Tips for action comedy

I have found some YouTube videos with some great insights to creating action comedy.

This first video isn’t specifically directed toward action comedy, but it uses a comedic scene as an example.  In How to Make a Perfect Action Scene, Patrick H Willems explains why action scenes can’t simply be a series of exciting events.  There should be either clear causation or surprising turns.  He uses the term “therefore” when one event causes another event, and “but” for when there is an unexpected change.  A video of animators Matt and Trey Parker speaking at NYU is his source for these terms.

After watching the video, I realized this is why the action scenes in the Indiana Jones movies work so well.  They have both a logical progression and unexpected changes of direction.  Rewatch the Club Obiwan scene that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for a great example.

The next video is from YouTuber BigStinkyMoose.  His bio says he is a Canadian fight choreographer.  His video Jackie Chan Famous Ladder Fight Scene Analysis does an excellent job of illustrating how Jackie Chan foreshadows the use of props in his fight scenes. Basically, Chan makes sure the props he uses are clearly visible in the shots before he puts them to use.  I believe that helps the audience follow the fast action.  It only serves to reinforce Chan’s reputation as a great filmmaker.   Again, this involves comedy.

While that video is enough to explain the method, I recommend watching his follow-up video, below, that shows what happens when an action scene is shot without the same attention to detail.  I especially like his use of clips from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  In the famous fight scene, the TV anchormen meet in an alley for a rumble, and they all produce frightening weapons from inside their suit jackets.  That reminds me of how cartoon characters can suddenly pull out a giant hammer or bundle of dynamite.

Wolf pulls hammer

It is curious that a “serious” fight scene can rely on almost cartoonish techniques, but Jackie Chan carefully prepares the props beforehand to make it believable. For more on Jackie, read my other post.




Charles Schulz draws Charlie Brown

Recently, the home of Charles Schulz burned down in the fires in Santa Rosa, California.  Fortunately, the Schulz museum was spared.  The museum is near the Redwood Arena.

When my family wants to go ice skating, we always go to the Redwood Arena. It was built by Schulz as a gift to the city he lived in. His studio is across the street, and every day for lunch, he would go to the arena and eat in the cafe. There is a table by the window with a reserved sign on it, in memory of him.

I love seeing that table, as a relic of a blessed man. He was an artist, he brought joy to millions of people for many years, and he grew extremely wealthy. That’s what we should all want to be. Here is a small clue to how he did it. He draws, and discusses his inspiration.

Why the French Love Jerry Lewis

Why the French Love Jerry Lewis is the title of a book by Rae Gordon.   I have read the book, and found it worthwhile. Here is the product description from Amazon:

Vividly bringing to light the tradition of physical comedy in the French cabaret, café-concert, and early French film comedy, this book answers the perplexing question, “Why do the French love Jerry Lewis?” The extraordinary emphasis on nervous pathology in the Parisian café-concert, where the genres of the Epileptic Singer and the Idiot Comic took center stage, and where popular comic monologues and songs included “Man with a Tic” and “I’m Neurasthenic,” points to a fascinating intersection between medicine and popular culture. The French tradition of comic performance style between 1870 and 1910 nearly exactly duplicates the movements, gestures, tics, grimaces, and speech anomalies found in nineteenth-century hysteria; the characteristics of hysteria became a new aesthetics.

Early French film comedy carried on this tradition of frenetic gesture and gait, as most film performers came from these entertainments and from the circus. Even before Chaplin’s films triumphed in France, film comics were instantly recognizable from their pathological gait, just as Jacques Tati would be a half-century later. Comedy, a genre that dominated French cinema until World War I, has often been linked to a mass public for film; the author elucidates this link by proposing a broadly generalized cultural-medical phenomenon as the explanation for the dominance of the comic genre. Comic performance style drew from a group of nervous disorders characterized by the psychological automatism emanating from the “lower faculties”: nervous reflex, motor impulses, sensation, and instinct.

Building on her previous work on hysteria, the cabaret, and pathologies of movement in the films of Georges Méliès, and drawing on over 400 French films made between 1896 and 1915, the author contributes to a new theory of spectatorship at work in the cabaret, in shows of magnetizers, and in early French film comedy. Jerry Lewis touches a nerve in French cultural memory because, more than any other film comic, he incarnates this tradition of performance style.

Some time ago, I brought this up on a physical comedy discussion forum, and one of the responses was that the French Jerry Lewis movies were dubbed by some one with a very funny voice, and that is what people laughed at.   Thanks to youtube, we can now here the voice.

The First Comedy Film

The first filmed comedy was made in Lyon France in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers.  The French title, L’Arroseur Arrosé, is translated into English as The Sprinkler Sprinkled. It is a great example of prank comedy, which I cover more fully in my book.

I recently learned from twitter user @41strange about this comic strip by illustrator Hermann Vogel, from 1887.  Apparently, it was a popular joke around this time in Europe. The first film comedy shows us how comic strips have always been an inspiration.

Comic strip inspiration for French comedy The Sprinkler Sprinkled.

Additionally, it is believed that this film was the first to be promoted by a poster.  I had wanted to include this poster in my book, but it was still under copyright in France at that time.

First movie poster



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.


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