Book Review: Keeping Quiet: Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound.


What a pleasure it has been to read Julian Dutton’s recent book Keeping Quiet:Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound.  It truly feels like it was written by a fan of the art, not an academic or historian.  In addition to being an occasional creator, I am an insatiable consumer, and dedicated student, of physical comedy of all kinds.  I can tell the author loves the art of non-verbal comedy just as much as I do. In his introduction, he includes a tip of the hat to animation as a medium that had never turned it’s back on visual comedy. Mr. Dutton not only knows his history, he is an award winning screenwriter and actor.  I very much enjoyed his 6 episode show Pompidou, created with actor Matt Lucas, which is available in the US on Netflix.  Keeping Quiet is available through Amazon in the US HERE. And in the UK HERE.

There have been many many books written about the great comedies of the silent film era.  And there have been a few books written about specific comedians from after that time, such Jacques Tati and Ernie Kovacs.  But this is the only book I am aware of that provides a good general coverage of filmed physical comedy since the coming of sound.  It is about the art and how it adapted and differentiated itself from the other talkies.

The book has two areas of focus.  First, those comedians who achieved international fame, such as Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Lewis, and Peter Sellers.  And second, English comedians who are familiar to Mr. Dutton and many of his readers.  While visual comedy had it’s golden age in the United States during the silent film era, the English have shown a much greater respect for the art in the many years since the introduction of sound.  Witness, for example, the wordless animated programs such as Shaun the Sheep, and Mr. Bean: The Animated Series.  I am fortunate to be familiar with some of the artists he refers to, such as Norman Wisdom and Eric Sykes.  And for those I hadn’t seen, I am now provided with a descriptive list for future viewing.  I was, however, hoping to learn a little bit about one of my favorite English comedians, Will Hay.  Hay’s film Where’s that Fire? includes scenes that rival Laurel and Hardy.

As I am always on the lookout for potential quotes that animators might appreciate, here is the first one I want to share:

“The essential schtick of Laurel and Hardy was slapstick and pantomime, to be sure, but slapstick and pantomime with character.  Their routines and jokes are not imposed from without, but emanate from the personalities themselves.”

Mr Dutton also includes a quote about Laurel and Hardy milking a routine.  That is an idea I did not put into my book, and may include in a potential revision.  Live actors can improvise and build on their comedy.  A scene can be extended significantly if the actors are inspired, even to the point of creating entire films around a simple idea.  Laurel and Hardy’s gags have been described as “open-ended,” meaning they can get on a roll, and keep building it.  Where live actors can sometimes go overboard, and overmilk a routine, animators are often not allowed to extend them much at all.  Modern studios generally restrict gags in favor of plot.  But great character comedy should be free to take a break from the plot and go for the laughs.

One thing I have been thinking about lately is the presence of onlookers, or bystanders, in comedy.  Offhand, I can’t think of an animated shot that included someone not engaged in the story who reacts to what is going on.  There probably are some, but not many.  I am hopeful that Zootopia might include this idea.  In live film, it’s considerably more common.  In referring to Eric Sykes, Dutton writes this:

“Another Tati-esque element employed by Sykes is his use of the placid observer.  Tati would often place an onlooker on the edge or at the back of the frame: not only to highlight the comedy but also to punch home and magnify its truthfulness – look, the gag is actually happening in the real world and hasn’t merely been made up for the cinema or television viewer.”

Mr. Dutton and I agree on how to understand visual comedy through its history.  That is what both of our books are about.  So I will finish with this quote from his book:

“If there is one theme in this book it is that all the great visual comics belong, as it were, to the same family, so similarities of style and trope are inevitable.”

And that is a good thing.  Audiences like fresh ideas and surprises, of course, but in comedy they also like familiarity.  Striking the balance is one of the challenges.  If I were to make a list of recommended books about comedy for animators to read, Keeping Quiet would certainly be high on the list.

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