When Niagara Falls

Word association game:  Say “Niagara Falls” to most people and most people, I assume, will say “honeymoon” as the first word that comes to mind.

Say “Niagara Falls” to me, and I will squinch my eyes, hunch my shoulders, and growl (in most menacing tones), “Sloooowly I turn…”, fitting action to words.

Thus do I date myself.

Like most boomers I recall first seeing the “Niagara Falls” routine on an afternoon kids TV show, hosted by an actor known as ‘Officer’ Joe Bolton, that showcased the Three Stooges shorts.  My (extremely) dim memory of my initial reaction to the skit, which appeared in the short Gents Without Cents, was … puzzlement.  Two guys meet in the street, exchange some dialogue, and then one guy beats up the other guy.  Repeatedly.  And it always happens when the second guy says the words, “Niagara Falls,” the phrase a trigger to the first guy’s homicidal inclinations.  “Niagara Falls!” he roars, before falling upon his unfortunate companion in a fury of flying fists, pretty much reducing the latter guy to hash.  Just good, wholesome entertainment for the younger set.

I suppose I should take screen space here to issue a trigger warning from myself, notifying any non-Stooge fans that the video clips in this post (see below) contain fighting, mayhem, violence, aggression, hostility, and an all-around sense of carnage.  Stuff that people will pay 15 bucks to see in a superhero/horror/thriller film onscreen, in a deluxe movie theater with bucket seats, and dinner and drinks served on the side, but will deplore seeing elsewhere.  So you’ve been warned.

I will also note that all the videos I’ve included are screamingly funny to watch, which might trigger even more people, because physical mayhem, when performed well, is a great source of comedy.  So ditto on the warning.

Back to the Stooges, however.  I think my youthful puzzlement regarding the routine was why the first guy got so hot under the collar about such a seemingly banal pair of words.  What was it about the utterance of “Niagara Falls” that could provoke such brutality?  From later viewings I understood it was not the words themselves but the memory inspired by them that stirred such ferocity.  The words link to the memory, the memory links to the backstory, the backstory links to the anger, the anger links to the violence, the violence links to the words, and we’re back to where we started.  A chain of circumstance begins and ends on a simple phrase; it’s a seemingly simple chain yet it weaves through such labyrinthine corridors of mind, muscle, and memory that to unravel the whole might dissipate its humor.  But when it’s given the brute, physical fact of performance, the chain is funny.  And when done well, it’s very funny.

For those who don’t know the routine (Spoiler Alert!), it consists of a down-on-his-luck first guy telling a chance-met second guy his sad story of how his wife ran off with another man.  Going in pursuit of this vile seducer, the first guy finally catches up with the seducer in that town by the U.S./Canadian border famous for its water overflow, and takes his pugilistic revenge.  This reprisal he then re-enacts upon the luckless second guy, who’s merely a sympathetic listener; he has no connection to the first fellow’s tale of woe but is the unfortunate target of the latter’s blind rage.  Which he triggers simply by saying those fateful words:  “Niagara Falls…”

The routine was popular in vaudeville, its origins traced to several sources.  Per the Niagara Falls Reporter its creator was a comic named Joey Faye; per Wikipedia other comics have claimed authorship.  The routine has been known under other names, most frequently as “Slowly I Turned.”  Other towns and other trigger words have been used; often at the routine’s climax a third guy will appear, adding a twist ending.  But whatever the town, the trigger, the tale of woe, the core of the routine stays the same:  One person beats the hell up out of another.  And audiences find it funny.

Go figure.

I wouldn’t dismiss “Niagara Falls” outright, though, as some brutal, atavistic remnant of a past culture of humor that we are now too refined, too urbane, too civilized to own.  “Niagara Falls” is a sophisticated and complex routine, its crude violence combined with a quirky trigger-and-consequence psychological structure and an exact physical coordination that both exaggerates and sends up the violence; you wouldn’t find it funny if you felt the pummeling was in any way real.  That’s the secret of physical comedy—on some level we have to think it doesn’t really hurt.

The routine sets up a precise circumstance and follows it through with rigorous logic:  A person with what could be called an aggressive backstory is compelled to re-enact that aggression when hearing a second person say a set of words that trigger a recollection of that past.  It’s simple but classic, a self-contained system that needs no frills or variations in what it’s about and in what it sets out to do.  The comedy builds its laughs on both the repetition of its central premise (the first person provoked into a fighting frenzy) and our expectation of that repetition.  We know what’s going to happen each time the second person repeats the trigger phase, but each time he does, we experience its comedy anew.  Simple, yes, but, as with most simple comedy, most effective.

What also make the routine a classic are its characters.  There are only two of them, stripped down to an opposing set of functions:  One who acts, one who is acted upon.  The form is simple and direct; you could compare it to ancient Greek theater, in which the two actors on stage create the entire world—antagonist and protagonist, thesis and antithesis, left and right, black and white, yin and yang, bouncing off each other (almost literally in this case) as they enact their brutal little comedy of being in wrong place at wrong time.  It’s life reduced to a stark contrast, yet one that, within its boundaries, can embrace all we know of existence.

But there’s one crucial factor that blurs the lines between these two characters.  Though the antagonist administers the beating, the protagonist brings it down on himself.  He’s a patsy, a sorry victim of circumstance, but he’s also the guy who can’t walk away, and, most significantly, can’t keep his mouth shut.  No matter how many blows this second person receives, he’s stays in the trap; the words slip out, the trigger is squeezed, and the comedy starts all over.  We might feel for him, but we also laugh because he just can’t stop himself.  Call it Fate, call it Bad Karma, call it the Endless Loop of Existence.  Whatever.  The second man’s haplessness embodies for us that one basic, irrefutable fact of life:  Shit happens.

And sometimes when it does, it’s funny.

As to the weighty question of why there is violence in the routine in the first place:  Because mayhem, when well done, is also funny.

Go figure.

Herewith are four versions of the “Niagara Falls” routine.  Compare, contrast, discuss.  And enjoy.

“You have a kind face…”

Probably the best known of the filmed versions of “Niagara Falls” is the one I mentioned above, enacted by The Three Stooges in their 1944 short Gents Without Cents.

The Stooges’ routine strikes me as the ‘classic’ one, the purest in form, the most faithful to the original form (whatever that was).  It has the standard set-up, of two men in a chance encounter, it uses the standard trigger words (“Niagara Falls”), and it has the standard patter, with Moe telling his tale and Curly responding (note the difference in their vocal rhythms).  Then there’s the opposition:  Moe’s character has come down in the world, and he’s looking for someone with “a kind face” to hear how it happened; Curly’s, we can assume, is better off but can sympathize with the former’s misfortune—only to be brought down to Moe’s level as Moe gradually rips off his clothes.  Curly getting sucked like a bird in a whirlwind into Moe’s story and its violently re-imagined reality becomes his own downturn.  Never has Good Samaritanism looked like such a bad life choice.

The Stooge version also has the standard moves (albeit adapted to Stooge moves), such as the pause and turn on the trigger phrase.  The violence of the moves makes the routine funny, but note how clear, calculated, and executed to an exact rhythm these moves are.  Moe always places a hand on one knee before he does his rotation (“Slowly I turn…”), and he turns his body like a door on a hinge, 180 degrees, his knee leading the motion to begin the “step by step” part.  I sense that Moe was exacting (and exact) in his physical comedy; he had to be, as all the punches, slaps, and jabs he performed had to land precisely.  He has the moves, and rhythm, grooved into his joints and limbs, he’s as sharp as a ruled angle, and he doesn’t slough off.  What a pro.

What’s also noteworthy about the Stooges’ routine is that it’s performed before an audience within the film, which reacts and responds in the moment of filming (you can hear audience laughter, as well as see the grinning faces of the musicians seated behind the comics).  The Stooges did not use audiences in their other filmed skits, which always used editing and (especially) sound effects to enhance the humor.  I think the choice to perform this skit “live,” as it were, was deliberate.  The routine works best when there’s audience reaction to guide the performer’s timing, encouraged by that ‘in the moment’ spontaneity.  The more raucous the beating, it seems, the harder people laugh.

“Mine is rather a sad story…”

Here’s the “Niagara Falls” routine as performed by Sid Fields and Lou Costello on the latter’s The Abbott and Costello Show, in an episode from the early 1950s:

The great comic Sid Fields shows how his role, as the triggered antagonist, can dominate this routine.  If Moe and Curly seemed equally balanced when they perform their version, here Fields takes over, controlling the skit’s rhythm and focus, even in the teeth of Costello’s scene-stealing attempts (no wonder Fields whales the tar out of him).  In a sense, “Niagara Falls” is a story about telling a story, and the antagonist has the advantage here.  He, after all, gets to do the telling.  We might identify with the protagonist as the poor Everyman upon whose head life’s misfortunes fall with the force of the Falls themselves; but it’s the antagonist who’s doing the pouring.

Fields’ version also complicates the antagonist’s backstory:  He adds more characters (a baby boy), more towns in his pursuit (a near-showdown at Calcutta), and an elaborated background (including a stint in “college and UCLA”).  You sense here how the routine, within its strict bounds, can be shaded in a variety of ways.  The additions may lengthen the routine, but they also make the pay-off funnier.  The outbursts now seem more—unexpected.  Partly because of Fields’ loquaciousness, as we get lulled into his narrative, but also because of his courtly behavior and speech—we just don’t expect this polite person to erupt so.  He seemed like such a nice fellow.

Costello’s own contribution to the routine may also be unexpected.  As a comic Costello, with his high-pitched voice, his mouthiness, his childish antics, teetered on the edge of annoyance, and it doesn’t quite bother me to see him at the receiving end of a licking.  Could such a factor account, in part, for why we find the routine funny:  That there’s a satisfaction in seeing such a protagonist get what’s coming to him?  It might be that you’re allowed to laugh at the guy just because you don’t like him.  Gratification can also come in unexpected ways.

“You sure you want me to tell you my story?…”

Here are Lucille Ball and Phil Silvers in another version, originally broadcast in 1963 on the CBS Opening Night TV show:

Just a note here:  If I don’t mind seeing Lou Costello get What For, that goes double for when I watch Phil Silvers.  I’ve always found Mr. Silvers and his comedy a bit too smarmy for my tastes, and watching him receive a custard pie smack in the kisser is, I admit, not at all displeasing to me.

What Lucy’s version adds is another opposition set, that of male versus female.  Here the opposition is not only a woman attacking a man but also a backstory sex flip:  The antagonist is now a woman whose husband ran off with a homewrecker named Martha.  The name “Martha” is also the trigger word (“it happens to be the same as George Washington’s wife”), driving Lucy into a furor of bag bashing, water spraying, and pie tossing.  The sex flip works in the routine’s context:  Homewrecking is homewrecking, and a lady has as much right as a man to defend the sanctity of her home—especially when it takes place in the honeymoon capital of the world.  Surely there’s a meaning to the showdown between a bereft wife and her marriage-busting rival happening in the very location where so many marriages begin.

Other than the flip, though, the sex opposition here is not emphasized.  I think that’s because this version was based on one Lucy did in her own 1950s I Love Lucy show (see a clip from it here), in which Lucy, dressed like a hobo, was the protagonist attacked by a sinister little clown.  In that version Lucy’s baggy-jacket-and-trousers costume masculinized her, so that she and her clown-antagonist look the same.  Could that be due to our sense that, in the use of violence in comedy, it works better to punch up?  It’s not funny to our sensibilities to see a woman receive a beating; if we sense that the protagonist is weaker, more helpless than the antagonist, we won’t laugh.  Thus when Lucy was the protagonist, in opposition to the antagonist clown, she had to be de-sexed; whereas in this version we can accept watching antagonist bag-lady Lucy wallop protagonist-Silvers with a rock.  Though she comes down hard Lucy here is definitely punching up, and we feel free to laugh when she does.

I must also point out the clarity, the sheer, lucid beauty, of Lucy’s physical comedy in performing the routine.  What a marvel she is.  If Moe Howard pivots like an opened door in his version, Lucy here spins like a weather vane, her weight balanced perfectly over her supporting leg as she makes her turn; the grace of it is just lovely to watch.  But Lucy also throws in contrast, varies and alters what she does:  She patters across the floor in a thump-thump “step by step” stomp, like a flat-flooted flamenco dancer, then finishes up in a whirl-a-gig free-for-all directed against Silver’s rumpled checked jacket.  The result is utter hilarity.  As I wrote in my earlier post on Lucy here, the depth of this woman’s talent never ceases to amaze me.

“I’m a shattered, tortured soul…”

Here’s the version performed by Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on a broadcast of their 1950s Your Show of Shows television show:

The first thing to note is that Caesar and Coca have changed the routine, at least in its externals.  Their version doesn’t use the angry-pursuing-spouse backstory; instead we have a suicidal woman (Coca) wailing how her once-happy marriage was wrecked by her husband’s alcoholism.  There are also no trigger words uttered by the protagonist; now it’s the antagonist who pronounces the trigger, working herself into a fury every time she recalls her husband’s drunken episodes (“…and then I heard him on the stairs…and he was roaring drunk!”).  Conversely, the protagonist, as played by Caesar, participates more in the antagonist’s story, stopping her suicide attempt and encouraging her to talk about her past (much to his regret, no doubt).  No matter the differences, though, the result is the same:  Coca beats Caesar to a pulp, and we laugh our heads off.

What I also note about this version is the emphasis on the male-female opposition between the two characters.  It’s more than one character being a woman and the other a man; it’s that the antagonist’s story is very much a woman’s story, of love found and lost, and a marriage destroyed by the very man in whom she placed her trust.  Her happiness as she remembers her husband showering her with love and gifts, and then her anger when he destroyed that happiness, are almost poignant to watch; and our shrieking with laughter every time she works herself into a rage arises from the incongruity between what she remembers and what she now feels (and re-enacts).  And when she works off her wrath on the innocent Caesar we again laugh because we grasp the essence of this male-female contrast.  Caesar’s protagonist may be a hapless dupe but he’s also, in Coca’s (and our) eyes, every irresponsible Man who’s ever let down a loving Woman, right down to his standing behind her re-imagined door.  That opposition gives Coca’s story an almost cosmic resonance; but it’s comical because we recognize its truth.  He’s done her wrong, and She’s not gonna let him get away with it.

Coca’s own, physical contrast with Caesar—at least a full head shorter—not only heightens that Battle of the Sexes opposition, it’s also recalls the classic Big-Guy/Little-Guy pairing of many comedy teams.  She’s such a tiny, bony creature, like a starved sparrow, all knobby protrusions and gangly limbs; not beautiful, but with huge, sad, Keane-painting eyes.  The rage that comes from her is not only surprising, it’s screamingly funny.  You wouldn’t expect it from this stick-like figure.  Next to her Caesar is a huge, solid slab of beef, his soft face stretching and creasing like dough (note his look of visible relief when Coca describes her husband as the “spoiled son of a wealthy family”).  It’s hilarious to watch her beat him to the floor and (literally) tear his shirt off.  We may wonder why we find it funny, but that’s how it is.  Mayhem done well, is, well, funny.

Go figure.  Then laugh.

BONUS CLIP:  Here’s a version of the “Niagara Falls” routine broadcast on the Colgate Comedy Hour TV show in the early 1950s, hosted by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.  Appearing in the routine with them is guest star Errol Flynn as the down-and-out antagonist.  Flynn unfortunately looks pretty haggard here (not helped by television lighting).  His comic timing is not the sharpest, nor does he appear comfortable in front of a live audience; plus he has to deal with Costello’s aggressive ad-libbing.  But what the heck, it’s still Errol Flynn:

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