Mixed Nuts

Who made the first American screen comedy ridiculing Adolf Hitler? If you guessed Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator,” you’d be wrong.

The correct answer is the Three Stooges — with “You Nazty Spy,” released in January 1940, nine months before Chaplin’s masterpiece.

That’s just one of the many pop culture nuggets to be found in “Mixed Nuts,” Lawrence J. Epstein’s short history of comedy teams, from Laurel and Hardy to Cheech and Chong. The book will be published in early October.

Like any accounting of comedy in America, Epstein’s study is unavoidably weighted toward Jewish comics, from the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Bud Abbot, Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis right up to the other Jerry (Seinfeld). But Epstein has not written a history of Jewish comedy.

Rather, “Mixed Nuts” traces the history of comedy teams from the minstrel days in pre-vaudeville 19th-century America up to present-day stage, screen and television personalities. That’s a lot of ground to cover, too much for a short book like this. Readers are left with mini-bio sketches of the comics, delightful snippets from the best routines and generous helpings of Epstein’s reflections on what it all means.

Over the last couple of decades, the stand-up comedian (and sitcom star) has supplanted the comedy team, but once upon a time, two was better than one, and sometimes (as with the Marx Brothers) three was better than two.

Epstein’s über-role models are George Burns and Gracie Allen, who pioneered so much of the comedy to follow. Before he met Allen, Burns had been the quintessential vaudevillian, a low-level song-and-dance man from a dying era. After teaming up with Allen, the two not only revolutionized radio entertainment but set the standard for breezy banter, unconsciously imitated to this day on every TV sit-com.

Epstein’s chapters on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the Marx Brothers and lesser-known performers like Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey and John Olsen and Harold Johnson shed little light on what made these teams work (or not work). The better-known pairings have been analyzed and lionized for years and far more exhaustive biographies are available. Why go for the truncated version?

Moreover, Epstein’s analysis seems overblown. The story of comedy teams, he writes, “is a portrait of American’s emotional life… teams flourished when we most needed a communal spirit and when we most forcefully embraced the virtues of self-sacrifice.”

More likely, the teams flourished because they were funny.

Epstein notes that after the decline of stand-up duos like Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, John Burns and Avery Schreiber, et. al, the generic comedy team died out. Yet he goes on to describe the “Saturday Night Live” cast, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, even Frazier Crane and his brother Niles, as latter-day exemplars of the comedy team. Not much of a die-out.

Still, in many respects, Epstein’s book is a fun read simply because it revisits so many laughs from the past. Included are the entire script from one version of Abbot and Costello’s classic “Who’s On First” routine, as well as transcribed bits by Sid Caesar, the Marx Brothers and of course Burns and Allen. It’s all great stuff.

One chapter rises above the others: Epstein’s look at the Three Stooges. Though their violence-prone high-jinx had limited appeal, the Stooges have remained perennial favorites, their stature only growing over the years. Though it was commonly known that Moe, Curly and Larry (and all subsequent replacements) were Jews, Epstein shows just how crucial a role their Jewish backgrounds was to their comedy.

In a time when many Jewish comedians sought to cleanse their personas of overt Jewishness, the Stooges defiantly chose otherwise. They liberally threw Yiddishisms into their shtick (in the aforementioned “You Nazty Spy!,” Curly lets loose with the insult “Huck mir nisht a chynick, and I don’t mean efsher!” which means “Don’t bother me, and I don’t mean maybe!”) They went on to make two more savagely anti-Hitler short films, both replete with inside jokes for Jews.

Epstein may be overreaching with much of his premise. All along, classic comedy teams worked alongside solo giants like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields. After the alleged demise, we still see teams today like the Wayans Brothers (whether they’re funny is another matter). Regarding American comedy, the band Talking Heads had it right: “Same as it ever was.”

Yet there’s no way to overstate how essential comedians have been America’s collective mental health over time. Epstein’s book serves as a useful and often hilarious reminder.

“Mixed Nuts: America’s Love Affair with Comedy Teams from Burns and Allen to Belushi and Aykroyd” by Lawrence J. Epstein. (304 pages, PublicAffairs, $26.)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.