The Farrelly brothers’ new film version of The Three Stooges opened in theaters 10 days ago to thumps and slaps by the critics. Many of the critics seem to really like the pseudo-violence, the bonky sound effects, and the topical stupidity of The Three Stooges, and they hoped that the movie would deliver satisfying Stoogification to hardcore fans everywhere.
With the return of the Stooges, it is worth revisiting a great, but largely forgotten example of television slapstick. The ABC series about two slapdash carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, debuted fifty years ago, in September of 1962, and, after a rough start it won its time slot against another very popular show, Route 66. Sadly, it was canceled after one season, but happily, this spring, we can now enjoy the series on a beautifully curated 3-DVD set from Jim Benson, host of the blog and radio show TVTimeMachine.
I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster features two carpenters who are also best friends: a bachelor named Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels), and his married friend, Harry Dickens (John Astin). At least half of the scenes take place at work, where the two friends compete for promotions, run into doors, and fall into vats of concrete. Most of the rest is set at the home of Dickens and his pretty wife Kate (Emmaline Henry), where the duo try to install a garbage disposal, patch holes in the drywall, and fix the kitchen cabinets, usually unsuccessfully.
The home remodeling theme is based on creator and producer Leonard Stern’s experience with his own house, when carpenters accidentally bricked a ladder inside the chimney. Stern was a long-time staff writer for The Jackie Gleason Show and, later, The Honeymooners. He also won an Emmy for writing on The Phil Silvers Show. By 1960 he was ready to strike out on his own.
The show was originally called The Workers, but ABC executives made Stern change it, afraid that if it went into daily syndication it might be called “The Daily Worker.” It is remarkable indeed that Stern was able to get a show featuring working-class characters on television in the 1960s. In the early days of television (1948-1956) there were a handful of working-class families featured in network sitcoms (The Life of Riley, I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life with Luigi, The Honeymooners and Duffy’s Tavern), but by the late 1950s most sitcoms featured suburban families who were decidedly middle class.
Stern’s carpenter comedy earned him the best critical reviews of his career. Life magazine declared it a “surprise success” about “of all people—carpenters.” After one season, though, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was just starting to beat out its time slot competition. The TV critic Harvey Pack loved the show, and campaigned for it to be saved. In the end it was canceled, but it retained many loyal fans.
It is not news to readers of this blog that workers, and especially working men, almost always look stupid, silly, fat, bumbling, poorly dressed, and unappealing on network television—no matter what era is under discussion. No one has argued this more forcefully than Pepi Leistyna, whose scathing documentary, Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, shows how cartoonish and buffoonish the representations of working-class TV characters have been, from riveter Chester A. Riley, bus driver Ralph Kramden, sewer worker Ed Norton, dock worker Archie Bunker, to nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson.
Dickens and Fenster fit the pattern. In the pilot episode, Fenster makes some carpentry errors that cause Dickens to run into a door and fall onto his backside. In an episode called “The Joke,” Dickens takes off his safety hat and two heavy items fall on his head. Fenster is also clumsy and hapless. He’s a professional carpenter, but somehow he can’t fix Mrs. Dickens’s garbage disposal or the magnet on her kitchen cupboards.
But the Class Dismissed critique overlooks the fact that many of these working-class shows, came from the slapstick or “burlesque” comedy tradition that has its roots in working-class culture. Burlesque comedy started in seedy strip joints in the 1920s as filler between the strip acts. It was often performed by a comedy team, a “straight man” and a “second banana,” who took turns ridiculing each other and/or the audience. Burlesque humor was full of sexual innuendo, malapropisms, insults, and loads of physical comedy.
When burlesque migrated to television in the 1950s, it continued the tradition of lampooning working-class characters. Television comedies like Abbott and Costello, Amos n Andy, The Honeymooners, and The Phil Silvers Show featured stock lowbrow characters (gangsters, hoodlums, con-men, spiritualists, gypsies, corrupt landlords, intimidating bosses, pesky in-laws, and corrupt politicians), lowbrow activities (horse racing, boxing, card playing, counterfeiting, contests, insurance schemes, peddling phony medical cures and hypnotism), and lowbrow settings (bars, taverns, pool halls, fraternal lodges, soda shops, pizza joints, urban apartments, diners, and nightclubs). These shows were the polar opposite of those sweet suburban sitcoms where the conflicts were usually resolved when Ward Cleaver doled out a minor punishment to the “Beave.”
I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster followed many of the conventions of lowbrow television comedy, but it also had some important differences that made the show interesting. For one thing, Fenster and Dickens dressed in a way that hinted at a subtle class difference between the two men. Arch Fenster always wore overalls loaded down with tools, while Dickens often wore a jaunty army jacket over a black turtleneck. Dickens was more uptight, and, hence, the straight man. He dressed and acted more “middle class.” Ironically, or, perhaps, pointedly, he was usually the one to buckle under pressure. When he was trying to get the job of foreman, he didn’t have the courage to ask his boss. Fenster had to do it for him. In a later episode, when Dickens was selected to read for a television commercial, he fainted, and Fenster had to take over for him, again. Most of the time, the “middle class” Dickens had to be rescued by the more “working class” Fenster, and, thus it was usually the “middle class” Dickens who was the biggest butt of the jokes.
The truth is that many television shows featuring working-class figures set them against some kind of authority—a boss, a landlord, or a friend with more power and prestige. The humor employed by I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and even today in the Farrelly brothers’ updated Three Stooges, has its roots in the American immigrant, turn-of-the-last-century working class. Peter Farrelly called the three stooges “working-class, blue collar, down-on-their-luck guys.” Slapstick humor is working-class humor. As Rob King has argued in his history of the Keystone Film Company, slapstick can reduce “authority to absurdity.”
Of course, in real life the working class today is getting walloped as never before in U.S. history, and it is anything but funny. Easing the pain of the cuts and bruises from the beating the working class is taking in our current culture will be more difficult, to be sure. But if you want to travel back in time to a moment of possibility when the working class could make fun of the middle class, if you want to laugh your tushie off like my eight year old son and I did when we were watching I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, order the three DVD set. These crazy carpenters and their critique of authority have offered me a few good belly laughs and some genuine relief from the depressing political and economic roller coaster that is our current moment.
Or, as Curly once said: “Is this work in competent hands?” “Coitainly—we’re all incompetent!”
Kathy M. Newman