Tell Us How You Feel, Make Your Move.

Thanks To Jonathan Lyons at comedyforanimators.com / Stupix for this link.

I thought I’d briefly look at what the “yellow” character is doing so well.

SHARPNESS

I love the way this actor is so distinct in his movement from one body position to another.

He snaps in and out of poses using all the extremes of his body. He bends and straightens his neck to emphasise head movement. He lengthens his fingers as well as his arms. He turns his feet in and out.

And I love the way his sharp movement makes the change really clear – his changes from one emotion to another are so clear and sharp that the change itself often gets a laugh.

EMOTIONS

Visual comedy is great when the characters have strong emotions and emotional reactions.

In a non-verbal performance, I like to write out a script of emotions instead of words.

This actor is doing it really well… shocked, confused, upset, delighted…

RHYTHM

Good rhythm makes a character really come alive.

The New York Times said of Bill Irwin: “This uncanny comic actor has always exuded the sense that he is listening to music that no one else can hear.” 

That is a very astute comment about visual performers.

Try this at home:

Get some knives and forks and imagine you’re a butler in a show.

Lay them out on a table ready for a very important meal.

Now do it again, but this time put some music on. Let the music feed your movement.

Really get into it! You don’t have to dance, you just have to move.

Try it with different music.

I use this idea a lot. I had a tune stuck in my head for years. Not quite knowing what it was, a friend asked me to sing it to them. They identified the song as Girls Aloud’s “Promise I Made”. It was a few weeks later that I realised that in fact it wasn’t Girls Aloud, but the Blankety Blank theme tune.

So if I am ever flagging in a show, I just have to sing the song in my head, and I’m back up to speed.

Please don’t judge me!

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Performer Analysis: Chaplin (or A Kick Up My Backside!)

I had been feeling rather pleased with myself.

I had worked out that I’d performed thousands of live shows to over half a million people; I felt that I had a developed a high level of understanding of the process of clowning and visual comedy; and I had just finished making four short slapstick films, which I thought were “not too shabby” for a first attempt.

Then I watched a Chaplin short called “Behind the Screen”.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so special any more!

Well, it turns out that in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell is right – there is a difference between capable and extraordinary!

I had come across the title reading Bryony Dixon’s essay on slapstick, “The Good Thieves”. I was delighted when I found the whole film on youtube.

Delighted… and distraught.

It turned out, my self-conceived “expertise” was nothing more than a knowledge of the absolute basics of a craft which Chaplin had taken to extraordinary heights.

Unlike my youthful introduction to Laurel and Hardy, I had never seen a Chaplin until about five years ago. Prior to that, I had the impression that Chaplin films were at best interesting curios of a bygone era and at worst saccharine and dated. But I was completely wrong.

In “Behind the Screen”, Chaplin displays an extraordinary level of physical ability, performance skill and, above all, visual creativity.

Most striking to a fledgling film maker like myself is Chaplin’s variety of visual jokes and varied visual construction:

  • the angles at which he manoeuvres (and his great use of depth)
  • his general movement – walking, behing lifted up
  • the creation of images eg the human hedgehog made from chairs stacked on his back
  • the close up character work (eg his onions reactions)
  • the chaos – the huge pillar, the trap door

And then , on top of all this, is my favourite feature of Chaplin films: the consistency of  “other worldliness”. The Chaplin character stands out above his contemporaries because it embodies an animal, non- human character. This allows him to behave in odd ways without having to adhere to naturalism – which, for other slapstick performers, can hinder their antics. This idea is played out in modern cartoons – invariably animated characters are non-human, allowing the creators to play around with ideas that are not restricted by human reality. Chaplin’s tramp, although “humanoid” is more like a cartoon. And our emotional reaction to this sort of protagonist is subtly different. (See my blog “Animal Magnestism”) Traditional circus clowns represent a similar detachment from “natural humanness”. And the lack of verbal language is justified by this choice.

Even when his peers moved on from the cartoon-ish behaviour of early slapstick towards more naturalistic characters, Chaplin made the decision to remain animal-like – and his impish innocence, strange costume and make up remain valid choices beyond the end of the limitations of early film technology.

Perhaps this is why, above all else, Chaplin’s films hold up under contemporary scrutiny: they are in world of their own.

Have a look at some of my own slapstick attempts here! 

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Performer Analysis: George Carl

There are better quality clips of George Carl on youtube, but this is my favourite.

The audience is right behind him which gives a great fluency and sharpness to his schtick.

George Carl is probably best known to modern audiences for his role in the film “Funny Bones” as an old variety entertainer who never speaks.

Carl is a fascinating performer to study as he is a direct link from the authentic vaudeville circuit, having begun performing in 1932. His act looks and feels old fashioned, but it’s still great fun for a modern audience. He enjoyed great success late in his career appearing on The Johnny Carson Show – and there is plenty of youtube footage of him on European television.

The greatest thing about Carl is his dexterity – high speed control of hat tricks and getting caught up in wire, mic stand and button holes. His skill is superb, and for most audiences this is enough.

But he also has a wonderful persona – a tiny man with a wizened face – who has a likeability similar to Norman Wisdom and his voice-less performance gives him a Chaplineqsue animal-like quality which is very attractive.

There is a slight problem for modern viewers of Carl’s act. In his pursuit of pace and as a result of having done the same act so many times, he slightly fudges the sense of his routine. There are occasions when he manipulates props in ways that don’t make sense to his character’s situation. He doesn’t always acknowledge events or take time to react to events within the chaos.

I have a feeling that this was not always the case, and that he has lost definition over hundreds of performances. Having said that, the chaos is so sublime that it is enough to make a great act. Having seen some other footage of Carl as a great acrobat, I imagine that he concentrated more on the execution of the skills than on strict adherence to the rules of naturalism.

For me, though, the core of Carl’s success is his persona – his small stature, cheeky face and vulnerability are just wonderful and you can see the years of artistry in his every movement.

IN A NUTSHELL

Use a likeable persona

Enjoy full control of your props

You don’t need any vocal sound to knock out a modern audience

 

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

 

Performer Analysis: Bill Irwin

It’s strange how a world opens up to you when you start exploring.

In the 1990’s my emerging obsession with visual comedy led me down some bizarre avenues. One of these was buying a book called Modern and Post Modern Mime by Thomas Leahbart. It was such a strange title that I couldn’t resist!

That book was one of those gateway experiences. I could hardly believe the story that mime emerged as a political genre. I thought it was brilliant, but hilarious, that Etienne Decroux suggested that there should be a twenty year ban on speaking in theatre. And I was galvanised by the discovery that there was a collection of performers known as “New Vaudevillians”.

And then, of course, there were the photos. I’ve always been a push-over for a great visual and here were some great publicity shots of performers doing exactly what I thought I wanted to do.

A NEW TYPE OF CLOWN

One of the most striking images was that of Bill Irwin. Superficially, it was just a photo of a clown – a red nose, white face, a crazy wig, baggy trousers and big shoes, and yet, unlike all clowns that I had seen up until then, it had absolute class.

And that is the crux of why Bill Irwin is so extraordinary.

Despite having all the appendages of “creepy” clowns, Irwin’s clown was “done properly”. His make up was faultless, his clothing was made of superior material and somehow the proportions of his costume were spot on.

This attention to detail allowed me to see his clown in a new context. The usual prejudices that I have about circus clowns evaporated. Instead I saw the character itself: authentic, fun – and wild. The possibilities for this clown’s antics thrilled me. What would this character do in a show? What chaos would he leave in his wake? The traditional clown suddenly had meaning for me.

CONTENT AND STYLE

Irwin emerged in America in the 1970s and 80s when circus skills, mime and clowning were enjoying a renaissance. Also emerging at this time was the post-modernist movement. The traditional, familiar structure of circus was good fuel for the post modernists, allowing them a clear, recognisable format to deconstruct.

In 1982, Irwin had a huge theatre hit. It was a bizarre deconstruction of a vaudeville show, “The Regard of Flight”. It includes eccentric dancing, mime, slapstick and ukelele songs. It is esoteric, but it is replete with Irwin’s technical skill.

In fact, it is Irwin’s incredible physical skill that is the core of the show. Again, this was not just a performer who could do the usual tricks. It was a performer who could do these tricks better than anyone else you have ever seen!

ARTHOUSE OR FUNHOUSE

Bizarrely, Irwin is probably most famous as Mr Noodles in Sesame Street – possibly as far from arthouse post-modernism as you could get!

As Mr Noodles, he does a lot of the schtick that made him famous: climbing down the stairs in a trunk and getting dragged off stage by an invisible force. But, again, whereas I had seen many children’s performers do similar things, Irwin was absolute class.

This time, it was the final part of the Bill Irwin package that reveals itself: it is his warmth of personality that wins over the Sesame Street kids.

NUTSHELL

As a performer, Irwin is pretty unique. He is a great physical illusionist because because his skills are so exceptional. He is a great clown because of his wonderful personality. And his attention to detail gives him an alchemistic ability to make the ordinary extraordinary.

This clip shows Irwin’s skill in all its forms. It is from the 2011 dance event Voix de Ville organised by Cori Orlinghouse. Now in his sixties, Irwin puts most younger performers to shame.

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Performer Analysis: Larry Griswold

Thanks to Tim Eagle, aka Skinny Bean for this clip.

This isn’t just a presentation of great acrobatic skill, it is also a perfect example of how repetition in front of a live audience generates wonderful comic detail.

Larry Griswold’s sharp fumbles and pacey pratfalls are the result of years of adding new ideas and wittling away unnecessary flab – making this one of the sharpest routines I have ever seen.

From start to finish, you can see years of slight adjustments of timing and equipment to allow the act to be executed safely and at pace.

So what specifically is he is doing?

CASTING A SPELL

Right from the start, Griswold’s quick chatter creates instant excitement.

His declaration that he is a stand-in causes expectant laughter, and a brief mention of drunkenness makes us cheerfully alarmed.

Without waiting for any audience reaction, he sets off – and has whipped us into horror within seconds.

This type of attack on the senses early in a routine can be very useful for a performer. It’s a form of hypnosis – the striking pace and rhythm causes a clear physical reaction – even a hysteria. This makes his audience far more receptive to the rest of the routine. Performers can do this in many ways. In our childrens’ show, we have a very staccato introduction, giving abrupt instructions, and provoking quick short responses. It sets the tone for the children to react appropriately to the show. So from then on, we get strong, sharp bursts of laughter, but we don’t have to worry about it getting out of hand.

After his first fall, Griswold maintains the pace, quickly re-inforcing his likeable drunk character by confronting Sinatra, and before the laughs have subsided, he is at the top of the ladder again.

MAKING THE MOST OF MOVEMENT

His first fall appears to be enormous. His body rotates through a small area, but he lets his feet travel a large distance in an arc, exaggerating the size of the movement.

FLAB-U-LESS

He immaculately executes gag after gag, not even using a one-two-three style set up.

The character is always directly trying to get diving – hindered by sharp, sudden interruptions of genuine incidents.

IN TROUBLE

I don’t think I have ever seen such a perfect example of performer looking like they are in trouble!

When he hits his face on the board, his silence afterwards is a great professional touch – giving us a real sense that maybe something has gone wrong.

This is one of the greatest skills that a slapstick performer can have. A bit of doubt in the viewer’s mind is a wonderful thing to achieve. The laughs and gasps are so much better when it looks like it’s really gone wrong.

It is no surprise then, that all this fast, detailed work ends up in a routine of just 4 minutes.

But what a perfect 4 minutes!

IN A NUTSHELL

Being in trouble and danger makes for great comedy

Practice and repetition allows the impression of chaos

Vocal noise can give rhythm to a visual performance

Using an appropriate character adds to the fun

Keep character’s overall intention sharp

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Performer Analysis: Dick Van Dyke

I know what you’re thinking: “Chim chimerney chim chim cheroo!”.

Or maybe “Evurrybuddy’s ‘appy win Mahry Poppun’s izintown.”

Or if you’re really young, “Diagnosis Murder”.

But go with me on this, because Dick van Dyke is one of my favourite performers.

Most people wouldn’t think of van Dyke as a slapstick comedian. We’re used to seeing him in very naturalistic TV and film roles. But when you have a good look at his career, in particular The Dick van Dyke Show, you can see that he comes from the classic tradition of slapstick clowns. So in this blog, I’m going to highlight a few of the techniques that he cleverly transfers from circus to sitcom.

On close inspection, van Dyke’s physical style is similar to Jacques Tati – both use their height and long limbs to accentuate normal movement. Both shorten their trousers – and van Dyke even shortens his sleeves – to emphasise movement at their physical extremes. This is a classic clowning trick – just think of a circus clown with white gloves, short trousers, stripey tights and large shoes. These are all designed to exaggerate the movement of the limbs. Dick van Dyke does it too – but with long thin smart shoes and and an ill fitting stylish suit.

Another great trick that van Dyke uses is body isolations. (What’s that now?!) He will often only animate his legs and keep his upper body very still and upright. This contrast of movement and stillness makes for a very funny image. (Think of John Cleese’s silly walk – or even the moonwalk.)

He uses his physicality to punctuate routines and highlight points when he wants you laugh. He uses his long neck particularly well –  sticking it out when pulling a funny face to create a character. By seemingly detaching his whole head from the rest of him – he can snap in and out of the funny face character by pulling his neck back and forth. (Try it! It’s great fun!)

I can’t think of many other performers who execute a physical snap change as well as Dick van Dyke. The best example of this is his drunk routine in the first episode of the Dick van Dyke Show, “The Sick Boy and The Sitter”.

The routine begins at about 19mins 55secs:

Overall then, I think it is his sharpness that really allows van Dyke to bring old fashioned physical comedy into a modern looking show. Audiences love to watch his clean, physical skill and the sharpness of the movement is surprising and funny.

Unlike many who have tried and failed to use slapstick in modern shows, van Dyke’s physical comedy is either dressed up as an “act” (like the routine above) – or, when part of the real story, it is believable and rooted in the character’s emotions.

For all these reasons Dick van Dyke is the perfect modern physical comedian.

THE MAIN POINTS AGAIN:

Contrasting movement in different parts of the body is funny!

Sharp change is funny!

Physical comedy should be consistent with the rest of the show – or clearly flagged up as “an act”.

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Why Do Visual Comics Use Weird Voices?!

Shut up. Shut UP. SHADDUP SHADDUP. SHUUUUUT UUUUUUUP!

That’s the standard reaction I get when I do my (terrible) Jerry Lewis impression.

It’s not just my Jerry Lewis. It’s my Norman Wisdom, my Peewee Herman and my Jo Pasquale.

I have always wondered why  so many comics use these high pitched (some might say annoying) voices But after a few years of live shows, I found myself doing it. This wasn’t a planned decision. It just happened.

One reason is that high pitched sound can be sharp and surprising – perfect for comedy. But from my own experience, I am convinced that the unusual character voices of Wisdom and Lewis emerged for more practical reasons.

BIG STUFF

Large arenas like circuses or big theatres can get noisy and chaotic. In these arenas, routines can get lost beneath the audience reaction. Sharp, punchy noise is good punctuation for a routine.

And it’s not just about noise. More importantly, it can be due to the audience “falling about”. In my experience, very large audiences can take a while to “get back on board” after big jokes – they are catching their breath, they are wiping their eyes, they are telling their kids to get off the floor.

By using a variety of tactics – including high pitched noise – a performer can re-establish order. Jerry Lewis is a big proponent of saying “Hey!” to an audience. Norman Wisdom laughs hysterically – or uses a baby-like “waaah”. Both used to regain focus.

IS IT JUST ME?

Why then, are strange voices so particular to comics?

Firstly, there is rarely as much audience rowdiness during other styles of performance as there is in the wild chaos of a clown show.

Secondly, higher pitched voices indicate low status, so that is appropriate for clown characters.

Thirdly, a high pitched voice upstages a low pitched voice in the same way that the clown’s physical antics can upstage a straight man’s stillness.

Finally, it’s so weird, other types of performers would avoid it!

JUDGEMENT

Unfortunately, vocal noise is often used in place of good physical technique. There is no reason why most performers shouldn’t be able to maintain sharpness and rhythm through the accurate movement of their body.

My feeling is that once established in a live setting, using high pitched noise can become habitual. In Lewis and Wisdom’s careers, it was probably never questioned as to whether this type of voice was suitable for film. They had had hugely successful live stage careers with these voices. In fact, because they were very mimickable, it made those characters more memorable – even if, for some, they were annoying.

In film, we don’t have to worry about audience control. One of my greatest revelations about film comedy was the first time I watched a Chaplin film as part of a large audience. Because we knew no one would speak, we realised we didn’t have to listen. We could make as much noise as we liked. We all guffawed, gasped and shout out loudly – happily knowing that we wouldn’t miss a thing. What an experience! What a release!

Overall, I would recommend avoiding the weird voice – and let your body do the work. (If you want to look into this more, have a look at some mask work. Try www.trestle.org.uk)

The main points again:

Sharp punchy noise can punctuate a routine

Sharp noise can help “reset” an audience after a big joke.

Noise is NO SUBSTITUTE for good physical technique.

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com