The Problem with Evaluating Comedy


Currently I am reading Steve Seidman’s book, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film.  For my purposes, the book is invaluable.  In all my reading, I was continually on the lookout for small pieces of information that could be instructive.  Tips on how things are done.  Each tip was a clue.  Any of them might spark and idea or a direction, or solve a problem.  It’s about collecting tools and materials for artists to work with.  I have read a great many books on the topic of comedy, and it is interesting how many different approaches are taken. In the introduction to his book, Seidman makes some observations about how other writers treat comedy, and I find those observations to be thought provoking.  Here is a quote to get the discussion started:

This study intends to avoid the tendencies of this literature; it is not based on a validation of my personal tastes or my subjective conception of morality.  If the reader is looking for a list of the “best” comedies, the “funniest” comedians, or praise for the most “human” the most “meaningful,” most “significant” “statements” about society and human values to be found in certain films, then he or she will be disappointed.

The idea here is to take an objective look at the art of comedy.  Rather than try to explain why something is funny (an effort that is often unsatisfactory), Seidman’s book makes an effort to create meaningful terms to describe the sub-genre he calls “comedian comedy.”  (I will probably go into more detail about that in another post.)  By creating these terms, he is able to explain how different comedians are similar.  By understanding their similarities, it is then possible to open up new ways to discuss comedy, and, for us, to create new comedic characters.

In one well known book about animation, the author dismissed Buster Keaton as inferior to Charlie Chaplin because Chaplin’s work had more emotion.  I wonder if a young reader would take that statement, and avoid Keaton in favor of the “superior” Chaplin.  What a loss that would be!  As a fan of Keaton, I did not support that concept.   I am constantly on the look out for new physical comedians to observe. Other authors dismiss Chaplin because his work can be overly sentimental, so it’s all opinion anyway.  In my book, Comedy for Animators, I tried to focus simply on them as individuals, and avoided qualifying either as “better.”  Traveling down the road of judging which comedian is funnier could lead to a sort of tournament bracketology.  You start with a whole field of competitors, and narrow them down by pairs until you have a “champion.”  And what is to be gained by that?  How does that help animators to understand the vast potential of comedy.  Continuing with the sports metaphor, a newspaper sports writer has unlimited opinions and judgements about a team’s performance, but they probably would make a bad coach.

Buster Keaton: Symmetry of Laughter

Writer and filmmaker Vince Di Meglio edited together this instructive selection of clips from Buster Keaton films to show how he used symmetrical composition. In his description, he writes:

After watching twenty-nine Buster Keaton films, I was struck by his use of symmetry and center framing. This is an attempt to capture that. Before Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson made it famous for modern audiences, there was Buster Keaton.

A note about “Gravity”


Here is an interesting quote about the new film “Gravity” In an interview with Rene Rodriquez of the Miami Herald, director Alphonso Cuaron referred to a silent film comedian.

I was channeling Buster Keaton when we made Gravity — the single through-line story in which there is a lot of humanity and emotion, but everything is conveyed through physical action. We just wanted to put on a really good show.

I haven’t seen Gravity yet, but the more I hear about it the more interesting it becomes. I’m always glad to know film makers are still learning from Buster and the other greats of early cinema.

Gerald Mast on Buster Keaton

I’ve done quite a few posts about Chaplin, and it’s time I start giving Buster Keaton more time.   While I find the Chaplin life story absolutely fascinating, I am much more likely to spend my movie viewing time with Keaton.    Here are some selected quotes from Gerald Masts’  The Comic Mind.

Whereas Chaplin’s comic technique centered about his face, hands, and legs, each of which operated as separate entities, with individual limberness and subtlety, the Keaton comic technique centered about the body as a whole, single physical object  that could comport it’s self in space the way no physical object ought to have the right or power to do.  When Keaton takes a fall, his body doesn’t merely fall.  It lifts itself several feet into the air and then hurls itself down to the ground.  When he does a flip, his body doesn’t merely flip.   It leaps into the air tautens itself into planklike stiffness, then tucks in it’s knees and tumbles over itself in mid air.  The body is alternately, indeed simultaneously, both elastic and bone, the most malleable and the most tensile of physical substances.

Unlike Chaplin he consistently caught the perfect performance of a gag in a single take.  He would have to. Such stunts did not bear frequent repetition.

Keaton is not a little guy set against malignant social forces, like Chaplin; he is a little guy set against elemental forces. …

Nature has no will.  Only man has will.  And Keaton’s films consistently reveal the triumph of human will and spirit over natural opponents.  The Keaton comedies are more epic than Chaplin’s because they show man in conflict with traditional epic forces rather than individual men and social attitudes.

Keaton films were outdoor films; Chaplin films were not.  (Even outdoor films such as Sunnyside, The Pilgrim, and The Gold Rush seem claustrophobic – intentionally)  The outdoors gave Keaton space to move  and vast panoramas to contrast with his moving body, that small piece of elastic granite.  Chaplin could generate a world of excitement from a single room ( for example One A.M. ); Keaton needed the world.

Film gave Keaton the freedom the stage never could, which is why his work is the more cinematic of the two.  Film did offer Chaplin the opportunity for close ups.

Little man juxtaposed with big universe – this was the Keaton theme, cinematic principle of  composition, and basis of story construction.  It also influenced the kinds of objects that Keaton chose to play against.  Huge inanimate objects and living opponents were merely a manifestation of the hugeness of nature.  Keaton played against a dinosaur, a waterfall, an ocean liner, a landslide, a herd of cattle, a locomotive, the entire Union  and Confederate armies, a steamboat, a Tong war, a gang of bootleggers, a storm at sea, a tribe of indians, and the entire New York police force.  In most of the films, Keaton began playing against the enormous object and ended up playing with it.  The object that dwarfed him at the film’s beginning became equally an ally that he used to defeat others by the end.

The consistent Keaton motif is the ridiculing of all inhuman definitions of human worth.  To define a man by his uniform, wallet, muscles, or family name is not to define him as a person.  In his denigration of the value of clothes (despite his elegance in wearing them) and surface characteristics as a means of defining a man, Keaton is the opposite of Brecht ( A Man’s a Man ) and, therefore, of Chaplin ( Who’s tramp’s clothes are the tramp).  What Buster accomplishes often has little to do with social and literary cliches about what types of men can accomplish.  The Keaton character consistently shows how much a little, unheroic, unromantic man can do simply by going about his business in his own way, exercising his individual human abilities and will.


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