I now answer the burning question, what is the oldest gag ever put on film:
3 days ago I posted some videos of Pee-Wee Herman, and I have been thinking about his character.
The name Pee-Wee is not without importance. The name Pee-Wee supports his childlike character. He is small, and harmless. Such youthful behavior makes him non-threatening, so the audience indulges his behavior as they would a child. The silent film star Harry Langdon had a similar quality.
In the wrestling video, Pee-Wee gets in the ring with a buffed out pro-wrestler and plays out his schtick. But the wrestler can only get in his face. If the wrestler were to knock him down, it would be like hitting a child. He would be picking on someone half his weight. When Pee-Wee mocks the wrestler, we enjoy his fearlessness. We would love to say such things to the guy, but we don’t have the nerve. It is one of the clown’s age old priveleges, to ridicule the powerful, to say the things we won’t.
One of the basic concepts of the clown is to not follow the rules of educated society. Children don’t follow the rules of society simply because they have not learned them yet. It gives them a license for such behavior, and is one of the ways to begin the creation of a funny character.
Charlie Chaplin rose from poverty to become the first international superstar. How did he do it? Here’s how I see it.
1. Extraordinary Talent. Duh.
2. Extraordinary Hard Work. Chaplin had to work very hard because he had extraordinarily high standards. While Mack Sennett would want most of the shots in his films done in 1 take, Charlie began asking for more tries. When he gained control of his own production, he would spend enormous time developing his ideas with an entire crew there shooting everything. The documentary “Unknown Chaplin” show some of these outtakes, which are quite rare.
Sometimes, he would shut down production at considerable cost, in order to rethink the entire film. No producer would allow this today. But Chaplin’s reputation was on the line. He owned the work.
3. Extraordinary luck. Yes, luck. It was luck that he happened to be seen on stage by Keystone Studio owner Mack Sennett, and was offered enough money to lure him away. The movies were a new technology, a risky venture. But when the right person finds the potential in a new technology, fantastic things can happen. While Chaplin had enormous confidence in himself, he could not have imagined what movies would do for him. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, he, like many stage actors, thought the movies would be a passing fad. He was wrong, but he was lucky.
The point is, new technologies are coming at us faster than ever. If you have talent, work really hard, and own what you do, the technology might be there waiting to take you someplace you never dreamed of.
I must recommend the blog by Mark Kennedy, “The Temple of the Seven Golden Camels.” It is packed full of images and information from an active story artist. His post about comic obsession is particularly interesting to me. He describes the development of the horse Maximus in the film “Tangled”, including the inspiration from Tommy Lee Jone’s character from “The Fugitive.”
It is easy to think of comic obsession in cartoons. Wile E. Coyote’s obsession with the Roadrunner, Sylvester with Tweety, Scrat with the acorn.
If we consider the old expression “Nobody likes a quitter” to be true, then the inverse, “Everybody likes a character who will not quit no matter what” would also be true. Such characters earn our admiration.
Several years ago I read about an English television special from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean). It was his Guide to Visual Comedy. I eventually found a company that produced NTSC VHS tapes of British imports, and I got a copy. It is a fun and informative introduction to some basic techniques of physical comedy. He shows clips and acts out examples of what he is talking about.
It was uploaded to youtube, but 1 of the 5 parts has been blocked. I’m guessing because it contained a clip that the original producers didn’t want online. Also, embedding is disabled. The program was called “Laughing Matters.” and here it has subtitles in Dutch, I’m guessing.