Perhaps late at night everything seems a little funnier. Or maybe it’s a good time to think things through as if ideas are sheep waiting to be counted. Maybe I started to really like the host, Big Wilson, and his little riffs on a cheesy electric piano. Whatever the reason, I spent a lot of time as a kid watching WCIX, Channel 6 in Miami, late at night. While it wasn’t the main idea, though, what I got was a cultural education like no other.
The “Night Owl Movies” with Big Wilson ran from around Midnight to 6 AM, if I remember. This was back when Channel 6 was a glorified UHF station, filling time with old shows and movies and probably making just a few bucks. It would be many years until they became the CBS affiliate and built the “multiplex” nightly nooze center that built the career of Rick Sanchez on a steady diet of murder and mayhem. Back in the old daze it was run on the cheap with heaping gobs of real culture.
Well, what I mean by “culture” are old movies like “Maltese Falcon” or “Candy” or, if I was lucky, something by the Marx Brothers. I was drawn to the old comedies because of one puzzle, the kind of thing that kept me awake at night:
Big hunks of them weren’t funny.
The Marx Brothers, along with Abbot and Costello, really stood out to me as comic geniuses that were trapped in their formats. The song and dance numbers and simple schtick done by other people didn’t work. But Groucho was always funny, and so was Lou Costello. Why was that? What made them funny?
There’s a real science to comedy, something you can see every time something stands up to time. Most things don’t last, after all, getting old and stale after just a few years. What did the real pros have that stood up?
It’s not an academic question really. On Nickelodeon there is a show called “Drake and Josh” that puts two step-brothers in the same room that don’t get along. Their routine shows that they’ve made a good study of Abbot and Costello, something I recognized immediately. The timing, the constant ratcheting up of the tension, even the way they look at each other is right out of any of the throwaway backdrops Abbot and Costello stuffed their timeless routines into.
I was always a Marxist, at least in the sense that I loved the classic Marx Brothers routines – even Harpo on the harp. They would pair off with Chico funnyman and Groucho straight, with Harpo silent. Then, Harpo becomes the funnyman while Chico feeds him straight. In a moment, Harpo honks a straightline while Groucho tells the gags, and the whole thing cycles along again. It’s great stuff, but I can’t remember which movie showed it the best – but it doesn’t matter, I saw them all.
This may seem like a good way to ruin comedy, but it’s a lot more than just funny movies. This is culture, the kind of stuff you just run into because it’s all around. These old routines aren’t around as much as they used to be now that the volume of new entertainment in the form of cheap reality shows and so on has displaced them over hundreds of channels. There really isn’t a Big Wilson and there isn’t a Channel 6.
We can still study comedy, but we can’t run into it late at night in search of a good excuse to stay up. Channel 6 isn’t the rundown little station it used to be, and their office at 1111 Brickell Avenue was torn down to build condos – I know because I designed the new building’s transformer vault for Florida Power and Light. But even without Big Wilson on the piano, the old comedies are still worth seeing.
What makes old movies “cultural” isn’t that they are old, it’s that some of them still work because they hit something fundamental about being a human, be it in 1935 or 2009. That’s a great thing to find any time of the day.