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: