Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers of moving pictures, and “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is his oldest surviving movie. Made in 1889, it is considered to be a comic film. Just watching a man sneeze was thought to be entertaining. At this point, films were extremely short, measured in seconds, this one lasts as long as a sneeze.
Gerald Mast, in his book The Comic Mind, identifies this as a piece of “comic business”.
He contrasts that film with “L’Arroseur arrosee” from 1895, which I posted previously.
A gardener goes about his business of watering plants with a hose. A boy sneaks up behind him, steps on the hose, and the water ceases to flow. The gardener stares at the hose to find the source of the trouble, the boy removes his foot, and the gardener receives a faceful of water. The gardener then discovers the source of the prank, chases the boy, catches him, spanks him, and the film ends.
… The extreme simplicity of the compound makes it very easy to analyze it’s chemistry. The elements of the film are four: (1) a comic protagonist who wants to perform a task. (2) a comic antagonist interferes with that performance. (3) a comic object begins as a tool and ends as a weapon. (4) the protagonist makes a comic discovery of the problem and takes action on the basis of that discovery.
Think about it this way, if a character slips on a banana peel, it can be funny. That’s like Fred Ott’s sneeze. But if a monkey intentionally threw the banana peel, then laughed at the man who falls, and the man then man gets angry and throws the banana peel at the monkey who gets hit in the face, you have a basic story. These two films represent the very first steps toward comic stories. Mast continues:
As simple as this initial film jest was, it contained elements that could be combined and expanded into much more complex films. The protagonist: Who is he? What does he want to accomplish? What is at stake? Why? The antagonist: What is the basis of his antagonism? What does that antagonism imply? How does he go about it? The comic object: How familiar is it? What is it’s usual function? How many are there? What metamorphosis does it undergo? To what unfamiliar uses is it put? The comic discovery: How does it come about? What does it in turn produce? What would happen without it?