… [Old] Laurel and Hardy movies … turned out to be the finest, funniest, most satisfying movies ever made. Yes, they were ever so droll and inventive, and yes, Ferguson’s stomach sometimes ached from laughing so hard at their buffoonery, but why he found them so laughable, and why his love for them began to flower beyond all reason, had less to do with their clownish antics than their persistence, with the fact that they reminded Ferguson of himself … Laurel and Hardy’s struggles were no different than his own. They, too, blundered from one ill-conceived plan to the next, they, too, suffered through countless setbacks and frustrations, and whenever their misfortunes brought them to the snapping point, Hardy’s angers would become his angers, Laurel’s befuddlements would mirror his befuddlements, and the best thing about the botches they made for themselves was that Stan and Ollie were even more incompetent than he was, more stupid, more asinine, more helpless, and that was funny, so funny that he couldn’t stop laughing at them, even as he pitied them and embraced them as brothers, kindred spirits forever smacked down by the world and forever standing up to try again — by hatching another one of their harebrained plans, which, inevitably, would knock them to the ground once more.
As long as we’re on the subject of funny, I want to direct your attention to “How Bullwinkle Taught Kids Sophisticated Political Satire,” an essay by Beth Daniels about the eponymous cartoon moose that appeared yesterday at the Smithsonian magazine’s web site. I used to watch Bullwinkle & Friends (it was syndicated under a variety of titles) as a kid during the 1960s; Ms. Daniels is a few years younger than I am, but I can testify that what she writes about reflects my experience precisely. She notes:
Finally, the show’s format and depth of talent connected my sister and me to a world of comedy that was well before our time, but helped us navigate what came afterwards. First, its gloss of adult sophistication completely undercut by silliness was incredibly attractive to me and my sister. Secondly, it got us to delight in the work of a revolving cast of top-notch, old school voice actors who’d grown up in radio and knew how to sell a line. … And so, through Bullwinkle, we were granted access to nearly a century’s worth of comedy and satire, three generations of backhanded patriotism tempered with gentle skepticism going back to vaudeville, a sort of atavistic psychic tool chest for navigating strange and scary times. …
Bullwinkle’s playful critique lives on today in Spongebob and The Simpsons, shows whose creators openly acknowledge their debts. (Spongebob’s Squidward’s voice is Ned Sparks; Plankton is Walter Brennan. All the male Simpsons have Bullwinkle & Rocky’s middle initial “J.”) These shows are a loving critique of the ways American ideals and American reality are often out of whack. And it’s a good thing, because suddenly the original great theme of Bullwinkle — fear of nuclear annihilation — is back.