This past summer, as I sat in a movie theater about to watch Girl Shy (1924), a nine-decade-old comedy starring Harold Lloyd, I wondered what the uninitiated audience would think. This was a silent movie, and it isn’t easy to trade spoken dialogue for pantomime. And then there was the star of the production: Although Lloyd is my own favorite of the silent comic actors, to utter his name to most people under the age of, say, 70 is to risk the rebuttal, “Harold who?” Yet, in spite of everything, Girl Shy worked, both for me and, judging by their laughter, for many others in the audience—most of whom, to my eyes, were under 70. Our laughs were hearty, unfaked, unironic.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find an approving mention of Girl Shy in this all-inclusive guide to purportedly passé humor. American Cornball marches through dozens of topics (alphabetically arranged) that, its author argues, were long ago grist for America’s comic mill but are no more. These topics include “cops and nightsticks,” “hats, women’s,” “henpecked husbands,” and “midnight snacks.” Girl Shy comes up in the entry on “nincompoops.” Therein, Miller tange-tially discusses the adjective “bashful” when used to refer to “male shyness vis-à-vis women,” and Girl Shy, with its central character’s reticent stance towards the opposite sex, fits the bill.
Although Christopher Miller claims to appreciate humor that deviates from what he calls “the usual joke about men and sex . . . that it’s all men think about,” he admits, earlier in the same sentence, that jokes lobbed affectionately in the direction of bashful males are “seldom very funny.” Tell that to the audience who guffawed at Girl Shy. The somewhat shaky premise of American Cornball is that most of the comic categories it discusses—romantically timid bachelors among them—have lost their capacity to bring forth laughs. “Some are still good for a laugh,” Miller writes, “but few are as funny as they used to be, and the most laughable thing about many is that people did once find them funny.”
To be sure, Miller—blessed with seemingly limitless recall of not just movies but comic strips, postcards, and wisecracks from the first half of the 20th century—has produced a fair share of clunkers to back up his assertion. The laughter-inducing properties of, say, Limburger cheese or old maids have certainly dimmed with time, and Miller is right to remind us how much blatantly racist and sexist humor was once in general circulation. On the other hand, to leaf through these pages is to be reminded of American humor’s ample treasures, many of which have aged rather well. There is enduring wisdom in Preston Sturges’s 1941 litany for comic success, quoted here, in part: “A kitten is better than a dog. A baby is better than a kitten. A kiss is better than a baby. A pratfall is better than anything.” Don’t these preferences still hold true?
From time to time, Miller goes against his premise—that much of the humor he describes is démodé—and lets his enthusiasm get the better of him, as when he recounts the abundance of tumbling anvils in 1950s Looney Tunes cartoons. Going! Going! Gosh! (1952), for example, features Wile E. Coyote aloft in a weather balloon, with anvil in tow. But after he lets go of the anvil, with Road Runner below, “the balloon deflates and the coyote and his garbage cart plunge groundward, passing the anvil on the way down (because, as the Ninth Law of Cartoon Physics mandates, ‘Everything falls faster than an anvil’).” Naturally, the anvil strikes Wile E. Coyote.
No matter the decade, it would seem, anvil-based gags (like piano- or safe-based gags, also discussed here) are reliably riotous.
So are pie fights, which Miller writes about with similar thoughtfulness and appreciation. Discussing the supersized pie fight included in the Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis farce The Great Race (1965), Miller notes that “when an already-pie-spattered character” is struck repeatedly, the joke loses its punch: “That’s why the director, Blake Edwards, waits till the end of the scene before the charmed, immaculate, white-suited Tony Curtis is finally pied.”