How to be Wild

Having read Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Groucho Marx, it is clear that the Marx Brother’s greatness comes from performing thousands of shows, day after day, week after week.

This is the case for most vaudeville performers – but I think repetition provides something unique for clowns  – something different to the obvious benefits of practice needed by skills-based performers such as jugglers and acrobats.

I call it “petulant deviation”. Groucho’s wild conversations are great examples of it.

Petulant what now?!

Apologies for making up terminology – let me try and explain myself!

Most performers who have done a show more than 40 times will know that there comes a point when you know it inside out. After that, there comes a period when the performer is so familiar with the show that little cracks start to appear.

Maybe you see things that don’t make sense, or you notice things that don’t quite fit the rhythm of the show. Maybe you get the feeling that there should be more or less emphasis on certain sections.

But more importantly, little opportunities offer themselves up. And as long as the performers stay in character, the theatrical illusion can be maintained to allow some improvisation.

That is what I mean by “deviation”.

“Petulant” deviation occurs when performers are so familiar with a show that they start actively looking for opportunities to improvise. It is often in these moments that real truth can be found in a show. It can also be where performers start destroying a show – the Marx Brothers were particularly good at that. Groucho and family were well known for being wild and unreliable. Their film bosses would insist on a tour of a stage version of each film to “run it in”. This was a great way of ironing out any problems – and testing out new material. But Groucho and the gang were so “petulant” that they would improvise with little regard for the fact that shows would over run by hours.

In his brilliant biography, Kanfer describes an incident where a young starlet who had offended the film company bosses was sent to work with the Marx Brothers as a punishment.

In the clip above, you can see how a pretty straightforward comedy scene may have been expanded through wild improvisation. In the clip below you can see how years of repetition and messing around has allowed Harpo and Chico such effectiveness as comic performers.

As I said before, this process feels quite different from the repetitive practice needed by jugglers and acrobats. It is about accessing a unique “zone” of clowning – the chaos zone, the boredom zone or the messing around zone. If you wanted to make up another piece of terminology, you could call it “finding an anarchic impetus”. But I wouldn’t – it would be too pretentious.

Without it, we have to be satisfied with well-rehearsed, technically accomplished performances.

But, with it, we get that unique wild quality which makes great clowning great.

If you want to have a look at the Groucho biography mentioned, click here:

Groucho Book

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:


How to Be Good at Something

People often think that slapstick is a lazy form of comedy. The best reply to this accusation is to show them some Chaplin.

Have a look at this rip-snorting bit of schtick from the master (at 3 minutes 08 secs):

This wonderful routine is something that Chaplin had performed live for years. The result is slapstick perfection – and as far as you can get from the perceived idea of slapstick as unrehearsed custard pie fights!

Stephan Kanfer wrote a wonderful biography of Groucho Marx: The Life and Times of Henry Julius Marx. He makes it very clear that the Marx Brother’s greatness came from performing thousands of shows, day after day, week after week.


In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he says that to become a true expert, you need to amass 10,000 hours of experience in your chosen craft.

It is a staggering figure. And to modern performers it is almost unattainable. It is the equivalent of performing for 2 hours every single night for over 13 years!

How many actors can get the opportunity to perform that much? Even if fully employed, it is unlikely that an actor would be practicing his craft more than once a day – let alone for more than a fraction of an entire show.

Even stand up comedians, who are in essence modern vaudevillians, only get to perform 20 to 60 minutes once or twice each night. In fact, stand up is probably the only form of modern entertainment in which a performer can amass a substantial amount of experience – and that is why it is the most prominent of all niche entertainment forms today.

Those early silent films, so often denigrated as daft, are full of performers who have done their time. They have learnt their craft inside out on the vaudeville and variety circuits. Not all of them reached the heights of Chaplin, but even acts like The Ritz Brothers who have little appeal to us nowadays, are stunning in their technical prowess.

Personally, I have been lucky to have gained my hours in lots of different ways: actor, walkabout entertainer, clown, but most significantly, I have performed in schools 3 times a day, in 40 minute shows, 5 days a week for about 25 weeks a year. I have been doing this for eleven years. But even that only gets me up to about 3000 hours! Plus maybe another few hundred writing, teaching and directing.

In that time my understanding has deepened. But more importantly, many things have become automatic – things that I struggled to understand at first are now subliminal. I am far from a finished product – and I would say that Gladwell’s maths feels correct – I am about half cooked!

Aside from stand up comedians, the other prolific group of performers I know are those who work primarily with children and as outdoor performers. Inevitably, this is all down to where the money is – and where there is the chance to perform more than once a day. I would suggest that the the only way performers can amass a suitable amount of hours is to do shows for children and families – allowing them to perform during the day as well as the evening.

Now, I am not saying that if you haven’t performed thousands of shows you are not a good performer. But I would suggest that to become an exceptional performer, you do.

So, what can we do about this? Well, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t spend arts funding giving audiences access to artists. I would spend it on giving artists access to audiences. And how would we spend the funding? Encourage everyone do family shows? Get people to watch more live shows? Get performers to more shows regardless of audience numbers? Well, if we want to be better performers, yes, that is exactly what we have to do! And if performers have had a chance to amassed more performance experience, the quality of the work will draw the crowds.

Here’s Bill Irwin talking about the importance of his experience of working in schools.


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: