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I was once a tramp like you-- Ah, but it wasn't always thus...
September 17, 2010 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Niagara Falls... slowly I turned... step by step... inch by inch...
posted by .kobayashi. (30 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

What's great about it is that its not even funny, so it never burns out, and you can watch it over and over again with no diminishment of pleasure, since there was no pleasure to begin with. I think of it as a ritual invocation of, and recoiling from the deep-seated madness of mid-20th century hack show business. These middle-aged men in cheap suits (except for Bud Abbot, who was a sharp dresser) framed in the center of the shot, with noir lighting so you wouldn't see how threadbare the sets were, mouthing tired bits, beating and bullying one another with less and less enthusiasm over the years, until they all pass away from tedium and multiple divorces.
posted by Faze at 7:37 AM on September 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Funny. As kids we used to do this bit when we played Three Stooges. Our folks hated that.

Nuyk, Nuyk, Nuyk.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:40 AM on September 17, 2010

Well, if that's your take, Faze, then you might appreciate this iteration.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:41 AM on September 17, 2010

.kobayashi, your link is borked, but let me add that I speak with the greatest reverence and affection for this bit and those who are identified with it. (And I fully intend to order "Niagara Falls Confidential", the book advertised in your first link. Looks good!)
posted by Faze at 7:46 AM on September 17, 2010

Is it the last link that's borked? Seems to be working for me. It's Moe Howard, running the same gag again on a minimalist set of the Mike Douglas Show...
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:51 AM on September 17, 2010

posted by willF at 7:52 AM on September 17, 2010

R. Mutt, I don't know how old your folks are, but my dad, who would have been 90 this year, used to do the Niagara Falls routine with us when we were kids. And I taught it to my kids--although I guess I never internalized the whole sketch, just the Niagara Falls & slowly I turned...still cracks me up.

Didn't Cary Grant do a version of this too? Or maybe I'm just thinking of the honeymoon destination for Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic & Old Lace.
posted by beelzbubba at 7:58 AM on September 17, 2010

That Lucy version was actually funny, probably because of the multiple layers.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:00 AM on September 17, 2010

What the blazes? I seriously and randomly started doing this bit with my 10 month old yesterday trying to get him to laugh. I couldn't remember how I knew it though. Now I remember it from my childhood watching all those old shows in syndication. Crazy that this wound up on Metafilter today. Thanks!
posted by mrzer0 at 8:12 AM on September 17, 2010

Can't access YouTube at work, but I just want to go on record as saying I love love LOVE this bit!
posted by magstheaxe at 8:12 AM on September 17, 2010

I love this too.

I remember kids used to do this at school, I never really understood it except that I thought it came from the Three Stooges. My guess is that they didn't really know where it came from either, but it was hilarious.
posted by chocolatetiara at 8:16 AM on September 17, 2010

It is like "the aristocrats" joke. It's not funny. The funny is in the interpretation. The shift from the storytelling tone "and then finally, I met with him, face to face, in Niagara Falls" to the next line, the screaming, manic "NIAGARA FALLS" is the funny.

"Didn't Cary Grant do a version of this too? Or maybe I'm just thinking of the honeymoon destination for Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic & Old Lace."

Yes, I think that's what you are thinking of about. Combined with the silly Uncle Teddy's CHAAAAAAARGE! (It is possible they did a small homage to the bit, I can't remember.)
posted by gjc at 8:25 AM on September 17, 2010

Whoa! As a pre-teen I loved (and memorized) the Scatterbrain song "Don't Call Me Dude", and had no idea that it was based on this prior work! Neato!
posted by luvcraft at 8:25 AM on September 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh man, this same bit is in Clue and I didn't even realize it was A Thing. I'm pretty the "step by step" is in there at least once (Wadsworth creeping up on Mr Green) and possibly twice (Professor Plum?).
posted by DU at 8:37 AM on September 17, 2010

That Niagara Falls Reporter site is kind of a hoot. Looks like the paper is deliberately retro-tabloid styled, and Mike Hudson, the paper's editor, has some potboilers in print on the seamier side of Niagara Falls history. Given a recent libel suit, he's caried that interest forward to today's unseemly doins as well.
posted by mwhybark at 8:57 AM on September 17, 2010

OO-er! an archive of the paper!
posted by mwhybark at 9:00 AM on September 17, 2010

Thank you so much for this post! I have wondered for a long time where this skit originated. I thought I had seen every "I Love Lucy" multiple times, but had no memory of this bit being performed there. Nice to see the references to "Arsenic And Old Lace" also. I have performed in that stage show twice. Once as crazy uncle Teddy. and once as one of the victims......good times!
posted by Yer-Ol-Pal at 9:05 AM on September 17, 2010

oh, man, I wish the archive's cover images were bigger. "TRAIN WRECK" over an old-time image of a locomotive, nose down off a bridge; "WATER BOARD FAILS TEST" over publicity shot of Art Carney in character as NYC sewer worker Ed Norton; etc.
posted by mwhybark at 9:05 AM on September 17, 2010

Whoops, that libel suit involved a different writer, my bad.
posted by mwhybark at 9:06 AM on September 17, 2010

This routine goes on and on, there's no stopping it!

Our only hope is to bring in the army.
posted by device55 at 9:12 AM on September 17, 2010

You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay...
posted by hwestiii at 9:22 AM on September 17, 2010

Thanks for the post, .kobayashi. Geez, I useta watch these Stooge shorts after school on UHF (channel 32 in Chicago.) UHF for god's sake! Get off my lawn!
posted by biddeford at 9:31 AM on September 17, 2010

This just made my whole day. Thank you, .kobayashi
posted by briank at 10:40 AM on September 17, 2010

Sid Ceaser (sp?) and Imogene Coco did a hilarious version of the bit on their old TV show. I was just a little kid but remember almost peeing my pants laughing at it.
posted by shnarg at 10:49 AM on September 17, 2010

Unable to find a video, but Gilbert Gottfried did a similar version of this on the show Cosby (not The Cosby Show, but the Doug E. Doug one.)
posted by cottoncandybeard at 10:56 AM on September 17, 2010

"I painted men and women; 'Men' on one door, and 'Women' on the other."

Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk.

The great ones never get stale.
posted by Mike D at 11:43 AM on September 17, 2010

"Yeah! The one with the kind face!"
posted by eugenen at 12:12 PM on September 17, 2010

Wow, I was born in Niagara Falls (and still live in Western NY) and I've never even heard of this.
posted by Kellydamnit at 4:53 PM on September 17, 2010

It's not funny. The funny is in the interpretation.

This. It's a framework for character bits and stage business. The Lucy version is pretty good at showing this (because she's so good at that). It doesn't say anywhere, but I have a hunch this may have originated as an audience-participation gag, with a hapless ticketholder dragged up on stage and forced to play straight man. In that context, especially if they were known to the audience, as in a small town, the funny would have come from the "mark" reacting to the performer.

There is a so-so Wikipedia article.
posted by dhartung at 7:31 PM on September 17, 2010

Oh man, thanks so much for this! I have never heard the entire sketch, but when I was a kid, my dad used to use the "Niagara Falls!" bit to sneak up on my during tickle fights. I would already be laughing by the time he got to "AND THEN I-" and started tickling me. I had no idea what it was from but it is such a treasured childhood in-joke that this post makes me ridiculously happy. Childhood - explained! Weird that I never thought to ask what it was at the time.
posted by ilana at 7:46 PM on September 17, 2010

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