Friday, November 10, 2006

"More fun, more laughs, and more crushed skulls!"

Here's a real rarity; the first nine minutes of an episode of The Olsen and Johnson Show from 1932. Although Jerry Haendiges has this clip dated to July 7th of that year, all the talk of presidential elections would lead me to believe it's actually from October or November. This is 1930s "nut" humor at its most unhinged as practiced by the undisputed masters of the form. On radio, though, that doesn't really mean a hell of a lot. This chaotic and exhausting clip gives a strong indication of why Olsen and Johnson never clicked in radio. Radio comedy wouldn't be this abstract again until the debut of the Goon Show in 1950, and even the Goon Show had structure. Olsen and Johnson depended as much upon visual gimmickry as crosstalk, arguably more, so their effectiveness is at least halved on radio. The kind of jokes you'll hear in this clip were really just so much window dressing to Olsen and Johnson, who demonstrated for years that it wasn't so much the joke as the telling of it that counted (they even do the "post office" gag here, for godssake). On radio, though, the gag is the gag and without the sight of Chic Johnson nearly collapsing in hysteria over puns that would make Chico Marx cringe, the entire affair falls rather flat. Later, once they had hit their stride with their runaway Vaude-way hit Hellzapoppin', Olsen and Johnson could afford to joke about their failure to conquer radio, but between 1932 and 1934, their inability to make headway on the networks was no laughing matter. Without films (their contract with Warners expired in 1931 after three films) or radio, Olsen and Johnson were left with their touring everything-but-the-kitchen-sink revue, and it appears that that was, at the time, generally regarded as purely for the undiscriminating. The team's marginal pre-Hellzapoppin' reputation is best indicated by the two (enjoyable) micro-budget features they shot for Republic in 1936-7, both of which were clearly aimed at the neighborhood houses and what Variety referred to as "the stix". Ironically, Olsen and Johnson would stage a tremendous comeback by changing not a damn thing about their act and remaining, as Brooks Atkinson put it, "loud, low, and funny".

On a side note, I've long wondered what an Olsen and Johnson version of "The Aristocrats" would have been like. I think all of us have wondered that at one time or another.

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Blogger Kevin K. said...

Hoo boy. They don't make comedy like that anymore. I gotta give 'em credit,this seems meticulously written, rehearsed and even directed but wow... they're an even more unlikely radio team than Martin & Lewis were. If this is what all they're shows were like, how the heck were they able to come up with so much material for even the two years they were on the air?

As I mentioned on the Greenbriar Picture Shows site, their movie "Crazy House" is pretty funny. Ever see "Hellzapoppin"?

1:04 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Although I have yet to see "See My Lawyer", all of their other Universal films are varying degrees of wonderful. In fact, the only truly bad O&J picture I've seen yet is "Gold Dust Gertie". What a disaster that film is!!

9:02 PM  
Blogger NYCOPYGUY said...

Speaking of O&J, someone put the first 10 minutes of Hellzapoppin' on YouTube. I've been talking it up on the Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Snarkish message boards (where I also threw a plug to Third Banana). Here's the link:

9:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

After watching that clip, I can't imagine an entire feature, especially in 1941, being that bizarre and unstructured. No wonder the studio felt the need to add a subplot. Not that I condone it. Just that it's understandable.

2:19 PM  

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