Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the greatest physical comedians on film. Before teaming up, they acted separately in hundreds of short films. Stan had a career in music hall working under Fred Karno along with Charlie Chaplin. Together, the two struck gold with their carefully crafted comedy of errors. They began in silent films, and when sound came along, they were one of the few acts to prosper with the new technology. They weren’t just slapstick. They could work verbal comedy, and relationship comedy with the various husband and wife scenarios they created. But mostly they are known for the trouble they got into with their half-baked thinking.
It’s important to understand that they each have a style of stupidity. Being foolish has many shades from the drooling idiot who seems to understand nothing, to the absent minded professor who is both brilliant and bumbling. When creating a stupid character, there are many directions to take. Stan Laurel’s character is primarily a simpleton. His mind doesn’t quite handle complex thought. Oliver Hardy is an aspirational fool. He wants to do things well, he can concoct plans, but he overestimates himself and his partner. Ollie is usually the motivator. In real life, Stan Laurel was the creative force in the pair, but in character it was Ollie’s job to get the ball rolling.
One of the ways Laurel and Hardy were different from other comedians was that there were fewer surprises. The audience can see the gags coming. As they are doing the stupid thing, it builds anticipation in the audience, and the gag is the payoff. Because they are stupid, Stan and Ollie do NOT see what is going to happen.
How does one start a story where your character can make themselves look stupid? In physical comedy, it’s all about getting into a difficult situation. Some of their best works were built around one simple challenge, such as deliver a piano up a huge flight of steps. While there is a lot of hard labor, they also get numerous unexpected obstacles. Of course, making them move vertically in space allows gravity (an essential component in physical comedy) to work its magic. In Berth Marks all they have to do is climb into an upper berth on a Pullman train car, change clothes, and get into bed. Squeezing 2 people into a small space allows them very close interaction. The simpler the challenge, the stupider your character looks when they struggle with it. When things get awkward, they can make it worse. In comedy, a situation can never be too awkward, it’s a just a matter of getting there in a way through a sequence of events that build on each other.
Through all of their films, the most basic way they show their stupidity is they just don’t seem to learn. I would call this rule #1. With carefully arranged variations, they will make essentially the same mistake again and again. At a construction site, Stan will not learn that Ollie needs a sturdy plank to walk on. After three bricks in a row land on his head, Ollie appears to believe that must be all of them, so he doesn’t move out of the way of the fourth. They are endlessly surprised at what happens to them, while the audience knows exactly what’s coming. Watching their reactions is half the fun.
Inattention is a very useful tool in comedy. In a duo like L&H, having one of them not looking at what they are doing or where they are walking is an easy to set up a fall or blow. You know those YouTube videos of people looking at their cel phones while walking, and falling into a fountain? That’s what I’m talking about.
They were great at setting up misunderstandings. In Blockheads, Stan is at a veteran’s hospital and he finds a wheel chair to sit in for a bit. It’s arranged in such a way that to sit in it he has to fold his leg underneath himself. When Ollie shows up, he believes Stan lost his leg in the war. One thing leads to another, and Oliver ends up carrying Stan completely unaware that he has two good legs.
Miscommunication is a basic way for things to go wrong. Conversations between them are often tortured. Mostly it’s Stan’s slowness. He twist sentences and mangles common phrases. He’s not just dumb, he is artfully dumb in an entertaining way. Stan’s misunderstanding is clearly evident on his face. Oliver gets frustrated, and it’s all part of the comedy.
However, they are not always at odds with each other. Sometimes they work together quite well. The problem is, those are always the times when they are getting into trouble. They can, without words, jump into the same fight with someone else. Neither will ever hold the other back from doing something stupid.
One of their best known styles of comedy was the tit-for-tat routine. As mentioned above, the could get into battles of one-upmanship with rivals. In Big Business, they get into a scrape with James Finlayson, and through the course of the film, a house and a car are seriously damaged. They were very good at keeping the comedy ball rolling. They could trigger the chain reaction, and do whatever is necessary to not let it slow down. Where a normal person would endeavor to interrupt the failing process, they would throw gasoline on the fire.
If they break something, that is just the start of a series of gags when they try to fix it. One thing should lead to another in a semi-logical system of cause and effect. In Busy Bodies, after shaving off a strip of Ollie’s pants, Stan glues it back on. But that was just to introduce the glue which causes further humiliation and destruction. Ultimately, it leads to Stan using carpentry tools to shave off the glue brush bristles from Ollies face.
While other comedians like Keaton and Chaplin could be extremely clever, and come out of their stories having won more than they lost, Laurel & Hardy films nearly always ended with everything in a complete shambles. They had several prop model T cars built to end up either falling to pieces, crushed to half its size but still drivable, or literally sawed in half. In Helpmates, Stan comes over to help Ollie clean up his house before his wife gets back, and it ends up with the house burned up.
In my book, I discuss “redemption.” What that means is stupid characters need some redeeming qualities to make them appealing. Stan and Ollie worked together for years, and they were able to create the sense that they were committed friends. They needed each other and would stick together through thick and thin. They keep going even when things look very bad, and audiences admire that.