No matter how many times I see them, I laugh and I smile and —
How do you like that? I just figured out what I should have said to Stan Laurel.
And just my luck: It's thirty-three years too late.
About Mark Evanier
"Any bird can build a nest, but it isn't everyone who can lay an egg!"
Ross Owen, Grand Sheik,
Fra Diavolo Tent, Scotland