I absolutely love watching old flicks, and I recently caught a good portion of Buck Privates on the Turner Classic Movies cable network, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. I honestly hadn't watched this comedy duo since I was a kid, and I used to enjoy them. But while watching about a week or so ago, only the nostalgia aspect of it appealed to me. The comedy? Not so much.
Why? I couldn't help but feel a very real sense of sadness over how the joke was always on Costello due in no small part to his hammy portrayal of "failed masculinity." He always wound up being humiliated or abused physically because of it. The message was: I don't really measure up to the average guy, and here I am selflessly entertaining you as the clown that I deservedly am because of it.
True, a lot of Abbott and Costello's comedy centered around clever verbal exchanges, but their audiences were still always reminded of Costello's "ineptitude" as a guy -- more specifically, his failure to embody the traditional expectation of what a guy should be. This seems particularly poignant in light of the era, when valiance seemed to be heavily valued as a masculine trait due to the war.
I realize that the point of the movies and radio shows that Abbott and Costello made was to make people laugh during a stressful time in history, and I could still watch routines like Who's on First? and enjoy a few chuckles. But it just made me sad that an entire generation got such a kick out of a persona rooted so deeply in male "inadequacy."