The Six Varieties of Physical Comedy

M. Wilson Disher wrote “Clowns and Pantomimes” which was published in 1925. He lays out six varieties of physical comedy. These are:

FALLS, BLOWS, SURPRISE, KNAVERY, MIMICRY, and STUPIDITY

FALLS. Easily the first one to come to mind. Gravity reminds us we are not special. The more important or serious the person is, the funnier it is when they fall. There are many combinations of people and ways of falling. It’s really about the set up, and also about having a reasonable belief that the person isn’t seriously injured. It’s about making them look foolish.

BLOWS This is the bread and butter of the Three Stooges. It’s also the category that pie fights fall into.

SURPRISE One reason Buster Keaton was considered a great film maker was his ability to set up surprises. You are all set to see one thing, then he gives you another. There are two good surprises in this clip from his short film “One Week.”

KNAVERY is the sneaky stealing of things. The sly trickster is appealing. He is the partner of stupidity. I immediately thought of Harpo Marx.

MIMICRY. You probably noticed the brief moment of mimicry in the previous clip. When someone pretends to be some one or something else, it is funny. Dressing in drag is a form of mimicry. The greater the skill, the greater the comedy. Jim Carrey has great skill and he pushes the exaggeration as far as he can.

STUPIDITY. Here’s the problem with demonstrations of stupidity: The professionals have been pushed out of the market by the amateurs. I’m talking about “fail” videos. Damn if there aren’t lots of cameras trained on lots of stupid people. But we want to see how the professionals act stupid. The comedy of mistakes. It’s about seeing things wrong, being confused, but it’s also seeing things in a different way. The stupid character misinterprets directions and repeatedly makes the same mistake over again. Stan Laurel was one of the great stupid comedians.

Character and Context

Animated characters need worlds to live in, and probably enjoy the widest variety of settings found on film. But these places can be more than simple “environment”. Creating animated worlds is not just art direction, it begins in the concept stage for the project. Earlier I posted about manual labor vs. Office work. The idea was to consider the visual potential of what context your characters were working in. Do they sit and stare at a screen, like animators do? Or are they moving and building things? Some stories are all about dramatic interaction between characters, but others are heavily influenced by where it begins.

I can identify three basic kinds of worlds for animated characters to live in. Some might overlap or fall in between these. I would be very happy to get feedback on these, or suggestions for something I haven’t considered.

1. The first could be called generic. Generic is a place that is the simple environment. It could be a city, a village, a forest. While that may sound dull, do not think such a context is automatically weak. For instance, the Simpsons live in the city of Springfield. Springfield is a parody of average America. The beauty of Springfield is it can be adapted to practically any story the writers want to tell. It’s flexible, and that is one reason for the longevity of the series. South Park is also a random place, but their stories are mostly concerned with current events and parody of modern culture. Most superhero stories take place in generic worlds.  And, the generic environment is the home of fairy tales and myths. Such stories are so grounded in human nature, they can easily be adjusted to any location, and society, at any time in history.

2. The second context I am calling the “enhancing” environment. These places tend to be more fantastic or extreme. The design is crafted to enhance the story. It is the most common kind found in animated films.  Blue Sky’s Robots comes to mind.  The art directors created altered versions of reality. It could also be natural environments, but the environments play a significant part the story, so it’s more than generic. I am thinking of A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. I would put the Road Runner and Coyote in this category. In each episode, the desert landscape is customized to suit the action.

3. The third type of context is the one I find most interesting. It is a world that IS a character. The world is not just designed for the story to happen in, but is an influential element in how the story starts and develops. An easy example would be Wall-E. The condition of the earth is the reason for the little robots entire existence. Another good one is Rango. The situation in the town of Dirt pulls the character of Rango into their story. The screenplay for Rango borrows from the live action feature “Chinatown”, which is a classic example of a tightly plotted drama. The Usavich Rabbits begin their series in a Soviet prison, where they live contained in their cels. The guards are literally one with the cel door. Rather than the characters feeling layered on top of a background like a cel animated film, these characters feel integrated with the world, and possibly in contention with the world itself.

But context goes further than place. The next layer to consider is the society. The word “milieu” can be used to describe a place, or the social setting of a story. In the way a physical environment can be designed especially for a story, so can the inhabitants.

In many early silent comedies, all of society is caricatured. Nearly everyone, except the star and maybe his or her love interest, is in a bad mood. There are controlling fathers, jealous husbands, neighborhood thugs, bullying waiters, baton wielding policeman, angry bosses, scolding wives, disapproving churchmen, dangerous animals, and misbehaving children. They are quite dramatic, and create a world tension for the comedian to work in. If everyone were nice, it would be quite boring. It helped if the characters were already primed for a fight. These films were short and had to get the action quickly.
Physical comedians have always stood on the fringes of society, where they can mock the status quo. Charlie Chaplin grew up poor in class conscious England, and his comedy is all about class. It often takes place in poor neighborhoods or with him entering places of wealth. The Marx Brothers also invaded high society, and brought chaos to their careful order.

The Little Rascals were poor, and mostly on their own.  Adult society had little intervention.   They used castaway objects to create worlds to play in. Their junkyard playgrounds and hand built vehicles were a large part of their fun.

Jacques Tati movies are often commentaries about the modernization of France, and how charming old Paris was being replaced by a cold modern metropolis. Many of his gags are designed around architecture, transportation, homes and workplaces.

Many of Buster Keaton’s films were built around giant props. Props so large, he could live inside them. The Navigator took place on an empty ocean liner. Steamboat Bill Jr. Was built around a steam powered river boat. The General was the name of a locomotive. Buster liked large collections of things that move. In Go West he worked a herd of cows. In Seven Chances it was a mob of hundreds of women dressed in wedding gowns. In the short film Cops he catches a bomb tossed by an anarchist, while he is in the middle of a parade of policemen.

Some comedians and teams had an interesting ability to plunk down in whatever situation the writers wanted them to be in. The Three Stooges, for instance, could be tramp outcasts, married with decent homes, working class shlubs, or prison inmates. Ren and Stimpy could be cast in any situation John K found useful. They could be living on the street like an actual dog and cat, or be sharing a house like a couple. And how many comedians have suddenly found themselves “in the army?” The military services are situations with their own rules that the stars have to create comedy with.

The Star Trek TV shows, while being in space, were really about the unusual civilizations the Federation astronauts encountered. Pixar’s Cars is an example of a generic space, and generic, possibly cliche, characters becoming fun when totally recast as vehicles. Stand by for “Planes” following the same formula.

I would love to get comments on these ideas, so I can continue to develop them.

Why Harpo went silent

During the Marx Brothers stage years, Harpo wasn’t always the silent one. Here is the story of why he turned off his voice, and found his true calling.

So, a bad review could be the honest opinion you need to move in the direction you should be going.

Comedy Teams – The Penguins of Madagascar

The Dreamworks animated film “Madagascar” was about a group of animals who escape from a metropolitan zoo in an effort to return to the wilderness.  Like many animated films, it included secondary characters who have no purpose beyond  comic relief.  Such characters do not have the complex development arc to follow, so they can just be funny.  Those are the kinds of characters I really like.  In Madagascar, the secondary characters were a team of penguins following their own plan to escape from the same zoo.  As entertaining characters the penguins were successful enough that Dreamworks spun them off into their own television show, which is produced by Nickelodeon.

The four penguins are Rico, Skipper, Private and Kowalski.    Skipper is the leader, and speaks with a speedy patter reminiscent of hardboiled detective movies.   Kolwalski is the smart one.  He’s a genius who reportedly is unable to read.   I like his name because it was also a character in the old TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”.  Tossing a Polish name into the mix used to be standard material in combat related stories.  Rico is a supposedly a “weapons and explosives” expert.  He is a sub verbal character who is able to regurgitate any thing they might need.  Private is the omega in the group, but he provides a simplicity that helps group from becoming too weird.  Why he has an English accent I don’t know.

When the show first aired, I watched an episode.  But I was disappointed.  It just didn’t work then, and I didn’t follow up.  But recently my nine year old was watching it, and I joined him.  I found it much funnier now.  I was continuously entertained, and at a brisk pace too.   It is an excellent cartoon, and the show also got me thinking about comedy teams.

I realized that comedy teams create their own reality.  Such teams are blissfully out of touch with what other people are thinking.  They develop a small society, reinforcing each others beliefs.  They understand each other where outsiders would be confused.  They develop language to suit their purposes, and their verbal stylings become a humor of their own.  The penguins all share the same delusions about their situation.  It’s like an improv comedy group where saying no stops the momentum.  They are a team, in the sense of a sports team who play together to win.   None of them would stop and say their plan is foolish, unless they had an even more foolish plan in mind.

Teams tend to have a leader, or at least a star.  Groucho was the most functional of the Marx Brothers, he could actually catch a woman or become president of a country.  Skipper is the alpha of the penguins, and he is somewhat paranoid.  He tends to get very dramatic about their situation, and the rest of them follow orders.  His over-reaction is often what drives the comedy.   The para-military theme of their operation allows for lots of action.

Another characteristic of great comedy teams is their energy.  Like the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges, the shear speed and determination of the penguins overwhelms the rest of the zoo society.  The “normal” world doesn’t have a chance.  The comedians also have strange talents that allow them to achieve things others can’t.

Also, comedy team members each have distinct and interesting styles.  They can break off individually, or into subgroups, and the dynamic changes and allows for fresh direction.  The variety adds depth to the individual personalities, and broadens the range of comedy.

Even though the penguins are funny, they are serious about what they do.  To balance the energy they are often interacting with the lighthearted disco dancing lemurs who also came from the first movie.   The lemurs form a team of their own, and the two teams in relation form a kind of comedy duo.  Serious team in contrast with silly team.

The Penguins of Madagascar were created by Eric McGrath and Eric Darnell.  The show is directed by Brett Haaland and Nick Filippi.

%d bloggers like this: