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!


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: