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.

 

How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

Here is some more of what I learned from Rob King’s book on Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio “The Fun Factory”.

The earliest Keystone comedians brought their characters with them from vaudeville. These were the ethnic caricatures that were popular in their day.

In contrast with the “classical” body of white America, the vaudeville stage elaborated an iconography of ethnic grotesquery. Characteristic elements of costume and makeup drew attention to the orifices and bodily extensions, from the stage Jews exaggerated nose and protruding ears to the red whiskers and ruddy countenances of the Irish performers.

These characters were sometimes created and often enjoyed by the same people that were being lampooned. But over time, as immigrants assimilated into society, they did not want to be differentiated, and no longer found them funny. Middle and upper class audiences often found such performances distasteful and vulgar.  Around this time Chaplin began his climb into the stratosphere of fame.

Such phenomenal popularity could only have emerged at the intersection of several crosscurrents in the development of film comedy during the mid-1910’s, chief among them was the vocal disfavor into which the ethnic character had fallen by this time

While other comedians still pursued their stereotypical types, Chaplin concocted a character who had no recognizable nationality, but was a distinct representation of a social class: A Tramp.

-the tramp was a particularly visible figure with America of the period 1870 – 1920, when, in the wake of the upheavals wrought by the economic crisis of 1873 and the depression of 1893, as many as a fifth of American workers spent some time as transients. Tramping thus formed part of the common work experience of industrial America. But it was also a familiar theme of turn-of-century popular culture, where the tramp was a stock character of newspaper strips, dime novels, vaudeville and early film comedy.

David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of  has pointed out that circus clowns created comic tramp characters long before Chaplin, and were primarily responsible for it’s success in other forms of popular culture.

It wasn’t just the appearance of the character either. Chaplin moved away from the excessive energy in the acting, and the quick pacing of the shots in favor of a slower more thoughtful presentation.   Most comedians were still trying to push everything faster, with quicker cuts, and Chaplin was taking more and more time in each shot.

Rather than grounding his comedy solely in the expressive possibilities of frenetic action, Chaplin uniquely exploited the intervals between the action that introduced an affective dimension to the performance.

Where “comic” situations invited the spectator to laugh at the clown’s transgression, humor complicates that reaction by opening up a margin for identification. It is precisely that complexity that Chaplin’s lumenproletariat persona provokes inviting a spectatorship that oscillates between the poles of empathy and ridicule.

Chaplin didn’t completely reject the rough and tumble comedy, he was still great at that. But he gave the character some room to be more human. This was the turning point where physical comedy became palatable to higher class audiences, and soon everyone was going to see Charlie Chaplin.

Manual labor vs office work

In the days of silent film comedy, directors and actors could choose from a broad array of scenarios involving manual labor. Piano moving, window washing, assembly lines, skyscraper construction, prisoners breaking rocks, masons building brick walls, laying railroad tracks, blacksmithing, boiler rooms and ice delivery. Every situation could create multiple possibilities for comedy involving comical body motion. A street scene could involve hoisting a safe to third floor window, or an elevator that rises through the sidewalk. Vehicles were not slick and comfortable. They were rattle trap open top cars, overstocked beer trucks, and the occasional motorcycle and sidecar. There were fire trucks with fireman dangling off the back and sides who arrived at the scene and got involved in handling unruly fire hoses.  Inventors had messy workshops with actual tools to build mechanical wonders.

Animators back in the early days also drew from the same well of material.   They took the action into that fabulous world of indestructible characters who could struggle with heavy objects, get crushed, and bounce right back.

A century ago, it was a different world.

I recently watched the umpteenth short animated film that featured a frustrated man in a tie at a desk in a cubicle.  I don’t want to pick on it, so I won’t name the short.  It was a good film, but not a great one.  Office workers are ALWAYS portrayed as miserable wretches.  Here is a tip: having your main character be a miserable wretch is not very appealing.

I’m guessing the young animation artists are expressing their disdain for what they perceive as the only alternative to their free and creative life. That’s not true of course, there are many awesome careers that don’t involve art or offices.  Maybe they aren’t trying to be funny, and just are attempting social commentary.  It’s not unlike the many short animated films that feature ranks of drab workers marching in time, until one suddenly breaks free and becomes all colorful and flies away to, well, somewhere else.  Young people spend so much time interacting with keyboards and touch screens, they don’t seem to know much else.  Manual labor has dropped out of public sight to such a degree that those kinds of jobs have become almost invisible to much of society.

This not to say that the office worker situation has no place in animation.  It just has to be used to good effect.

Oh, and by the way, to those who think office work sucks, most animation is done sitting at a desk in front of a keyboard.  You won’t have to wear at tie, but often there are cubicles.  There are bosses and deadlines.  And if the compositors insist, the lights will be low and they’ll complain if you get too noisy.

Please think outside the cubicle, and take a lesson from Nick Park and Aardman animation.  They haven’t lost touch with that world.  Wallace and Gromit wash windows and hunt rabbits (humanely, of course).  Shaun the Sheep lives on a farm, with tractors and sheep shearing.  These are worlds of substance and texture, bricks and mud.  And they are very appealing.

Advice from John Cleese

John Cleese gives a little bit of advice about situation comedy, which also applies to physical comedy.

Go and watch a few sitcoms that you really admire. The trick is go on watching them after you stop laughing. Because it’s when you are no longer laughing that you begin to see how it’s put together and how it’s done.

Roger Rabbit test films

Here is a very early test film for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Roger is voiced by Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) It was not created by Richard Williams.

And here is Richard Williams test for the job.

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