How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

Here is some more of what I learned from Rob King’s book on Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio “The Fun Factory”.

The earliest Keystone comedians brought their characters with them from vaudeville. These were the ethnic caricatures that were popular in their day.

In contrast with the “classical” body of white America, the vaudeville stage elaborated an iconography of ethnic grotesquery. Characteristic elements of costume and makeup drew attention to the orifices and bodily extensions, from the stage Jews exaggerated nose and protruding ears to the red whiskers and ruddy countenances of the Irish performers.

These characters were sometimes created and often enjoyed by the same people that were being lampooned. But over time, as immigrants assimilated into society, they did not want to be differentiated, and no longer found them funny. Middle and upper class audiences often found such performances distasteful and vulgar.  Around this time Chaplin began his climb into the stratosphere of fame.

Such phenomenal popularity could only have emerged at the intersection of several crosscurrents in the development of film comedy during the mid-1910’s, chief among them was the vocal disfavor into which the ethnic character had fallen by this time

While other comedians still pursued their stereotypical types, Chaplin concocted a character who had no recognizable nationality, but was a distinct representation of a social class: A Tramp.

-the tramp was a particularly visible figure with America of the period 1870 – 1920, when, in the wake of the upheavals wrought by the economic crisis of 1873 and the depression of 1893, as many as a fifth of American workers spent some time as transients. Tramping thus formed part of the common work experience of industrial America. But it was also a familiar theme of turn-of-century popular culture, where the tramp was a stock character of newspaper strips, dime novels, vaudeville and early film comedy.

David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of  has pointed out that circus clowns created comic tramp characters long before Chaplin, and were primarily responsible for it’s success in other forms of popular culture.

It wasn’t just the appearance of the character either. Chaplin moved away from the excessive energy in the acting, and the quick pacing of the shots in favor of a slower more thoughtful presentation.   Most comedians were still trying to push everything faster, with quicker cuts, and Chaplin was taking more and more time in each shot.

Rather than grounding his comedy solely in the expressive possibilities of frenetic action, Chaplin uniquely exploited the intervals between the action that introduced an affective dimension to the performance.

Where “comic” situations invited the spectator to laugh at the clown’s transgression, humor complicates that reaction by opening up a margin for identification. It is precisely that complexity that Chaplin’s lumenproletariat persona provokes inviting a spectatorship that oscillates between the poles of empathy and ridicule.

Chaplin didn’t completely reject the rough and tumble comedy, he was still great at that. But he gave the character some room to be more human. This was the turning point where physical comedy became palatable to higher class audiences, and soon everyone was going to see Charlie Chaplin.

10 Types of Comedic Entrances

I have a previous post about character entrances, but I have put a lot more thought into it.  The result is my first Comedy for Animators video.  10 types of comedic entrances looks at various funny ways characters can enter a scene.  I have found at least two examples from both animation and live action films to demonstrate each one.

The term “entrances” covers a few things.  It can be a character walking into a scene.  It can be the very first scene where a character is shown to already be.  It can be a scene about a character entering another place.  A character can be revealed when something in the scene changes.  Basically, it is the shot where you, or someone in the story, first sees the character and the effect it has in the telling of the story.

The ten different types of comedic entrances are:

1:  The big entrance.  This is an attention grabbing entrance.  It should emphasize the character’s style and have an effect on the other characters in the scene.

2. The downtempo entrance.  If the character has a low energy style, you may want to create a story that begins with a high energy. By clashing with the situation, the character will stand out as unusual. A low energy character in a low energy place would be inherently uninteresting from a physical comedy point of view.

3.  The surprise entrance.  The character is hidden in some unexpected place.

4.  The misleading entrance.  The character enters the scene in some way that leads the audience to make assumptions.  Then the reality proves to be very different.  Such characters usually go on to prove they are not what they seem to be.

5.  Bad timing.  The character enters at a really bad moment.  Prior to the character entering, the situation is set up for them to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

6.  Exit as entrance.  We first see a character as they are being kicked out of some other place.  Often, they are literally flying out the door

7.  The disguised entrance.  The character enters the scene in some disguise that is comical in itself.

8.  The subverted entrance.  This is a scene about a character entering, but the entrance does not go as planned.  It can be seen from the entering character’s point of view.

9.  The strange, surreal doorway.  A character simply walks into the scene, but it is through some very strange doorway.

10.  The forced entrance.  The character is forcibly brought into the scene or story.

And there you have it.  If anyone can identify a type of entrance that I have overlooked, I would be very happy to hear about it in the comments.

The Problem with Evaluating Comedy

Elimination

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.

Documentary: The Chaplin Puzzle.

This is a worthwhile documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s early film work. It goes into some detail about his development as an actor in the movies.

Chaplin and money

This is my favorite quote from Charlie Chaplin.

“I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”

To really understand this quote you need a bit of history. As a child Chaplin was very, very poor, and had no real formal education. All he had was a bit of theatrical experience gained from his parents. His father was a drunk who abandoned them, and his mother lost her mind. The only chance Chaplin had to make a living was going into theater. Or he could dig ditches.

Later on, when he accepted the contract from Mack Sennett to work in movies, he believed it would be a temporary job. The money was good, and he thought he would take the money and go back to the theater. That’s what the quote refers to.

Still, I think artists should keep this quote alive in their thinking. You can be motivated by money, and bring something special to what you do.

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