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Dr. Rich Edwards

Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 5: Playing Games

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Discuss Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 5, and the role that baseball (as an example of a national leisure activity) plays in many slapstick films. 

 

This breakdown moves between three different eras to show how America's love affair with baseball has always been a popular gag with slapstick comedians. 

 

And tonight we will see a film with Abbott and Costello, who might be most famous nowadays for their hilarious "Who's on First" verbal slapstick routine!

 

Enjoy!

 

 

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Interesting to see different ways slapstick was used under the umbrella of baseball. I had never seen the Harold Lloyd or Joe E Brown ones before so those in particular were very interesting. I was curious as to why "Who's on First" by Abbott and Costello was not included. Is that considered something other than verbal slapstick?

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Baseball is my religion, and, since it is impolitic to discuss religion on social media, I have nothing to say.

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The films that he listed in the episode from Speedy (1928) starring Harold Lloyd and featuring Babe Ruth, Elmer the Great (1933) starring Joe E. Brown, and The Naked Gun (1988) starring Leslie Nielsen are astounding considering that I was not aware that sports were the target of many slapstick comedy films in a delightful and comical twist.

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It seems to me that in Elmer The Great, Lewis is playing Second Base not Shortstop (unless they had a shift on, which I don't think had been used at that point). The ball came off the bat headed in that direction and there was no foul line by the bag. Not a big deal, just an observation.

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When watching and enjoying the clips, I found it really enlightening that there is so much verbal and physical slapstick to baseball. As much as I loved the clips from Speedy (1928) and Elmer The Great (1933), my favorite clip from the video is the last one with the great Leslie Nielsen in the first Naked Gun film. I think it actually captured the absurdity and mundane nature that can come with baseball, or any other sport. I agree that it is one of the greatest baseball gags of in cinema history.

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As addressed in Breakdown of a Gag Episode 5, Baseball is a common theme among slapstick comedies, and I think that largely has to do with the symbolism of baseball as the all-American pastime. Baseball has been synonymous with summer in America for what seems like an eternity. When there is a sport so ingrained in the minds and hearts of audiences it is very easy to play to that in a comedic sense on-screen.  Relatability seems to be a driving force for comedy, and it doesn't get much more relatable than baseball.

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Harold Lloyd and Babe Ruth...hoping to make it to the stadium is an accident waiting to happen thanks to the rear screen projections.

 

Leave it to rain to add to the comedy in Joe E. Brown's clip...great physical slapstick in the search for the baseball in the mud.  I guess back in the day you played ball rain or shine.

 

Leslie Nielsen is hilarious and that is something I would do as I have no idea how the umpire knows what to call a strike.

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Lloyd again shows his style to be a more normal person, and we can relate to him being enamored of a celebrity. He takes what we would do in the situation - probably constantly looking at the rear view mirror - and exaggerates it by actually turning around. The projection screen stuff matches up pretty well, selling the gag. And Babe Ruth comes of genuinely flustered.

 

Brown fishing through the puddle is great.

 

What can you say about Leslie Nielson? That gag keeps going on and on too. I think the next one he starts yelling 'STEEEE-RIKE!!' before the ball even goes over the plate. The TV show on which it was based, Police Squad, is fantastic. Some of their routines are on par with 'who's on first':

 

[Captain and Drebin are interviewing a witness to a stick up]

Sally: Well, when I first heard the shot, and as I turned, Jim fell.

Captain: He's the teller, Frank.

Drebin: Jim Fell's the teller?

Sally: No, Jim Johnson.

Drebin: Who's Jim Fell?

Captain: He's the auditor, Frank.

Sally: He had the flu, so Jim filled in.

Drebin: Phil who?

Captain: Phil Din. He's the night watchman.

Sally [crying] If only Phil had been here!

Drebin: Wait a minute, let me get this straight: Twice came in and shot the teller and Jim Fell.

Sally: No, he only shot the teller, Jim Johnson. Fell is ill.

Drebin: Okay, then after he shot the teller, you shot Twice.

Sally: No, I only shot once.

Captain: Twice is the hold up man.

Sally: Then I guess I did shoot Twice.

Drebin: Oh, so now you're changing your story.

Sally: No, I shot Twice after Jim fell.

Drebin: You shot twice and Jim Fell?

Sally: No, Jim fell first and then I shot Twice once.

Drebin: Well, who fired twice?

Sally: Once!

Captain: He's the owner of the tire company, Frank.

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Good job with the baseball clips.

 

Everyone can put themselves in Joe E. Brown's place at second base. The situation is spinning out of control around you as you frantically search for the one thing that will save you. Associating with the gag makes it funnier.

 

Lloyd's does not directly involve the game, but is fun just the same.

 

Keaton also did a baseball short for Educational, but it is one of his weaker ones.

 

In the 1930's, many Hollywood stars would participate in a charity baseball, with many slapstick gags taking place during the game, so Hollywood has a history with the National Pastime.

 

I agree with Chris_Coombs' feelings for the Leslie Nielson Police Squad routine. Very fast, confusing and funny. Nielson, in the Naked Gun clip. uses a variation on repetition as the gag continues and evolves in the film.

 

And Abbott and Costello's Baseball Routine (as they called "Who's on First?") is not only baseball's greatest routine, but the funniest and most famous baseball routine of all time.

 

Baseball does appear to be the best game for slapstick.

 

 

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I realize that Always Leave Them Laughing has not yet been screened, but I am familiar with this film.

 

I wanted to like this film. I really did. But it leaves me cold. While Berle does some funny things, he is completely unlikeable. Stealing the jokes makes him cheesy and annoying, at the very least.

 

Bert Lahr's advice to Kip in the film of giving the horse something to eat so that the audience will make him likeable should have been heeded for the entire film. Berle is egotistical and pig headed here. I must like a comedian to laugh at them. Berle's character is trying too hard here and will do anything to get ahead. Also, for me anyway, Berle's attempts at drama also fall flat and seem insincere.

 

I read that Lahr detested Berle in real life and I think that this comes through, even though Lahr tries not to show it. Does anyone else get that impression?

 

There are films where Berle's character works for me, such as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad ,Mad World". Unfortunately, Always Leave Them Laughing isn't one of them.

 

Does anyone else feel the same way about this film?

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Good job with the baseball clips.

 

Everyone can put themselves in Joe E. Brown's place at second base. The situation is spinning out of control around you as you frantically search for the one thing that will save you. Associating with the gag makes it funnier.

 

Lloyd's does not directly involve the game, but is fun just the same.

 

Keaton also did a baseball short for Educational, but it is one of his weaker ones.

 

In the 1930's, many Hollywood stars would participate in a charity baseball, with many slapstick gags taking place during the game, so Hollywood has a history with the National Pastime.

 

I agree with Chris_Coombs' feelings for the Leslie Nielson Police Squad routine. Very fast, confusing and funny. Nielson, in the Naked Gun clip. uses a variation on repetition as the gag continues and evolves in the film.

 

And Abbott and Costello's Baseball Routine (as they called "Who's on First?") is not only baseball's greatest routine, but the funniest and most famous baseball routine of all time.

 

Baseball does appear to be the best game for slapstick.

 

I also meant to say the "Who's on First" is the funniest routine of all time. It just happens to be about baseball.

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These were wonderful. Watching Ruth's expression from Lloyd's gags was priceless. Brown trying to find the ball in the puddle was classic. It was visual with the water as the main prop. With Nielsen it was all in the delivery of calling the strikes.

 

A Disney cartoon with Goofey playing baseball comes to mind and how it would fit this category as well. Actually any of the Disney Goofey cartoons where he's trying to do sports fits the definition of slapstick.

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As Vince Cellini and Dr. Edwards explained in this Breakdown of a Gag 5, Slapstick likes to take aim at any institution and baseball is no exception. The Harold Lloyd/ Babe Ruth match-up is timeless. It appeals even today to fans of both comedy and baseball. One can only imagine the Babe Ruth fans who were just blown away to see their hero in a comedy film cameo and doing a great job of joining in. Another aspect of Baseball  is the idea of the shoestring finish, that rally in the bottom of the ninth or that  game winning Grand Slam Home run.. nothing is impossible so seeing Joe E.Brown in "Elmer The Great" scooping around in the mud to finally throw out the last out at home played right into this aspect of baseball with a slapstick twist.  Looking at the modern error we see real players the victims of Leslie Nielson's umpire!

Historically many burlesque and vaudevile routines centered on baseball. Some early players even did their own baseball skits on the stage. To bring these into comedy films seemed a natural progression.

Even Buster Keaton who loved baseball as a sport (and enjoyed playing it on the set between takes) starred in a little seen short entitled "One Run Elmer" (1935) in which he plays in an  extravagant baseball game to best his competitor and win the girl.

Baseball and comedy... what a winning combination!

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I realize that Always Leave Them Laughing has not yet been screened, but I am familiar with this film.

 

I wanted to like this film. I really did. But it leaves me cold. While Berle does some funny things, he is completely unlikeable. Stealing the jokes makes him cheesy and annoying, at the very least.

 

Bert Lahr's advice to Kip in the film of giving the horse something to eat so that the audience will make him likeable should have been heeded for the entire film. Berle is egotistical and pig headed here. I must like a comedian to laugh at them. Berle's character is trying too hard here and will do anything to get ahead. Also, for me anyway, Berle's attempts at drama also fall flat and seem insincere.

 

I read that Lahr detested Berle in real life and I think that this comes through, even though Lahr tries not to show it. Does anyone else get that impression?

 

There are films where Berle's character works for me, such as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad ,Mad World". Unfortunately, Always Leave Them Laughing isn't one of them.

 

Does anyone else feel the same way about this film?

I agree about Milton Berle.  Maybe he was funny on a vaudeville stage, but it never seemed to translate well into film and tv.

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I missed episode four. Anyway I loved watching Babe Ruth with Harold Lloyd. Joe E brown… How hysterical is that. And of course the great Leslie Nielsen. These gags are a kick to watch. Excuse the football pun. We're on baseball now. Seeing Babe Ruth in a silent film. Awesome! And very funny. And then jump to a talkie with Joe E brown. But still a visual gag as he's digging through the mud for the baseball. And of course the irresistible Leslie Nielsen. Getting into his role as an umpire. Great stuff. Loving the course.

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Great scenes all. Babe Ruth did a decent turn in his reactions. Baseball was truly the national pastime in the first 2 scenes but not so much at the time of the Naked Gun. Another film worth a look is Three Little Pigskins, an early Three Stooges short where gangsters mistake the Stooges for some of the Four Horsemen. Hilarious takeoff on football that also features a young and blonde Lucille Ball.

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When I first saw "Speedy" I was probably as nervous as the Babe himself as Harold Lloyd talked while driving and not looking at the road. Yes, this is definitely a unique case of DISTRACTED DRIVING.

 

And only in slapstick comedy would you find a baseball player digging through a mud puddle for the ball, for I don't recall this ever happening to the Detroit Tigers.

 

Frank Drebin as the umpire has me in stitches every time I see it, especially when he moonwalks later. Of course, his failed attempt at singing "The Star Spangled Banner" was also the funniest way to botch our national anthem (and cut him some slack, he was Canadian!)

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I said this on another discussion thread: The introduction to the fifth episode of this series is a real treat! I loved Cellini's and Edwards's gag with the baseball! It seems like the two of them are hitting their stride and getting comfortable on set.

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Sports in general are useful settings for slapstick since they're so physical, potentially violent, and often exaggerated. The middle clip here, from Elmer the Great, best exemplifies that, incorporating the unexpectedly-deep-water that had been a staple of slapstick throughout the silent era. The cross-cutting of the opposing players sliding into home and the sound of the crowd adds to our anxiety that Elmer find the ball ASAP.

 

Another great slapstick baseball scene happens in this series' featured film, A Night at the Opera (1937) when Chico switches the orchestra to play "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as he and Harpo turn it into an impromptu ballpark, with Groucho helping out as a peanut vendor. 

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Both Lloyd and Keaton mined sports for laughs. Not just baseball but football, rowing and decathlon sports were covered by both comedians in the silent era and picked up by Joe E Brown, The Three Stooges and even the Marx Brothers in the early talkies. The inherent physicality of sports plays right into one of the five slapstick basics. 

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I agree about Milton Berle.  Maybe he was funny on a vaudeville stage, but it never seemed to translate well into film and tv.

When I was a child, "Uncle Miltie" was welcomed into millions of American homes, ours included. In retrospect I find this interesting because Berle's comic personae is really too broad for the small screen. Perhaps the incongruity of this paradox is the very thing that made him so popular on TV. Brash, confrontational and fast moving, I never really cared for his brand of humor. As a critic once observed, "He's capable of anything but subtlety".

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What I like about this clip and the entire concept is that we are a nation that idolizes sports and sports figures - what better way to get interest but to combine comedy and sports.  The physicality of the gags and the way the audience reacts is always fun to watch.

 

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Baseball is my religion, and, since it is impolitic to discuss religion on social media, I have nothing to say.

BALL FOUR! Take your base in peace, my son.

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