Observations on Ted Healy
One of the nicest compliments I'd received for my now-dead Ted Healy page was that Ted, were he alive, would likely have slapped my back hard enough to sting, bought me a stiff drink, and then done something absolutely horrible and emotionally scarring to me. Ted Healy, Bobby Clark, and Paul McCullough are the three comedians who really sparked my interest in comedy obscureology. It's inexplicable that they all aren't better known, but Ted's relative obscurity is the most curious and disturbing of all to me. Clark and McCullough are an acquired taste, admittedly, and I'm speaking as one of their biggest boosters. Even their best films undoubtedly pale in relation to their stage work, and Bobby, especially, is a Broadway personality confined in a celluloid prison, a personality rather too bold and alien (not to mention alienating) for the intimacies of film. But Ted Healy was simply born to be a film star, and it was apparent even in his silent 1926 "tryout", Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes, for Hal Roach. He's real, engaging, fascinating, and frequently terrifying. The two-dimensional boundary of the screen vanishes for Ted, a comedian so direct and modern.. some would say postmodern.. that it's a shock to me that he isn't better regarded today, the effects of the smear campaign notwithstanding. You can see his influence on television even now, his legacy most apparent in comic MCs such as Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. Healy was certainly one of the first to shatter the accepted role of the performer as Performer, destroying the barrier between comedian and audience. After all, what did he do? Bert Wheeler was a song and dance man, Eddie Cantor a wisecracking singer, W. C. Fields a juggler; what was Ted Healy? Ted's right to the limelight was assured simply because he was a funny man, not a man who expertly told funny jokes or funny stories. Ted Healy scarcely cared about jokes, had no patience for them. In Soup To Nuts, you can see for yourself his impatience with the "laff lines" and his eagerness not to dwell on them. The stooges were the joke-machines of the act, near parodies of slapshoe vaudeville comedians, and Ted was just as much their audience as the actual audience was. His reactions to their calculated inanity became the vicarious reaction of the crowd; their emotional release as well. The stooges.. Sanborn, Howard, Howard, Fine, Howard, Hakins, Wolf, Garner, etc.. were living props, and Ted made sure an audience understood that they deserved every last slap. As purveyors of the oldest and/or stalest and/or lamest jokes known to mankind, or for simply attempting to upstage the headliner, it was Ted's job.. his honor.. to stand up for the audience and slap the stooges silly. If Curly or Freddy comes skittering across the stage, mugging like a maniac, in the middle of Ted's song, he's asking for trouble; so why the hell not give it to him? That's what he's there for! No one is asking for sympathy. I can't imagine a single audience member in Ted's entire stage career standing up and saying "Hey, you big bully! Leave that little guy alone!" That Howard, Fine, and Howard are famous today for being, frankly, atavistic, albeit talented, clowns while Healy, an innovator, true eccentric, and probably genius, is a footnote in their careers says something too depressing about life for me to contemplate.