I just ran across this quote from John Cleese.
“Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited.”
At first it took me by surprise, but I think he is really speaking of verbal comedy. That is the realm of the insult comic, the stand up comedian, and the celebrity roast. Mean spirited comedy involves taking someone on in a challenging way, walking a very fine edge to still keep it funny. We find that a little more thrilling. If a stand up comedian takes down a heckler with a fierce retort, it’s a victory we can all enjoy.
Physical comedians tend to be more playful. They want to keep the game going, not destroy the competition. The Three Stooges are violent, but not really mean. They are clearly faking the emotions.
Part of my goal with this blog is to separate the methods of physical comedy from verbal comedy, and I would be glad to have input from anyone on how the two are distinguished from one another.
7 thoughts on “John Cleese quote”
This is a tough line to draw because it’s different with different people. I have trouble with Abbott & Costello, partly because of the unrelenting verbal humor, but mostly because they don’t seem to be having fun. I love Faulty Towers, but I see that more as frustration humor than mean humor. Chuck Jones once said, “in order to be funny, you have to have something you really hate.” To be honest, I can feel that in some of his films and I don’t enjoy them as much as good natured directors like avery and Clampett.
Writing that physical comedians “tend to be more playful” has a few problems.
It’s not obvious how clear a distinction can be made between physical and verbal comedy. The Marx Brothers featured verbal humor but it’s tough to envision them having the impact they did/do without the physicality of their physical interactions; Groucho’s leer and walking lean; Harpo’s faces, not to mention his silence, which — because we expect humans to talk — focuses our attention on his movement. People think of Stephen Wright’s low-key one-liners but it’s his deadpan delivery, a kind of physicality, that helps them land. Are the Flying Karamazov Brothers physical (juggling) or verbal (jokes)? What about Red Skelton, verbal (his characters matched with old vaudeville humor) or physical (the faces he made, his silent sketches)?
Even if we could make such a distinction clear, it still ignores the aggressiveness of much physical comedy. Quoting John Cleese brings to my mind his movie, A FISH CALLED WANDA, with the sequential killings of the old pedestrian’s little dogs. In the context of the movie, it’s cruel, it causes clear anguish to the animal-loving character we like — and it’s funny. As for the Stooges, hitting someone in the head with a hammer seems to me both violent and mean. Perhaps the reason you see it as not mean is that no one suffers lasting harm, but the same point could be made about action heroes who, if it were real life, would die at least half a dozen deaths per film. In both cases, the Stooges and action films, the intent to harm is the same, and the meaning is mean. Another example occurs to me. For the past decade, Northwestern University students have performed WRESTLEPOCALYPSE, an annual satire of pro wrestling combined with sketch comedy / improv characters. It’s wild and violent, with savage humor mostly physical but keenly verbal.
Then there’s one of my favorite moments in film comedy: In THE GENERAL, when Buster Keaton’s beloved proves less than helpful stoking the engine’s fire, he pauses to regard her after another futile attempt, grabs and shakes her, kisses her, and gets on with the escape. The kiss may smooth over the violence of that shake but it’s still violence, aggressive and funny.
As for the implication that physical comedians are less competitive, that seems more fanciful than factual. Perhaps I encounter more competitive clowns than you but I routinely see jostling onstage that reflects the offstage struggle for status, billing, etc. Of course the rise of improv has made cooperation a key value, with the insistence on always saying “Yes,” and that’s benefitted comedy. Yet however supportive and even sweet-hearted, physical comedians are not immune to the concern for pecking order seen in other areas of show business. Even when performances are “playful,” the competition lies just below the surface.
Finally, to assert that physical comedy is mostly playful verges on the sentimentality that has hobbled circus clowning for decades. The assumption that clowning is “family-friendly” has funneled all sorts of comic urges, including dark ones, into an enforced “gentleness.” But those urges are still there. For one thing, some clowns are simply mean, hiding their nastiness under the makeup, with a huge assist from the cultural assumption that clowns are nice, which can render people unable to see nasty treatment that would otherwise be obvious. And even clowns who are nicer people have a human range of emotions, which can include getting mean when pushed too far. I saw a clown, one of the nicest guys I know, in a rare moment raising his hand to a child and saying, “Beat it, kid.” That was simultaneously frustration, aggressiveness, and, in that particular moment with that sweet clown, hilarious.
Thank you very much for your comment. You have really made me think.
I now recall a show at the Circus Center where a friend of mine played a “goth” clown, and bordered on cruel. It was a very interesting character. Also, at the end of the movie “Funny Bones”, Lee Evans’ character dons a malevolent behavior that is powerful and trickster like.
Perhaps the whole “psycho clown” is partly drawn as a reaction to the overly sweet presentation of the party clown. (John Wayne Gacy being a separate issue)
I will probably follow up on this with another post.
I was thinking about this last night and I thought of the example of Mr Bean. Atkinson’s character can be very selfish and mean in the same way children can be. It may not be outright malice, but it’s still mean.
Thanks Stephen. You and David have really made me think more deeply about this.
W. C. Fields can be mean too. But he is a rare example of a character who is incorrigible but still captures the audience’s sympathy.