‘Mixed Nuts’ is a bit of a mixed bag

Special to The Times

A good book is struggling to get out of “Mixed Nuts” -- a crucial if not quite critical enough survey of the great and less great American comedy teams. Often it does, whenever author Lawrence J. Epstein escapes his own tortured analysis and tangled socio-cultural theories.

Epstein covers the necessary hallowed ground, if in a somewhat haphazard fashion, detailing the rises and pratfalls of everyone from the classic teams of Weber and Fields, the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello to such almost forgotten ones as the Ritz Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey and Lum and Abner, before winding down with such feeble descendants as Mike Myers and Dana Carvey.

Epstein’s chapters on Burns and Allen, Laurel and Hardy, and Jackie Gleason and Art Carney are unusually incisive. He understands the appeal of Abbott and Costello that still eludes me and defends the unfairly disparaged Amos ‘n Andy. He often delivers a sharp insight that cuts through the surrounding academic underbrush, as in the case of George Burns and Gracie Allen: “George’s repetition of much of the material was ... crucial to the pacing, allowing the audience to grasp the premise precisely and be set up by George for the line to follow.”


But Epstein (author of “The Haunted Smile,” a study of Jewish comedians in America) has trouble deciding just what constitutes a comedy team and opens the door too widely to allow in so-called temporary film teams (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), while snubbing Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Ma and Pa Kettle, and quickly kissing off the Bickersons (Don Ameche and Frances Langford) and Bob (Elliott) & Ray (Goulding).

So there is both too much here and not quite enough, and certain matters go unexplored: Why are there so few female or modern black comedy teams? The author knowledgeably traces comedy duos to prehistoric vaudeville and minstrel acts with black (and blackface) teams such as Moran and Mack, Miller and Lyles and Amos ‘n Andy (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), and he keenly explains the uses and abuses of the straight man (“The straight man became the audience’s attachment to reality,” a grown-up to the comic child).

The author is best at outlining team history -- how the Marx Brothers happened -- and on the nuts and bolts of certain acts, but is less revealing about the comic heart of their personas and what made, say, the Ritz Brothers so bizarrely funny. What fueled the Marx Brothers’ perpetual comedy motion machine, such as Groucho’s lethal delivery and lunatic comic body language? Why did the trio’s complex comic interplay work?

Epstein often wades into murky waters to explain a team’s arrival -- “Jerry Lewis ‘freed the inner hysteria of the age’ ” he propounds, and claims Martin and Lewis “made team history as the first pair to face each other rather than the audience.” Can’t be. He says the team had no imitators, forgetting Allen and Rossi. Epstein calls Hope and Crosby’s “road” films a “metaphor for a country on the brink of, but not yet at, war ... [reducing] the fear of a strange and unfamiliar foreign location by having an audience laugh at it.” I can’t buy it. At times, the author makes pronouncements without enough proof, like claiming the Three Stooges displayed not just cartoon chaos but also “a clever use of language.” How so? All the scholarly vamping and pages of needless early radio and film history grinds Epstein’s show to a halt. I wish he had zeroed in more keenly on what made the classic teams uniquely funny, with less fancy abstract footwork and more descriptive details of the comics at play. There’s not a lot of passion or glee here. Epstein clearly knows the territory, but he tends to point out the great comic landmarks with all the joy of a dutiful tour guide.

He closes with a chapter on the disappearance of comedy teams, maintaining they were replaced by talk-show twosomes -- Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter -- and sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” I sense there’s more to it than that.

Epstein concludes correctly that the essence of all great comedy teams is “knowing the other so well.” In “Mixed Nuts,” he shows that he knows many of them pretty well himself.


Gerald Nachman is the author of “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”