Laurel and Hardy’s Comedy Still Holds Up

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy. The comic duo was flanked by plenty of other famous and acclaimed comedic actors in their time, but they’ve inspired a uniquely resilient organized fanbase.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

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In order to join the private Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society Facebook group, one is required to submit, in writing, their favorite Laurel and Hardy scene, probably to weed out spammers and trolls. But if you want to gain membership to the Sons of the Desert — the most widespread and official club for “connoisseurs” of the comic duo — you’ll need to contact the corresponding secretary and find your local chapter, or “tent.”

For 55 years, the Sons of the Desert have made it their mission to keep Laurel and Hardy’s legacy alive across the globe. There are more than 100 “tents,” most of which are named after Laurel and Hardy’s films. The Way Out West tent is located in Los Angeles, the Boston Brats tent is, of course, in Boston, and the Unaccustomed As We Are tent is the chapter in Jakarta, Indonesia. A tent called Berth Marks meets at the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, England, where Stan Laurel was born 130 years ago today.

Watching Laurel and Hardy’s movies now, particularly Sons of the Desert, is an exercise in discovery for the uninitiated. Their films display the timelessness of good comedy — wit, slapstick, timing — and the universality of maddening frustration over endless incompetence. Sons begins with the pair causing awkward chaos by interrupting a Shriners-type meeting to squeeze their way to two front seats, and it ends with Stan Laurel’s famous line, once they’ve both been caught lying to their wives about attending a national convention in Chicago: “Honesty is the best politics.” Laurel and Hardy were flanked by plenty of other famous, and acclaimed, comedic actors in their time — Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers — but they’ve inspired a uniquely resilient organized fanbase.

When Ron Cooper wrote about the Sons of the Desert in this magazine in 1971, he was impressed to see a sort of Laurel and Hardy revival underway. Since then, the group only appears to have grown, adding dozens of tents around the world and expanding the fanbase for the comic duo of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Cooper noted Stan Laurel’s approval of the “buff club’s” formation, and his contribution to the Greek motto on the group’s insignia: “Two Minds Without a Single Thought.”

In a 1987 documentary about the Sons of the Desert, its founder John McCabe described the group as “a set of odd, charming, curious, misplaced cherubs.” The farcical organization is run in a similarly absurd fashion as the movie it is named after. The chair is named the “Exhausted Ruler,” a malapropism uttered by Laurel when he means to say “exalted ruler,” and the group joins crossed arms to sing their chant: “We are the sons of the desert/ Having the time of our lives … ” At their biennial conventions, members (which include men and women) share memorabilia, play trivia, drink cocktails at every step (as directed by their constitution), and, of course, watch Laurel and Hardy films.

Gary Russeth, of Harlem, Georgia (Hardy’s birthplace) is the “Grand Sheik” of his local tent, and he runs a local museum. He says he grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on a nine-inch 1947 General Electric portable television set. Speaking to the pair’s enduring popularity, he says, “We have lawyers, teachers, blue- and white-collar people in the Sons of the Desert. It’s a variety of many different groups. I would see these little kids come in, and they’re so smart and they love Laurel and Hardy. It’s basic, like a cartoon. It’s just two funny guys that just constantly have one problem after another. And it’s embellished.”

The Sons‘ 2020 convention was scheduled to occur this month in Providence, Rhode Island, but it was delayed until next year. Laurel and Hardy savants need not dismay over the lack of a formal meeting, though; later this month, Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations will be released on Blu-ray.

First page of the article, "Ollie and Stan: Two Minds Without a Single Thought"
Read “Ollie and Stan: Two Minds Without a Single Thought” by Ron Coopen from the Fall 1971, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Way Out West (1937) (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

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Comments

  1. Well, this is another fine article you’ve gotten me into, Nick. My Dad was a big Laurel & Hardy fan when he was a boy and young man when their comedy was new at the time, and got me into their movies on TV as a kid. Ironically, even though there were only the 3 networks and 4 local channels then, there was a lot more great entertainment, easy to access. Want to see a 1933 movie at 3pm or 1am? How about “I Saw What You Did!” from 1965 at 8pm? No problem! The local channels had a lot of films from the late 1920’s to the ’70s that were easily accessible, including Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges (another all-time favorite).

    Paragraph three here sums it up very well. Most of the comedy was vaudeville-based which is inherently timeless. Through a cool fluke in 2014, I got to go to a ‘Sons of the Desert’ gathering one evening at the Ford Theater across from the Hollywood Bowl. An ex-neighbor of mine in Sherman Oaks who’s on the Hollywood Preservation Board got me in as a guest. It was a lot of fun, and the comedy IS timeless.

    Although the classic vaudeville shtick of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s is largely thought to have ‘died’ once movies had sound, it definitely did not. L & H, Marx Bros., Stooges kept the tradition alive. ‘The Burn & Allen Show’ did in the ’50s as did ‘Green Acres in the ’60s & early ’70s. In that era, so did ‘The Monkees’ and ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’, which showed the basic premise of vaudeville lent itself to the later sections of the 1900’s, but that was it. Anything fun and happy just doesn’t lend itself to the 21st. That die was cast a long time ago, unfortunately. ANYHOW, the Definitive Restorations on Blu-ray sound great, and I’m looking forward to getting it!

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