Sunday, February 27, 2011

Commedia dell'arte Origins

The above screen capture from Boobs in Arms (1940) shows the Three Stooges performing a Commedia dell'arte routine called "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back." The woman has passed out and Larry, who is hidden behind her, is substituting her arms with his own.

It was difficult for the purposes of The Funny Parts to trace comedy routines back to the Commedia dell'arte. Most of the Commedia dell'arte scenarios were not preserved in script form by their originators. Mel Gordon did the best job of cataloging scenarios in his book Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell'Arte, but Gordon's book discloses only a fraction of the 800 "lazzi" comedy acts discovered through literature translations and iconographic resources. Other book sources address this entertainment form from a broader perspective and provide spare information on specific scenarios.

Modern Commedia dell'arte troupes have been known to perform a routine called "Lazzo of the Cursed Coin," in which a trickster plants a coin in the road and paddles a passerby who bends to pick it up. This sounds similar to a scene in Laurel & Hardy's Sons of the Desert (1933) in which a prankster lays a billfold on the floor and the forever gullibile Oliver Hardy is paddled as soon as he bends to pick it up. However, no record of "Lazzo of the Cursed Coin" could be found in the books available on Commedia dell'arte. A number of experts were consulted on the subject. Jay Cross, who included the routine on the playlist for the i Sebastiani troupe, vaguely recalled reading about it in literature on the Casamarciano collection, which is preserved in the National Library of Naples. He also remembered a variation where the trickster places a ring on the ground. However, no other expert had recollection, vague or otherwise, of the routine. Mel Gordon did not recognize the title or the premise and said that it sounded "totally invented." The routine was also not acknowledged by Thomas Heck, a co-author of The Commedia dell'Arte in Naples: A Bilingual Edition of the 176 Casamarciano Scenarios. Barry Grantham, author of Commedia Plays, believed that, although "perfectly good as working Lazzi for students and certainly true to the traditions of Commedia," this scenario was not likely to have had its origins in antiquity.

A decision was made in the end that a Commedia dell'arte routine would not be referenced in The Funny Parts unless it was part of the official Gordon catalog.

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