Early film comedy certainly focuses more on physical comedy-the slap in the face, the anvil falling on a head kind of stuff. With film being silent, you had to focus on body language to convey meaning. Plots were usually ridiculous and as one “punch” was being set up, another was being “knocked-down.”
When we finally put sound to film, everything changed. Not only did plot improve, but sound effects added to the mood and tone of a piece. In October, 1927, The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” by Warner Brothers, introduced some limited audio. It included the music and some background and sound effects, but no dialogue. It would be another year before dialogue would be included. For one, the technology hadn’t been created and “many filmmakers and critics, who worried that a focus on dialogue would subvert the unique aesthetic virtues of soundless cinema,” (wiki 1). The first feature film to include dialogue was also a Warner Brothers film, The Tenderloin, “though only 15 of its 88 minutes actually had dialogue,” (wiki). Unfortunately for those comedians who made a career in the world of silent film, such as Charlie Chaplin and, Anny Ondra, didn’t fair well in the talkies.
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The few who did make the transition flourished. Martin Sills and Al Jolson continued their success, while the Marx Brother’s finally found their niche. Having found fame in Vaudeville, the Marx Brother’s came to the silver screen in their first motion picture Cocoanuts (1929). The Brother’s always played the same “characters,” Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo and was instantly recognized because of their avant-garde personas. There comedy style was very slap-stick (even violent) and sometimes non-sensical.
The fact is, slap-stick comedy is often violent and not equally funny. If you filled a room full of a hundred people and showed them old-comedy reels, not everyone would laugh. At times, I was the person not laughing. I discovered that the humor had a lot to do with context and background. In One Week, a couple is crossing a train track and narrowly misses being hit by a train. Then, on key, a train hits their stuff from the other direction. Funny stuff, right? Perhaps not– if you recently had a friend killed by a train.
I paid more attention this semester when watching popular television shows such as America’s Funniest Home Videos. I discovered that I often gasped in disbelief, not laughter. A middle-aged-man acting like a monkey on a trampoline is funny, but I’m not sure how him falling off, face first, doesn’t make more people think of the life time of medical bills or rehabilitation he might have to endure. I assume that my background in caring for someone injured and the struggles I’ve had with injury have tarnished my ability to find humor in dangerous situations. The humor might be lost on the few who look at these situational comedies differently.
These films (Duck Soup and Slapstick Masters) also pioneered some of the “situational” comedy that is still popular today. Some of these examples include: the anvil on the head, the near-miss train, sawing the wrong end of beam, etc. When these films were popular, it was the first time people saw these skits and stunts. I would imagine that audiences were “in stitches.” And, when you look at the seriousness of their lives, war, depression, and economic collapse, this type of humor was a welcome break from factory life. They needed that release.
My generation grew up watching full-color, full-access cable and we’ve seen hundreds of these skits time and time again. I found the old Charlie Chaplin and Marx Brother’s routines to be predictable. Basically, I’ve seen it before. The mirror routine that the Marx Brother’s perform in Duck Soup, I’ve seen at least twice, in The Parent Trap and Strictly Business.
I have thousands of hours of cartoons catalogued in my brain. The Road Runner and Wylie Coyote used a lot of these “slap-stick” techniques such as the classic stick of TNT, with a faulty fuse, that explodes on the initiator.
We also have some modern slapstick heros such as Jim Carey and Chevy Chase. And Saturday Night Live is full of physical comedy and off-color humor. It appears the older I get the more I prefer satire or “intellectual comedy.” I don’t want to be handed the joke– I want to work for it. I think the Cohen Brother’s share my philosophy and tend to produce dark comedies.
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The Big Lebowski, one of the few Cohen films I was not familiar with, definitely uses satire. The “Dude” gets roped into a scheme to save “Bunny,” a near-broke millionaire’s trophy wife from kidnappers. The Dude was originally mistaken for the millionaire when a group of thugs came to collect a debt from him. They ruined his rug and the Dude sought out the real Lebowski for restitution. He “takes” a rug and returns to his humdrum life, bowling with his inept friends and smoking pot. The film has a huge cast of “characters,” and each one adds some twist to the plot. In the end, we find that Bunny returns from holiday (unbeknownst to her husband) and Mr. Lebowski turns out to be as crooked as his fake kidnappers. The Dude returns to his normal life and continues to bowl, albeit one friend less. This is the kind of irony-ridden, plot twisting, ridiculousness, I just love and it makes you laugh. It’s absurd.
We certainly saw a wide-range of comedic works this semester. I was introduced to works I’ve never seen, a few I never heard of, and several I would have never watched on my own. I understand a bit more about why people find some thing things humorous while other’s do not. I also learned more about early American film, and how actors of the day, especially from Vaudeville struggled to make the shift from a live audience to that of paid-patrons of the silver-screen. Comedy is perhaps the hardest type of writing to produce and perhaps the hardest to perform because of the endless variables of the audience. Humor is fickle, but if you find it, laughter can be timeless.
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