The Art of Not Doing Something

Here is a simple technique to make something funny from nothing.  A character has some ordinary thing to do but goes through a bunch of other actions that are anything but what he is supposed to do.  This is just one of the ways that comedic acting can be very different from dramatic acting. Dramatic actors would never do this. They must focus on doing things, and never waste time.

On the classic television show The Honeymooners, Art Carney played Ed Norton. He had a running gag where he would prepare to do some mundane activity, but go through a whole bunch of specific gestures and flourishes before actually doing it. It would go on so long that Ralph (Jackie Gleason) would lose his patience and abruptly put an end to it.  In this example, Norton prepares to write a list.

Having a second person there to get annoyed by the first one is important. When they lose their patience, the first character then chooses how to respond.  Ed Norton stops the foolishness and carries on with the writing.  In the next clip, W.C. Fields takes his sweet time getting into bed, and he gives the impression he is holding it up specifically to irritate his wife.  Her protestations have no effect, and he continues on at his own pace. This kind of “funny business” is a way to put some laughs into something that would otherwise be very simple.

Of course, he doesn’t put the light out.

Laurel and Hardy did an entire short film about them trying to go to bed in a tiny Pullman car berth. They get irritated by each other and have nothing but trouble. By the time they finally get settled, the train has arrived at their destination and they have to get out.

In his film Mon Oncle, Jacque Tati has a background character who carries a broom to sweep the streets, but he is 99% engaged in a conversation. Several times he draws back in anticipation of one stroke with the broom, but he stops and goes back to talk to his friend.

Conversely, a character can have something he or she is NOT supposed to do, and the comedy comes from the struggle to resist temptation. This next clip is from the physical comedy group Aga-Boom. These are some of my favorite modern clowns.  I posted about them in Cartoony Humans.  In this clip, there is a big red button, with a “Do Not Touch” sign on it.  You can see the psychological forces move back and forth as he goes towards it, and moves away. It is easy to see each moment where his mind changes. His button pushing finger almost has a brain of its own.


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