Comedy Yin and Yang: John Cleese quote part 2.

I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog, but I’m very happy at the quality of commenters. Stephen Worth, and David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of both chimed in on my John Cleese Quote post. The post began with this quote from British comedian John Cleese.

“Com­edy always works best when it is mean-spirited.”

My take on it was that Cleese was referring more to verbal comedy than to physical comedians. Stephen Worth pointed out Mr. Bean’s selfish behavior, and the rude style of W.C. Fields. He also mentioned:

Chuck Jones once said, “in order to be funny, you have to have some­thing you really hate.”

If you didn’t read David Carlyon’s comment, I recommend you do. He has considerable experience and education on the topic of live comedy. I appreciate the time he put in on the comment, and I took it seriously. A good blog is an interactive discussion, and I learn as much from it as anyone. I’m not afraid to say my original post was half-baked.

It may be that I fell into the “family friendly” entertainment trap. Or I may have mis-interpreted the term “mean spirited” to be something more like the medieval humor of cruelty, laughing at people who were physically impaired. I don’t like insult comics very much, and I might have been looking for an antidote.

Shortly after that post and the comments, I turned on a TV and found “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” just beginning. I soon remembered that every character in the movie is greedy and ready to run every other character off the road. It has a lot of physical acting in it, and it’s very very funny.

This has opened my eyes to the Yin and Yang of comedy. Would we know what revenge Popeye was capable of without the provocation of Bluto? The kindness of Stimpy is made obvious by contrast with the angry Ren. They are opposites, and that creates conflict, and comedy. They are an “odd couple”, Oscar Madison was often grumpy and unkind to Felix Ungar. It is the back and forth interaction that is entertaining. I think about my Loser Comedy post, which looked into the pathetic life of Wile E. Coyote. I see the relationship with the Roadrunner as unbalanced. Itchy and Scratchy are the extreme example of imbalance, a parody of mean spirited comedy.

Now I aspire to create a character who is a mischievous troublemaker, like Mickey Mouse was when he started.

Peter Sellers – Animated

Apparently, Peter Sellers recorded some audio tracks of him acting out Beatles lyrics in character.
There are some youtube videos made from these tracks, including this animated one:

John Cleese quote

I just ran across this quote from John Cleese.

“Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited.”

At first it took me by surprise, but I think he is really speaking of verbal comedy.  That is the realm of the insult comic, the stand up comedian, and the celebrity roast.  Mean spirited comedy involves taking someone on in a challenging way, walking a very fine edge to still keep it funny.  We find that a little more thrilling.  If a stand up comedian takes down a heckler with a fierce retort, it’s a victory we can all enjoy.

Physical comedians tend to be more playful.  They want to keep the game going, not destroy the competition.  The Three Stooges are violent, but not really mean.   They are clearly faking the emotions.

Part of my goal with this blog is to separate the methods of physical comedy from verbal comedy, and I would be glad to have input from anyone on how the two are distinguished from one another.

Infinite pockets

There is a clown tradition of having coats with vast pockets capable of holding incredible amounts. You may remember Harpo Marx pulling ridiculous objects from his coat, or having hundreds of table knives falling from his sleeves. I remember the old Felix the cat who carried his “bag of tricks”. And it’s not too far from Inspector Gadget having exactly the tool he needs embedded in his body. It’s a form of magic. And magic is fun.

Here is a great example. Adolf Proper, the original Banana Man from vaudeville. He worked under the stage name A. Robins, and could draw an entire music shop from his coat.

Of course pulling rabbits out of hats is wonderful when it’s live. For animated characters the magic is clearly fake, so it needs to be clever or funny in some other way as well.

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