Why Not Use Words?

tati4

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!

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

Help Your Audience Laugh!

shouting           iPodGirl

One of my favourite jokes in my double act show is when my character suddenly can’t hear.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the basic idea: the clown character puts something over their ears – eg ear muffs, a hat with ear flaps, ipod headphones. The boss character talks to him. But the clown can’t hear and doesn’t even notice that the boss is trying to communicate with them.

It’s so silly, but it is a great joke for all ages.

But the other day I came across a little trick to make it work to even better.

AUDIENCE DOUBT

Within the joke, there is an important moment where the audience realises that the clown cannot hear. But this moment can be vague. Individuals in audiences don’t want to laugh at something alone – that would make them feel weird. The individual will let him or herself laugh at the exact moment that they know for sure that it is meant to be funny.

A good comparison is that moment in group singing when everyone has to start singing the first note. We feel comfortable starting to sing if a conductor tells us when. But if there is no conductor and the pianist gives a vague, meandering introduction, no one will want to be the one to risk singing first – and I’ve been in lots of situations where no one starts singing and the group collapses into embarrassed giggles!

In the “can’t hear” joke, the audience will be thinking that the character probably can’t hear, but they are not absolutely sure. So they need a little indication to confirm their guess. They need clear confirmation that the character can’t hear. And the sharper the moment of confirmation, the better the laugh.

So, how to give confirmation quick and subtley?

I had often played “not hearing” absolutely straight, doing nothing – and the anticipation built until an audience was sure enough of the fact to allow themselves to laugh. But recently I have started using very delicate breathing to give a clearer indication that the character “can’t hear”. I do this with a distinct release of breath – either audibly or physically. It is enough confirmation to the audience that their guess is correct.

This tiny indicator releases a big laugh from the audience.

Try it! It’s easy… and great fun to perform!

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

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

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:

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

How to Get a Laugh

Here’s is a really simple way to get a laugh in almost any scenario… on stage, film or animation.

I am going to call this technique a “transition”.

So how does it work? There are 3 simple stages.

Part 1: Be Emotional!

Reacting to something with a clear emotion will really help a gag work.

Watch how Friends actors Courtney Cox and Matthew Perry get big laughs from their intense panic.

For TV, Cox and Perry clearly emphasise the emotion with their faces.

For stage work, use your whole body to physicalise the emotion.

eg.   being embarrassed could mean looking at the floor with your feet turned inwards

being terrified might mean hopping from foot to foot very fast

be revolted might mean trying not to wretch!

Part 2: The Transition or “Change of Emotion”

“Transition” is the term I use for a physical and emotional change.

It works by having a completely different emotion before your emotional reaction at the laugh point.

The trick is to anticipate the emotion you’re going to use for your reaction – and then setting yourself up for a really strong change by having a very different emotion before the reaction.

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t!

About 10 secs into this clip, David Schwimmer does a wonderful change from resigned to angry :

Using the examples above…

you could be confident before you become embarrassed when you drop something

you might be enchanted before you become terrified when you see a cuddly toy

you could be excited before you become revolted when you look inside a box

For stage work you should again have a completely different physicality before your physical reaction at the laugh point. The more different your body shape before the reaction, the easier it is for the audience to see the change. Emotions with different speeds are perfect (eg enchanted is slow, terrified is fast).

Look at the wonderful Cirque du Soleil actor in yellow physicalise his transitions perfectly. (Thanks To Jonathan Lyons at comedyforanimators.com for this link.)

So, to conclude, using the examples above again…

– You start slow and confident, with hands on hips, chin up, chest out.

You drop something.

You suddenly become embarrassed and look at the floor, with your feet turned in.

– You start enchanted, floating around dreamily.

You see a cuddly toy.

You suddenly become terrified hopping from foot to foot very fast.

– You start excited, quickly rubbing you hands together, grinning wildly.

You look inside a box.

You suddenly freeze in revulsion and slowly try to hold back a wretch.

Part 3: Sharpness

The sharper and more defined the transition, the better the gag.

Overall

The key to nailing a transition is clear, strong emotion, contrast, and sharpness.
That’s it! Try it and have fun!
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