“STEP BY STEP, STEP BY STEP, I CREPT UPON HIM AND WHEN I SAW THE SMIRK OF HIS COUNTENANCE, I GRABBED HIM. I LET HIM HAVE IT AGAIN, I COULDNT HELP MYSELF, I WAS GOING OUT OF MY MIND!”
We all remember the routine, don’t we? A Man runs encounters a Stranger – a Stranger who has seen better days. He utters a kind word to the Stranger – the Stranger breaks down. It has been so many years since anyone has treated him like a human being . The Stranger relates the sad story of his life. Another man stole his wife. The Stranger tracked him around the world to… Niagara Falls? To Pokomoko? It doesn’t matter. The mere utterance of those words drives The Stranger mad with anger and passion. And violence. A lot of violence. The Stranger beats the crap out of the Man again and again.
It sounds tragic. It is hilarious. It feels like it has always been there. It seemed old when it was first done – in 1944. It appeared, simultaneously, in The Three Stooges short GENTS WITHOUT CENTS and the Abbott & Costello feature LOST IN A HAREM. It was performed like a revered standard even then. Everything from way The Stranger turns around (knee hitched up like a dog going for a lamppost) to the repeated refrain (“Slowly I turned…”) give the routine the feeling of a ceremonial catechism.
Its origins are lost to the mists of time. Called “The Stranger With A Kind Face,” its authorship has been credited to comic Joey Faye. But wait, comic Harry Steppe also claims it. One Samuel Goldman makes the claim too. Does it really matter? What matters is that it appeared, like a well-told joke, fully formed, and took on a life of its own.
Curly and Moe performed it to perfection; Curly playing the victim with his usual manic intensity, Moe played in The Stranger like he was playing Hamlet. Lou Costello and Murray Leonard did it, with Lou playing a slightly more realistic victim, caught in the nightmare of the Stranger’s repeating memory.
Lou Costello performed it often – oddly never with Bud Abbott. He did what is probably the best version of it on TV for THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW with Syd Fields. Syd Fields is truly amazing; he plays the part with utter seriousness. He is the Ultimate Stranger With A Kind Face. Why isn’t he famous?
Lou performed it yet again – with Errol Flynn playing the mad Stranger on the COLGATE COMEDY HOUR. Flynn acquits himself surprisingly well with the material.
Lucille Ball is one of the only people to play both rolls in the sketch. On I LOVE LUCY she plays the hapless victim to Frank J. Scannell’s Stranger – the ‘trigger word’ in this case was changed to “Martha.” It was “Martha” again on CBS OPENING NIGHT, but in this case Lucy played the manic Stranger to Phil Silver’s playing poor sap of a victim.
Danny Thomas and Joey Faye himself did the routine on an episode of THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW. My wife and I recall a version done by Jackie Gleason, but I can find no confirmation of this. Anyone out there recall it?
“The Stranger With A Kind Face” is an odd routine, playing on violence and obsession for laughs. It is closely related to “The Bagel Street” routine, made famous by Lou Costello trying to return a shipment to the notorious Susquehanna Hat Company and finding himself in a circle of hell in which every person he asks directions from has had a personal tragedy on Bagel Street. And they all take it out on poor Lou and his shipment of hats.
A lot of people feel that Dark Comedy is a new thing. A 21st Century thing. They haven’t been to Niagara Falls or Bagel Street.