Cassandra Keenan

Image of 'failed masculinity' helped make comedian a laughing stock

Filed By Cassandra Keenan | July 14, 2010 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: bud abbott, comedy, gender, lou costello, masculinity, World War II

I absolutely love watching old flicks, and I recently caught a good portion of Buck Privates on the Turner Classic Movies cable network, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. I honestly hadn't watched this comedy duo since I was a kid, and I used to enjoy them. But while watching about a week or so ago, only the nostalgia aspect of it appealed to me. The comedy? Not so much.

budandlou.jpgWhy? I couldn't help but feel a very real sense of sadness over how the joke was always on Costello due in no small part to his hammy portrayal of "failed masculinity." He always wound up being humiliated or abused physically because of it. The message was: I don't really measure up to the average guy, and here I am selflessly entertaining you as the clown that I deservedly am because of it.

True, a lot of Abbott and Costello's comedy centered around clever verbal exchanges, but their audiences were still always reminded of Costello's "ineptitude" as a guy -- more specifically, his failure to embody the traditional expectation of what a guy should be. This seems particularly poignant in light of the era, when valiance seemed to be heavily valued as a masculine trait due to the war.

I realize that the point of the movies and radio shows that Abbott and Costello made was to make people laugh during a stressful time in history, and I could still watch routines like Who's on First? and enjoy a few chuckles. But it just made me sad that an entire generation got such a kick out of a persona rooted so deeply in male "inadequacy."


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There are lots of comedians who were "failed men." Jack Benny (other than being married) was literally portrayed as an effeminate gay man. Buster Keaton was uncoordinated, twerpy and inept in most of his films. Charlie Chaplin would often turn "faggy" at the drop of a hat. Harold Lloyd, in between climbing buildings, was always a momma's boy and "panty-waisted" young man, Harry Langdon was literally a eunuch, Fatty Arbuckle was in drag in most of his films. Curly from the 3 Stooges, had a high pitched voice, went in drag in a number of their shorts and often did "effeminate" gestures. Harpo Marx was... well, he certainly wasn't a man. There's literally no American comic which hasn't mined this theme.

Tony Soprano | July 14, 2010 7:28 PM

I thank Cassandra for her recognition of 'failed masculinity' in the Lou Costello character.

I wondered for years why I had so very much detested watching those shows (my dad was a big fan). As a little boy, I apparently saw myself in his character: obese, non-athletic, physically uncoordinated. But, that was not the worst.

I also failed to mature sexually, and had under-developed genitalia. I did not know what it was at the time; but, I knew something was wrong with me. I would later find out the real horror that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I had my own case of 'failed' masculinity.

Lou Costello mocked me from behind the glass screen, and I hated him because I hate(d) myself. He was not funny. He disgusted me.

Isnt most humour about pain or hurtfulness of some kind? We laugh at the ineptness of the blondes or the __________ (insert preferred minority group here) or even dear old Dad on countless sitcoms because they made us feel superior. Costello was no different from countless laugh machines, and the nature of what's "funny" hasnt changed much either.

I think Lou's humor appealed also to the failed masculine within all of us. We've all had times when we were bumbling idiots or gullible dupes. I think I laugh at Lou's jokes partly because I recognize the humor in my own fallibility.


W.C. Fields said comedy is tradegy that happens to someone else