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.

 

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.

The man who died laughing

The Goodies were a trio of English comedians who performed on TV in the seventies and early eighties. There is a unusual story associated with them:

From wikipedia:

On 24 March 1975 Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King’s Lynn, literally died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing whilst watching a sketch in the episode “Kung Fu Kapers” in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a black pudding-wielding Bill Oddie (master of the ancient Lancastrian martial art “Ecky-Thump”) in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of “Hoots-Toot-ochaye.” After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the settee and died from heart failure. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell’s final moments so pleasant

Here is the opening of the “Ecky-Thump”, followed by the infamous final scene:

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