The Out of Step Character

Denny Willes and the Hunting Quartet

If one thing defines the comedic character, it is their inability to fit in with expected behavior. One of the oldest ways to make a character funny is to put them with a group who are all moving in unison and have the comedic character not fit in. In the examples below, you’ll see ways to develop the fundamental idea.

There are two basic situations where this is commonly found. Dancing, and marching. And the comic character can be out of sync in three different ways. Wrong timing, wrong action, and wrong speed. It’s important too note how much they use each of them. Having them do every thing wrong is not necessarily funnier.

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dopey is clearly the funny one. He never speaks, but from the very beginning, we know he’s the odd man out when he can’t keep in step during the dwarfs’ march home. This is a very simple example.

Seven Dwarfs marching gif

In the Fantasia mushroom dance, the littlest mushroom is often, but not always, moving in the wrong direction or at the wrong speed. They don’t overplay it by having it be continuously wrong.

In Lilo and Stitch, Lilo has no problem doing the hula in time with the other dancers. It’s a lovely bit of animation, and they wisely didn’t ruin it with an old gag. However, she arrives a little late, and that’s enough to say something about her character. The fact that she can immediately fall in step, and her expression showing her satisfaction with herself, is very appealing.

Lilo hula dance gif

This next video, sent to me by Stephen Worth, is of a single act that is not part of a larger narrative, and it’s a full-on slapstick act built around the out of step character. This is also a good example of English Music Hall comedy.

There have been many comedies about the military, and problems with marching is an old trope. Here are two clips of Charlie Chaplin working the material in his own style. In this first one, he is in time with the others, but is doing the wrong thing. is

The soldier who can’t stay in step is an old gag, so when a new act wants to use it, they must develop some new angle on it. In this clip from Laurel & Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland, Laurel cannot stay in step with the company. So what does he do? He makes the rest of the company change to match him.

This next video is impressive for its sheer scale. Comic actor Bill Irwin is the drum major for a very large marching band. It’s unusual because he is supposed to be the leader of the group. He’s out of sync, but they keep going. I love the moment where he appears to redirect the entire band by pulling one flag bearer in a new direction.

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