Thursday, May 12, 2005

Olsen and Johnson: Comedy Salesmen

One of the cardinal rules of comedy is never to laugh at your own material. It's usually taken as a sign of disrespect for your audience's ability to determine what they find funny for themselves. In the world of comedy etiquette, it's the equivalent of vomiting on the waiter and then neglecting to leave a tip. Happily, Olsen and Johnson didn't just ignore the comedy etiquette rulebook, they burnt it and then roasted comically oversized prop hotdogs over the flames. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, both hyper-thyroidal, both pathological pranksters, both musician/songwriters, both buried in Palm Memorial Park, Las Vegas (next to each other), flouted all the rules, especially the one about laughing at your own material. Chic Johnson, the chubby one, was brilliant at it, making his laughter seem far less a desperate plea to win an audience's approval than an in-your-face act of anarchistic defiance rather like Chico Marx's strange insistence that puns are funny. Johnson's chronic need to laugh at his material is usually far funnier than the material itself, and it was such a part of his character that he'd even let loose a few manic giggles when surprised or frightened. Ole Olsen, the team's ostensible straightman, was only just by a matter of degrees. Olsen wouldn't think twice about slapping a pie in someone's face, but Johnson would slap himself in the face with a pie, or two, and then dump a glass of water over his head. Unfortunately, they never really quite found their niche in films despite truckloads of talent and, more importantly, energy. O&J's fifteen year on/off flirtation with Hollywood saw them working at three different studios:

Warner Bros.
: During the early 30s rush to bring established stage comedians to the screen, the fledgling Warner Bros. studios hired vaudeville stars Olsen and Johnson for three pictures, most probably because they were affordable, and billed them as "America's Funniest Clowns".. a debatable claim in 1930. Although Johnson's laugh serves as a memorable hook, Olsen and Johnson are little more than utility comics in these early talkies. They've also dragged their methodical stage timing along with them so their delivery is, consequently, slow and not very effective on film. After headlining in Oh Sailor Behave! in 1930, the team was demoted somewhat to semi-headliners in Fifty Million Frenchmen (co-starring William Gaxton), and took a complete backseat to Broadway star Winnie Lightner in Gold Dust Gertie, an innovative farce comedy that flew in the face of tradition by exclusively featuring extremely unlikable, unpleasant characters you couldn't give a hang about. After two years at Warner's, O&J headed back to the boards.

Republic: In 1936 and 37, O&J starred in two peculiar B-comedy potboilers at Republic, a studio known almost exclusively for westerns and serials. Country Gentlemen and All Over Town are actually more enjoyable than the team's bigger-budgeted WB pictures, but Olsen and Johnson still haven't found their footing. While their delivery and timing have become much sharper, the films are far from ideal vehicles for them. Country Gentlemen shoehorns the team into a plot-heavy, character-driven story about conmen and oil wells that feels as though it were written for someone else (Ole plays the romantic lead for godsake!). The backstage whodunit All Over Town comes closer to the mark. O&J have plenty of opportunities to open up their bag of vaudeville routines and even get to pick up their instruments and play for once (both men were classically trained musicians; Ole on the violin and Chic on the piano. For some reason, these skills never really figured in their movies). The director, James W. Horne, was a Hal Roach veteran who had just recently wrapped up work on Laurel and Hardy's best feature, Way Out West. Familiar Hal Roach faces also appear in supporting roles (most notably Jimmy Finlayson, every comedy team's favorite stooge). But All Over Town never quite comes together, largely because it isn't very funny. Olsen and Johnson set Hollywood aside once again in 1938 when they finally hit it big with their Broadway hit Hellzapoppin', a free-form smorgasbord of gags, prop comedy, and musical numbers that fixed O&J in the public mind once and for all as comedy maniacs.

Universal: By 1941, Hellzapoppin' had run for a record 1,404 performances and Olsen and Johnson were nationally famous. Universal bought the screen rights to the revue and O&J were finally set free to be as dangerously madcap as they cared to be. Unlike the stage revue, the film Hellzapoppin' was saddled with a rather convoluted plotline concerning a romantic triangle, but screenwriter Warren Wilson was wise enough to shove this stuff into the background and concentrate on Nat Perrin's gag material from the stage show. Any discussion of the plots of Olsen and Johnson's four films for Universal would be meaningless. What matters here are the quality and quantity of the gags. For instance, in Hellzapoppin's best moment, O&J give away the ending of Citizen Kane! At the beginning of the heavily cartoon-inspired Crazy House (1943), O&J are shot from cannons though a wall and into the office of a Universal movie executive, whom they hand a lit stick of dynamite. There's actually a story about their attempts to make a movie around in there somewhere between all the gags, but it's more than made up for when Chic Johnson picks up a machine gun at the end and kills the obligatory Young Couple In Love. "This is one picture that isn't going to have a happy ending!" he says. Ghost Catchers (1944), the team's only scare comedy, was partially written by cartoonist Milt Gross and features a musical number, "The Customer is Always Right", which is funny due to its sheer audacity rather than the merit of its material. Ghost Catchers also features some surprisingly contemporary humor. In one scene, O&J are following two dwarves (complete with pointy hats) through a haunted house:

Olsen: I wonder where they're going..

Johnson: Maybe they're taking us to Snow White!

Dwarf (turning on O&J, shaking his fists with rage): Snow White?? SNOW WHITE?!? Everywhere we go!!! EVERYWHERE WE GO!!!!!

After one more film, See My Lawyer (1945), Olsen and Johnson quit movies for good and went back to the stage and a string of Hellzapoppin'-ish revues (including Hellzasplashin', Sons O' Fun, Jerks-Berserk, Crazy House, Pardon Our French, and others). In 1949, they tried their hand at early TV with Fireball Fun-For-All, an unsuccessful attempt to translate their revue format to video. While the episodes I've seen have their moments, Fireball really highlights how much of the effectiveness of O&J's revues depended on you actually being there in the audience. It was cancelled after a mere four months and Olsen and Johnson continued performing, rather inevitably settling in Las Vegas. The seemingly endless ride was finally cut short by Chic Johnson's death in 1962 at the age of 66. Ole Olsen followed a year later at the age of 71.

In a 1959 interview, Chic Johnson summed up the team's approach to comedy. "We never made any pretense at being glib, satirical standup comics. We manufacture gimmicks and gags that are about as basic as you can get. We are salesmen. We sell laughs. We have never tried to be subtle. Apparently people all over the world still like that sort of thing."


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