Many great artists have kept notebooks. Comedians are no different. While comedy often seems to be a magical talent, professionals will put in work to develop a better understanding of their art. They record their obervations and jot down ideas for future use. (It should go without saying, but you should be writing down all your original ideas.) What all comedians definitely study is other comedians. This post will tell you about some very famous people who spent their time watching, and taking notes, about other acts.
Animators love to watch animation, right? You learn a lot by exposing yourself to as much as you can. When you start on a job, there is an assumption that you know more than just the 12 principles of animation. Artists who have a huge vault of ideas to draw upon can offer a lot to a production, and will be appreciated. When you are developing work, you can often get ideas across by referring to something that has been done before. “Reference” is more than just movie clips you use when animating.
I recently finished reading Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition, by Andrew Davis. Below is a quote I want to share. It’s about how to absorb the work by observation. In the times before movies, there was only live theater. Burlesque comedy was an oral tradition. Sketches and routines were seldom written down. Actors weren’t handed a script and told to go home and memorize it. Performances were fluid, and improvisation was expected. Actors learned by stading off stage, or in the audience, and watching.
Not only did a young comic learn the joke, he absorbed the pace and the rythym of a line, and the inflection and emphasis to give key words or syllables. By watching others perform a particular scene, a burlesque comic could learn, for example, how certain facial expressions or body movement helped communicate the meaning of the joke.
The few notes and scripts that survived are invaluable. When someone in the past records the details of events, it can become an historic document. So writing things down is good!
When you go to an art class, you are paying the teacher to tell you things. It’s advisable to write down what he or she tells you. What if you also write down what YOU observe when you are watching a cartoon? Just the idea that you are looking for something to note will help you pay special attention, and you will have something to refer to in the future.
Benny Hill was a hugely successful television comedian, and he was a note taker. In Funny Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill, Benny’s old stage partner Reg Varney remembers…
We’d meet in the mornings to pick up the mail, then while I went back to bed, he’d go off to the pictures taking his little notebook with him. He went every single afternoon, and when I came to the theater in the evenings he’d give me an ear bashing about what film he’d seen. I used to say to him ‘But did you get it all down?’ and he’d say ‘You bet!” He had bits of paper everywhere!”
Reg Varney went back to bed, and now almost nobody remembers his name. Benny studied and took notes. Benny was looking for material he could potentially fit into his own act. Honestly, he was pilfering jokes. But that helped him to understand how jokes worked. He also had a big collection of American joke books to draw upon. He would sometimes stay up late into the night listening to American comedians coming through faintly on the radio, looking for good material that hadn’t yet made it to England.
Animator and film director Frank Tashlin also kept notebooks. The image at the top is his drawing. Years ago I found this quote, by Tex Avery, and included it in my book. If this doesn’t inspire you to study comedy, quit reading this blog.
Frank Tashlin was working for Schlensinger then, too. We called him Tish-Tash. He had a cartoon strip and he fooled around. He would see cartoons and he would go to the old slapstick movies with a little flashlight and a little black notebook, and he would write down every Charlie Chaplin and every Laurel and Hardy gag he saw. We used to kid him about his little black book, because he was always looking in it for a joke. Well, the laugh was on us. He went much further in this gag business than we ever did.
If you start taking notes, I would love to hear your observations. You could also learn what I have observed and learned over the years by picking up my book. Click the link below!