Why Not Use Words?

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There is something really odd about a character that doesn’t talk.

Silence holds a unique tension. Stillness is the same. They create a wonderful expectancy.

Think of being in any situation with a group of people, one of whom never speaks. What would you think of that person?

I not against talking. I’m definitely not against sound. (In the double act that I work in, my partner talks for the entire show and we pay a huge amount of attention to creating rhythm from the natural sound of our movement, our props and our environment.)

I don’t want to make characters that are silent for the sake of being different. For me silence is not an “experimental” choice.

On the contrary, we spend most of our days in silence. Much of our interaction is non-verbal. A huge amount of our observation of other people is of their movement. We’ve all sat in a cafe window people watching!

So we don’t need to make fraudulent “mime” scenes. We can just make scenes where talking naturally is absent. Most obviously, when people are on their own and when people are watched from afar. Or you could set a scene on a deafening oil rig. Or even where two hostages have their mouths taped. (These last two are less interesting to me as they will inevitably involve attempts at talking through mime.)

I enjoy the fun of interpretating or “working out the puzzle” of non-verbal scenes. And equally I love the creative puzzle of making clear inferences without resorting to pointing or unrealistic mime!

As noted in a previous blog, I love the freedom given to the audience to be vocal – not worrying about interrupting the performer or other audience members.

And, finally, but most importantly for me, there is the mysterious anonymity given to a character who we cannot hear. In watching something without the extra information given by the voice, we infer our own ideas about their personality and psychology. Once a character speaks, it is as though the mask slips, and we are presented with something different – something more obvious and less animalistic. Maybe less unpredictable. (I always feel like Chaplin has a great wild animal quality.)

Is there perhaps something more  universal about the non-verbal? Do we avoid projecting our preconceptions about people with certain accents and vocal qualities? Does it allow us to relate more deeply to the character as a result?

To conjure a simple example, imagine watching people on the road from up on a bridge. You see someone waiting, then someone arrives to stand next to him. Another person stands on the other side of the first. The last two exchange glances.

If I was watching that from afar I would be captivated, and a little anxious. And it is that feeling of interpreting what you are watching and not hearing that I find so thrilling.

But this doesn’t mean that everything is about a mysterious narrative. So long as the viewer believes that what they are watching is realistic – or at least consistent – you can explore an extraordinary world of subtle and outlandish behaviour.

Jacques Tati is probably the greatest exponent of this style of film-making. His use of “anonymous” behaviour is fascinating. He often uses a character that is a “watcher of the action”. In Jour de Fete there is an artist and an old lady. In Les Vacances de M. Hulot many of the characters watch each other. And it interesting to read that in French art, there is a well known character called “le flâneur” – someone who spends his time drifting around people watching.

There is a great example of Tati’s vision from 30 seconds:

The exclusion of words has a long tradition, particularly in France where the use of words was banned in theatre unless specifically licenced. This resulted in the French traditions of mime and pantomime. such as the manifesto of French physical performer Étienne Decroux in which he suggested that words be banned from theatre completely for a few years so that actors could learn to use their bodies effectively.

My exclusion of words is not about artistic  resistance training! It is about accessing an unusual experience of interpreting what you are watching and a freedom to vocalise as an audience.

Am I being too fussy?! Or do you get a unique experience from watching non-verbal comedy?

Please let me know what you think!

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How to Write a Comedy Scene

Here are some simple things that you can do to make a great comedy scene.

There are no absolute rules – but here are some ideas and examples to get you started.

Characters

Try and make your characters as exact as possible. Give them an “attitude” – which is a bit like an emotion, or an outlook on the world. eg. excited, sad, suspicious. Good “attitude” words often end in “-ful”. Such as playful, careful, bashful. (But not things words like spoonful or cupful!)

In the incredibly successful sitcom Friends, the characters are superbly drawn. For example, Ross Geller is gloomy, dispondent and pessimistic. He often walks into the room and says “Hi-ii” in a gloomy way.

The clearer the character’s attitude, the better. Attitudes are emotional words – so “shy”, “tense” and “enthusiastic” are good. Words that aren’t so helpful are judgemental words like stupid, clumsy or wrong as they are not about the character’s feelings. Also, descriptive words like heavy, tall or well-dressed don’t give any information about the character’s feelings, so they aren’t as useful either.

Plan

Each character must be trying to do something in a scene. So if your character is entering a room, give them a definite reason – eg. looking for his lost keys, coming in to get changed, hiding from someone outside. You could get the “plan” from his or her attitude. So a shy man could be coming in to escape from a noisy party in the next room. Or an angry mother could come in looking for their naughty teenage son.

Problem

Something happens that hinders the character’s plans. The problem might arise from the characters conflicting “plans”. eg one might be trying to put clothes away, while the other might be taking clothes out to try on.

In the following scene, we see Chandler planning to eat a cheesecake. Rachel causes the problem by pointing out to him that it is immoral to eat it.

Reaction

Comedy scenes really get going when the characters start reacting.

When they react, their attitudes change. And they try to do something to solve the problem.

These reactions and attempts to solve the problem will result in further reactions and further attempts to solve the problem. And this is the core of your comic scene.

Using the clothes example again:

Betty is excited about going out. (Attitude)

She wants to wear exactly the right clothes. (Plan)

Betty’s mum, Mrs Crocker, is cross because of the mess. (Attitude)

Mrs Crocker tidies up the clothes. (Plan and Problem!)

Betty gets cross. (Reaction)

Betty grabs the dress from Mrs Croker. (Trying to solve problem)

The dress gets ripped.

Betty starts crying. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker starts laughing. (Reaction)

Betty gets cross at Mrs Crocker’s reaction. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker teases Betty for getting angry. (Reaction)

etc…

Re-incorporation

To keep the audience interested, the writer must keep everything within the bounds of credibility.

But to really excite an audience, the writer should try to re-incorporate as many ideas as possible. In other words, keep using objects, phrases or ideas that have been mentioned or noticed earlier.

In the Betty and Mrs Crocker scene, it would be great to re-incorporate the ripped dress. There’s other things to re-visit too – where is Betty going this evening (to meet her estranged father?) Why is Mrs Crocker so stressed out about keeping the place tidy (a lover coming round while Betty’s out?) So many options! So much fun!

In this Chaplin boxing sketch, he re-incorporates the bell, the hugging and the hiding behind the referee to great effect. Watch from about 1 min 15 secs into the clip.

Rhythm

It is worth noting as well, that in the Chaplin boxing scene there is a crackling rhythm. The bouncing movement of the boxers and referee gives the entire scene life.

So, give it a go! With just a little bit of practice, you will come up with wonderful, satisfying comic scenes.

To see some of my attempts at one-man scenes, visit http://www.thesillyseasons.com

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

 

A Bit of Animal Magnetism

One of the stranger aspects of visual performance, clowning and animation is that the characters often have an “animal-like” or “non-human” quality.

This wonderful clip of the Godfrey Daniels character sums it up perfectly.

The character is roughly human, but we certainly don’t react to him as we would a “person”. He doesn’t speak and has no facial expressions – so we only get information about his mood from his physicality. There is something fascinating about it.

Harnessing this idea can be invaluable, allowing characters to be:

  • completely unique
  • very likeable
  • surprising
  • free from the usual rules of society (and even physics)

This is the territory of mask work but we also see it in clowning, puppetry and even early film, where facial expressions couldn’t be seen very clearly.

My favourite Chaplin films are where his antics are viewed from a distance. It is Chaplin’s extraordinary physicality that made him such a great silent film star. Have a look at his physicality compared to the other actors in the first few minutes of the famous factory scene:

The “non-human-ness” of his appearance allows us to view his character differently. Perhaps we don’t judge him as harshly. Maybe we don’t worry so much when he gets hurt. And we enjoy his unnatural movement which we might consider too “fake” if watching a modern film.

Some performers, like the one “inside” Godfrey Daniels, have masked their whole body, giving a new dimension to their physicality. Clowns use big shoes and baggy pants to deliberately distort the body shape. Some performers have taken this to the extreme. The creators of “Mummenschanz” are a good example. (I especially like the “tube” in clip at 48 secs:)

Some of the Mummenschanz “characters” have got hardly any recognisable features. But the movement still allows us to follow a narrative. Note in particular how they use focus (ie where they are looking) and how they change speed.

If you want to explore this oddity further, try this for fun:

  • Get together with some friends.
  • Draw some different faces on some sheets of paper (one face per sheet).
  • Poke small holes for the eyes.
  • Use an elastic band to hold one of the pieces of paper over your face.
  • Try moving around as your new character – but be careful if you can’t see that well!
  • Get your friends to ask you questions, or make suggestions about what’s happening to you.
  • Without using words or facial expressions, you will find that you have to explore a whole new vocabulary of expression.
  • Have fun!

IN A NUTSHELL

Disguising the “human-ness” of a character can have strange and exciting results.

You don’t need words to enthrall an audience.

Experiment with face masks, body masks and physicality.

(I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the psychology of non-verbal, non-facial expression. If you could recommend some reading I’d be really grateful.)

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

The Celestial Light of the Silver Screen

Since 2006, the well known UK comedian Paul Merton has shared his enthusiasm for silent comedy in books and television programmes.

I love Merton’s delight for the genre – and he has made it fashionable with a previously skeptical audience.

A few years ago, I went to see Paul Merton talk.

I was expecting an interesting but academic evening. The evening ticked along calmly until Paul Merton showed a Chaplin short accompanied by live music.

It was the proverbial divine revelation!

I had never watched a silent comedy with lots of other people before. Despite working in front of large audiences every day – and constantly saying how silent film comedians used all the tricks of vaudeville clowns –  I hadn’t given any thought to what it would be like watching a silent comedy film with a large audience.

Well, I’m telling you – it was WILD!!!

Suddenly these films burst into focus.

It was like watching the most magnificent stage show. All the timing within the film was built to fit with the predicted reactions of a live audience’s. I heard myself – not just laughing – but shouting out loud, “Uh oh!”, “Watch out!” and “He’s going to get it!”

(This was in no small part down to Neil Brand’s cunning live musical accompaniment.)

It was liberating. You could make as much noise as you liked without interrupting the performers or the rest of the audience.

The only thing similar to it that I have experienced is pantomime. Which is not surprising as both performance styles stem from the same root.

In his recent documentary, “The Birth of Hollywood”, Merton also highlights the “enthusiasm” of early cinema audiences.

During my own shows, I often see this “liberating effect” working on individuals in a crowd. Especially on more “cool”  people (invariably between 21 and 33) who tend to go through a period of resistance before letting the laughter take them over.

Other groups are naturally at ease with the freedom afforded by a wordless show – children have few inhibitions; stressed adults find a great release in “giving in” to the silliness; and old ladies are more than happy to be vocal – I have no idea why!

In my series of short films “The Silly Seasons” I hadn’t really considered that the audience might join in in the same way that a live audience might. But having experienced “The Merton Revelation”, I am determined that my next film will be a real joiner-inner – even if I do have to bribe a few old ladies to hide in the 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