The filming of pranks has a history that reaches back to the very earliest days of cinema. In fact, the very first comic bit ever commited to film was the acting out of a prank. L’Arroseur Arrose (The sprinkler sprinkled) was filmed in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers.
This sort of mishchief film became a standard approach to early comedy. Here is another one.
I suppose this next one could be considered a prank film, even though it’s interesting that the prankster is supposed to be dead.
Animated films continued the tradition of characters creating mishchief. Here is Felix the Cat playing the rascal.
When television was young, the prank film returned. Allen Funt brought us the great “Candid Camera” Now, the pranks were being properly played on unsuspecting people. What is wonderful is that it is just as funny now as it ever was.
Thanks to youtube, we are living in the golden age of prank videos. It is arguable that the Japanese are the very best at them. Here is an excellent example.
M. Wilson Disher wrote “Clowns and Pantomimes” which was published in 1925. He lays out six varieties of physical comedy. These are:
FALLS, BLOWS, SURPRISE, KNAVERY, MIMICRY, and STUPIDITY
FALLS. Easily the first one to come to mind. Gravity reminds us we are not special. The more important or serious the person is, the funnier it is when they fall. There are many combinations of people and ways of falling. It’s really about the set up, and also about having a reasonable belief that the person isn’t seriously injured. It’s about making them look foolish.
BLOWS This is the bread and butter of the Three Stooges. It’s also the category that pie fights fall into.
SURPRISE One reason Buster Keaton was considered a great film maker was his ability to set up surprises. You are all set to see one thing, then he gives you another. There are two good surprises in this clip from his short film “One Week.”
KNAVERY is the sneaky stealing of things. The sly trickster is appealing. He is the partner of stupidity. I immediately thought of Harpo Marx.
MIMICRY. You probably noticed the brief moment of mimicry in the previous clip. When someone pretends to be some one or something else, it is funny. Dressing in drag is a form of mimicry. The greater the skill, the greater the comedy. Jim Carrey has great skill and he pushes the exaggeration as far as he can.
STUPIDITY. Here’s the problem with demonstrations of stupidity: The professionals have been pushed out of the market by the amateurs. I’m talking about “fail” videos. Damn if there aren’t lots of cameras trained on lots of stupid people. But we want to see how the professionals act stupid. The comedy of mistakes. It’s about seeing things wrong, being confused, but it’s also seeing things in a different way. The stupid character misinterprets directions and repeatedly makes the same mistake over again. Stan Laurel was one of the great stupid comedians.
I teach animation at the Academy of Art University, and one common mistake I see students make is this. The scene opens with a person in a relaxed standing position. Then they start “acting” with some arm gestures. It’s as though they are waiting for the director to say “action!”
I tell them the audience is gathering an impression from the very first frame, and it’s great if the character is already clearly in some state of thought or action. If you are just doing a single shot, imagine there was a scene before, and we are cutting on action to your scene.
That little tip leads me to a larger topic. That of how a character enters a scene. A great entrance will immediate capture an audiences attention. Charlie Chaplin worked at making interesting entrances. Here, the actor Rowan Atkinson explains why:
Chaplin so took over a picture, he seemed to always be center screen, or entering or exiting in some eyecatching manner. Entrances and exits are a special aspect of physical comedy, worthy of great thought, but Chaplin also did this for a different reason: editing. Sennett would often edit out any material he didn’t care for, and this angered Charlie. But Sennett had to leave in the entrances and exits. By embedding good stuff in those moments, Chaplin was assured of quality screen time.
Sennett was editing out what he didn’t care for, and audiences will do the same, essentially forgetting those moments. So Chaplin used that knowledge to make sure his time on stage was as effective as possible. He could make a great entrance, then slow down a little maintain the integrity of the performance.
Of course we don’t have to do great entrances to keep from being thrown on the cutting room floor. But it is a way of not being boring. It’s a way to get the audience immediately excited.
While comedians and animated characters can put a lot of energy into entrances normal actors also want to know why they are entering a space. Here is a 4 minute video about entrances and exits from a writers point of view. As a film maker, you are the director, and this is worth watching.
Now back to energetic characters trying to grab the spotlight. In the TV series Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer made a trademark of barging into Jerry’s apartment without knocking. Here is a montage of Kramer’s entrances.
Entrances are more than just coming in through a door. Any time a film begins, the first scene is essentially the entrance. One way of making this entertaining is a camera reveal of the situation. In some of Popeye’s earliest shorts, we would first see him in close up, bobbing up and down like a sailor, with the rain pouring down. He would be in a heroic pose:
As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.
The Three Stooges had some great entrances. Here is one of my favorites from “No Census, No Feeling” which starts at :24. While it looks like stuntmen were used, they matched the action over the cut very nicely.
One group that has taken entrances very seriously are professional wrestlers. They are all showmen. A youtube search for “entrances” will show numerous compilations of them. I was impressed with this particular fighter’s entrances, which are very theatrical.