eb7Ernie vs Bert

— Round 7 —

White Face

and Red Nose

Finishing up this month’s Anthology, here’s a classic sketch from the mid-70’s:

[ Ernie walks up to Bert with a pot, and tries to stick the pot on Bert’s head. ]
Ernie


Okay, come on, Bert… now just try this on for size… There.
Bert


What? Ernie, no… hey, what are you, come on, Ernie, no. Stop it! Why should I put that pot on my head?
Ernie


Well, I tell you, Bert, you see, it’s because a little while ago, I accidentally broke the cookie jar.
Bert


Oh, Ernie… you didn’t…
Ernie


Mm hmm.
Bert


Well, all right, so you broke the cookie jar. But what has that got to do with that pot, then, huh?
Ernie


Well, you see, I had to put the cookies somewhere, Bert, uh…
Bert


Yes?
Ernie


Just a second, I’ll show you, Bert. [ Ernie exits. ]
Bert


I don’t understand.
[ Ernie enters with the sugar bowl, which is full of cookies. ]
Ernie


See? I broke the cookie jar, so I had to put the cookies into the sugar bowl.
Bert


Well, yeah, Ernie, but if you put the cookies in the sugar bowl, then where’d you put the sugar?
Ernie


Well, I’ll show you, Bert. [ Ernie exits. ]
Bert


You’ll show me…
[ Ernie enters, with a flowerpot full of sugar. ]
Ernie


Well, you see, I put the sugar in the flowerpot.
Bert


In the flowerpot.
Ernie


Mm hmm.
Bert


Oh, great. Just great. Well, then where did you put the flower that was growing there, huh?
Ernie


Oh, I’ll show you, Bert. [ Ernie exits. ]
Bert


You’re going to show me again. I don’t get this.
[ Ernie enters, with the flower in a milk bottle. ]
Ernie


See, I had to put the flower here into this milk bottle, see? Nicely planted, I watered it and everything.
Bert


ERNIE!
Ernie


Hmm?
Bert


Well, now WHERE is the MILK?
Ernie


Oh. Well, I’ll show you, Bert. [ Ernie exits. ]
Bert


You’re going to show me where the milk is too. Oh, Ernie…
[ Ernie enters, with the milk in a soda bottle. ]
Ernie


See, I put the milk into the, uh, soda bottle.
Bert


Ernie. I’m trying to be patient. But where is the soda?
Ernie


Oh, just a second, Bert, I’ll show you.
[ Bert sighs, as Ernie exits and comes back with a fishbowl full of soda. ]
Ernie


It wasn’t easy, but I put the soda into the, uh… fishbowl.
Bert


In the fishbowl?
Ernie


Yep.
Bert


Ernie, this is crazy! Now where are the fish?
Ernie


Oh. Well, I’ll show you, Bert. [ Ernie exits. ]
Bert


Oh, Ernie! What are you doing now?
[ Ernie enters, carefully holding a cowboy hat. ]
Ernie


Well, I’m just carrying it out here, Bert. I put the fish into the cowboy hat. You see?
Bert


Oh, no, Ernie… [ Bert looks into the cowboy hat, and a little stream of water shoots into his face. ] Aaaah!
Ernie


[ to the fish: ] Take it easy there, fella.
Bert


Ernie, Ernie… that is MY cowboy hat!
Ernie


Yeah. So?
Bert


But you put the fish in it! Now what am I going to wear when I want to play cowboy?
Ernie


Oh. Uh. Well…
[ Ernie sticks the pot on Bert’s head. ]
Ernie


Ride ’em, cowboy!
[ Ernie walks away. Bert does a take to the camera with the pot on his head, sighing. ]

Color Commentary:

This, to my surprise, is my favorite line of this sketch: “Ernie. I’m trying to be patient.”

As I’ve been writing about Ernie and Bert this month, the thing that’s been the most surprising is how funny I think Bert is. It’s easy to overlook Bert, but his deadpan responses are really fantastic. It’s obvious by the time that Bert says “I’m trying to be patient” that Ernie has made an enormous mess of everything, but Bert still has some hope that somehow it can all get straightened out.

At the beginning of this month’s anthology, I’d asked the question, “What kind of fight is this, anyway?” And this sketch reminded me of something I’d read about clowns a while ago, which may be an answer to that question.

The history of clowns is a little hard to pin down — when I’ve tried to read about it, it’s hard for me to tell what’s fact and what’s legend. Some of the clown tradition apparently comes from Italian commedia del arte, some of it from medieval jesters, some from Punch and Judy shows, and from who knows where else.

But this is a thing that I know: In the European clown tradition, there’s two main types of clowns — the White Face (Pierrot) clowns and the Red Nose (Auguste) clowns.

The difference between the White Face and the Red Nose is kind of slippery, but if there’s a White Face/Red Nose team, it basically works like this: The Red Nose clown is the trickster. He’s crude and foolish, and he’ll do anything for a laugh. The White Face clown is the authority figure, the one who tries to keep control. He sets the rules for what’s going on, and he tries to keep the Red Nose clown in line.

In vaudeville terms, the Red Nose is the comic and the White Face is the straight man. That’s how comedy teams work: One person tries to maintain order, and the other one breaks all the rules. That’s the conflict that makes the team funny. Rules are being broken, the social order is being turned upside down — and the audience gets the satisfaction of watching from a distance as the authority figure gets mocked and duped.

White-Face Edgar Bergen tries to get Red-Nose Charlie McCarthy to stop being so rude. White-Face George Burns instructs his partner, “Say goodnight, Gracie,” and Red-Nose Gracie says, “Goodnight, Gracie.” Abbott is White-Face, Costello is Red-Nose. Ricky is White-Face, Lucy is Red-Nose. All the big comic fights are between one character trying to keep control while the other character disrupts it.

So here, in this sketch, Bert is hoping that somehow he can travel through Ernie’s looking-glass system to get back to some kind of sense. Where’s the sugar? Where’s the fish? Behind these questions is the suggestion that if he can just understand the system, he can make it right again. Of course, he just ends up with a pot on his head.

Bert’s the older brother, the parent, the square — and he’s got about as close to a White Face as a colorful Sesame Street Muppet can get. Ernie’s the trickster, the disrupter — and he’s even got the clown’s Red Nose. I don’t know if Henson and the puppet builders were specifically thinking in clown terms when they designed Ernie and Bert, but it’s quite a coincidence if they weren’t.

So, what kind of fight is this? The answer, as best I can figure it, is that it’s a comedy fight. In fact… it’s the comedy fight. Ride ’em, cowboy!

by Danny Horn

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