Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lesson 17: Comic Acting

"If what you're doing is funny, you don't have to be funny doing it."


When Mike Nichols directed THE ODD COUPLE on Broadway (Art Carney played Felix; Walter Matthau) the cast laughed all the way through the first reading.  Nichols then said, "Okay, from now on read it like we're doing HAMLET."

The point is that for the characters -- from their point of view -- it's life and death.  It's extremely serious.  

Think about THE ODD COUPLE.   Felix is suicidal.  He's lost his family -- his beloved wife and kids.  Oscar hasn't paid his child support and is facing jail.  He's a deadbeat dad and compulsive gambler.  These guys are stuck together and on the verge of killing each other.   Go back and watch it with this in mind.  Then see Simon's great comic choices.  

If the actors are mugging it or winking their way through then the audience knows they are in on it.   And it's not funny.  The actor needs to experience the pain and suffering and treat it as a matter of laugh and death.  Now that's comedy!

Lesson 16: On Banana Peels

I was thinking about slipping on a banana peel.  Not that I was planning on doing it, mind you, but I was thinking, "Why is that funny?"  It's certainly not funny if it happens to you personally.  It may not be funny if someone has a serious back injury because of it.  But the prat fall is most effective in silent comedies.

There's something special about silent comedies (read Kerr's THE SILENT CLOWNS and see all the classics).  They are more akin to cartoons.  When sound came in people had to act "real."  There was a loss of exaggeration.  Exaggeration helps comedy and creates a greater comic effect.  The more realistic a person is slipping on a banana peel, the more you run the risk that the audience will empathize with the person and not laugh at the fall.

It's also funnier if someone pompous and dressed in a tuxedo slips on a banana peel.  That's funnier than a clown doing it.  The clown asks for our laugh.  There is less incongruity -- it is more expected -- when a clown slips.  

Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is I get a tiny paper cut in my finger.  It's really small and you can barely see it but it bothers me and annoys me and that's tragedy.   Comedy is you fall in an open man hole and break your neck."  

Mel's point (and his delivery of it is classic) is that we laugh at disasters happening to other people.  The average person would not empathize with the tuxedo-dressed gentleman.  Or think the man putting on airs deserved the comeuppance that came his way.

It was an important aspect of Chaplin's character that he always took himself seriously.  Note that: Great comedians take themselves seriously.  They are playing Hamlet.  Chaplin may have been doing funny things, but you get the sense always that he regarded himself as far more than a poor buffoon.  That he was something of a put on made him funnier.  

Standard prat fall scene.  Establishing shot of the banana peel (and it can refer to any trap awaiting our comic hero).  The audience expects the fall to come, but still laughs.  Keaton did these types of gags with a new spin: Let the audience in on it, and then cross them up.  Greater incongruity (for example in the classic finish of ONE WEEK).

Must a comedy writer be familiar with all these classic gags to write comedy?  No but it helps.  It's also a lot of fun.   


Lesson 15: Brainstorming

Coming up with a scene or sketch?

What's the best approach?

We've gone over comic characterization.  So you have your characters, or let's assume you're doing more of an all-out gag approach.

Best place to start is look at your setting.  Then make lists.  Brainstorm things related to that subject.  So if you're doing something set in a high school list out things associated with high school: Shop class, hall monitor, jocks, geeks, clubs, finals, teachers, principal, etc.

Then look at your current situation and character.  You should be able to spawn off a series of jokes from there.

I'm working on a feature-length TWILIGHT spoof currently and will provide a link to it in the future.  That'll be a good reference for how the lists lead to jokes.

LESSON 14: Comic Characterization

Comic characters are created by exaggeration of personality flaws.

Jack Benny's characterization is one of the greats.   He's vain and cheap.  Both are qualities we all have and we laugh at Benny recognizing our own foibles.  Benny (and his well paid writers as Benny was actually a generous man) mined these personality faults for decades.

Chaplin's "Little Tramp" -- perhaps the most recognizable comic character in history -- gives us insight into character.   He's poor and a vagabond.  Yet "The Little Fellow" (as Chaplin referred to the character) dresses in a bowler, a walking stick, ill-fitting clothes but those of the higher class. Chaplin's movement and manner affect those of the wealthy.

So his characterization and costume is in direct contradiction to what we know to be true -- that he's a penniless tramp.

Note that these faults could be played dramatically.  Someone excessively frugal could be a Scrouge.  All comic characterizations should have a dramatic spine -- something for the audience to form a human connection.  We laugh at these faults recognizing them in people we know and perhaps ourselves.

To form comic characters begin with a list of faults.  Exaggerate these faults.  Felix from THE ODD COUPLE is not slightly neat; he's obsessive compulsive.   Likewise, Oscar is not the average slob; he's the extreme.  Neil Simon tossed the two characters together creating comic conflict.  Then repeated this formula for a very profitable writing career.  Much to learn from following this successful formula.

Having these great characters allows the writer to let the comedy flow from character.   The effectiveness of jokes is multiplied and the audience appreciates it more.  

For example, with Benny's famous "Your money or your life!" line (google it if you're not familiar as it was the longest laugh in radio history).   The audience laughs BEFORE the punch line in anticipation.   The character Benny created was so strong the audience recognized the great set up and situation.   True dilemma for Benny -- his money or his life?  

So having that depth of comic characterization lets joke after joke be created.   Contrast this with stand alone gags.   The POLICE SQUAD television series lasted only six episodes.  This was in part of the comedy style requiring the audience's attention (ZAZ's explanation).  But mostly as there was a lack of real character depth.   All math.

Contrast that show with GET SMART (pilot by Brooks and Buck Henry), which had wonderful characters.   The audience loved the characters, especially Don Adams' wonderful Maxwell Smart, and the show -- with just as many crazy gags -- last for years.  Also, it's more enjoyable to watch again and again because of the characters.

How do we win the heart of an audience?  Chaplin's formula was "close-up for drama" and "wide shot for comedy."   Why?  In the end of CITY LIGHTS Chaplin is at his most effective drawing audience empathy.  In close up we are drawn into the drama of the situation and we feel for the Tramp as the blind girl he has help find sight recognizes him.

By contrast, the wide shot for comedy keeps the audience at a distance.  No matter how bad the prat fall in comedy it doesn't really hurt.  There's a distance, and one could argue sadistic tendency, for the audience to laugh.   The full shot lets the audience stand back from the situation and laugh.

To sum up, when creating your comic characters find their faults.  Take these faults to the extreme.  Put the characters in direct conflict with each other and let the sparks fly.  All these are the tools of the dramatist as well.  The comic writer must do everything the dramatist does and make it funny.  

Go to it!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lesson Thirteen: Immediate Reverse

Rather than a slow retreat, the immediate reverse follows a similar structure but does so quickly.

Strong assertion.

New information.

Quick/immediate reversal in the character's position.

Bob Hope was a master of these.  Hope was a great comic actor.   The ROAD series, MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE, PALEFACE and SON OF PALEFACE, and many others.  All must see comedies.

As bungling dentist Painless Potter, Hope is mistakenly hailed as the hero who has just saved a group of women and children from a hostile band of Indians.  As the tumult and the shouting subside, Hope is prepared to make a speech.  "Ladies and gentlemen, at this time I'd like to say a few words --"  Someone in the crowd yells, "Let's get out of here before them Redskins come back!"  Hope quickly says, "Those are the words."

Hope's delivery of the line is perfect.  From bravado to cowardice.  Strong assertion to the immediate reverse revealing character.

Strong assertion -- Hope will now give his speech.

New information  -- Hostile Indians will soon return

Reversal -- Hope is ready to leave.

Character and its relation to comedy will be the subject of the next comedy lesson.

To preview a book of COMEDY QUOTES FROM MOVIES visit this link:

Lesson Twelve: The Retreat

The retreat follows this construction: Strong assertion.  Followed by a retreat -- series of qualifications negating the original strong assertion.

MONTY PYTHON had many classics using this technique with Chapman's Colonel character.   For example:

ColonelNow, I've noticed a tendency for this programme to get rather silly. Now I do my best to keep things moving along, but I'm not having things getting silly. Those two last sketches I did got very silly indeed, and that last one about the bed was even sillier. Now, nobody likes a good laugh more than I do...except perhaps my wife and some of her friends...oh yes and Captain Johnston. Come to think of it most people likes a good laugh more than I do. But that's beside the point. 


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lesson Eleven: Redundancy

Using redundancy for laughs relies on the expectation that new information is usually conveyed when we communicate.  Instead the redundant phrase repeats information and we laugh because our expectation is not met.  

Here are several classic examples from the master comedy writer S.J. Perelman from WESTWARD HA!

"The whole sordid business began on a bleak November afternoon a couple of years ago in Philadelphia, a metropolis sometimes known as the City of Brotherly Love but more accurately as the City of Bleak November Afternoons."

"In no time at all -- five minutes, to be exact -- we were laughing and chatting away as though we had known each other five minutes."

In both of these information is given once and then repeated for the laugh.  Add redundancy to your comic tool box and your comic tool box will include redundancy.  I said that already.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lesson Ten: Add-a-Word

In this technique a word, or a prefix, or even a few letters are added to an existing word or phrase to create an incongruous meaning.

Woody Allen, "These people were really hip. They were sitting around in black turtlenecks, drinking pre-Columbian coffee."

Adding "pre" creates the joke. We know "Columbian coffee" (known phrase) and "pre-Columbian" refers usually to a style of art. Allen combines the two concepts creating a brilliant line.

Add-a-words create easy incongruities:

Lincoln Log Memorial

Toy train schedule

Liquid paper route

The forumla: Take a well-known phrase and add a word or prefix to get the laugh.

Woody Allen was greatly influenced by the works of S.J. Perelman. Some of Perelman's best jokes will be analyzed in the next lesson. Stay tuned, sports fans.

Lesson Nine: Macro/Micro

The Macro/Micro a/k/a M&m joke is one in which the larger, grand, even eternal concerns are contradicted by petty, workaday nitpicking.

Woody Allen describing someone, "His values are God and carpeting."

Merging the Macro (God) with micro (carpeting -- and notice the "k" sound) creates the laugh.

"Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends." -- Woody Allen again.

The Macro (concern about a Godless universe) with the micro (a plumber) creates the laugh.

M&m can also stand for the technique of everyday concerns leading to great philosophical pondering. The "Mongo only pawn in life's game" line from "Blazing Saddles."

"Get Smart" (the great television series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry) used this style of joke frequently. The large concerns of saving the world vs. the petty concerns of Maxwell Smart. An episode to watch is "Strike While the Agent is Hot" as the agents of CONTROL deal with petty union complaints (micro) while they should be concerned with saving the world (Marco). Here's a link to the episode:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lesson Eight: Self-Contradiction

This joke construction is popular on sitcoms. The series "Cheers" had many classic examples. In this style joke the speaker's denial proves the accusation.

For example, Frasier protests, "Are you saying I'm redundant? That I repeat myself? That I say the same thing over and over?"

His denial or questioning the fact that he's redundant proves that he is.

One of the first jokes we sold was to a stand up comedian. It was, "My wife told me I hold grudges too long. I never forgave her for saying that."

So in that implied denial (not a grudge holder) the accusation is shown to be true.

Think of a personality flaw and you've got an easy joke structure.

A: Your problem is you're a quitter.
B: No I'm not!
A: You are!
B: Okay, you're probably right. I really don't want to fight about it.


A: You're immature.
B: Am not!
A: You are!
B: Am not! Times infinity!

Not great jokes but they do make the structure clear -- the denial proves the accusation. The self-contradiction (person proving what they are denying through the denial itself) creates the incongruity, which leads to laughter.

Lesson Seven: Concept Fusion

This type of joke a/k/a the 'con fuse' joins two presumably different ideas to produce incongruity. Very popular with the comedian Steven Wright.

Joke #1:

"I put instant coffee in my microwave and almost went back in time."

instant coffee (speed) + microwave (speed) = time displacement

Joke #2:

"The prescription for my glasses just ran out" and he grasps about blindly.

Prescription (expires) + glasses (a prescription item that never really runs out) = losing sight.

Joke #3:

"I have flip up contacts."

contacts (stuck on eye) + flip up (normally associated with glasses) = incongruous merging of the two concepts.

Look for ways to merge two related concepts into an incongruous way to get laughs using this technique.

Lesson Six: The First Lesson

Drama is based on conflict.

So is comedy.

At the basis of comedy is the conflict known as incongruity, which is defined as out of place or inconsistent with our expectations.

The heart of comedy is surprise.  Expectations that are dashed.  These expectations can be established by outside factors (personal or societal experiences of the listener) or within the work itself.

The irony of comedy is that funny things are not really incongruous.  They are in the wrong place for the right reason: To create a joke that makes you laugh.

The world looks at things in the normal way.  The comedian must look at things differently to know how to change things just enough to make them funny.  He does not want to change them to much or his effort will slide into absurdism.

Abbie Hoffman has been credited with the line, "Comedy is yelling theater in a crowded fire" (a type of joke called a flip which we examined in lesson one).  You'll notice he did not say, "Comedy is yelling tuna fish in a crowded fire."  There is always a method to the madness.

Comedy is Incongruity.

Comedy is Surprise

Comedy is Context

Lesson Five: Surprise Repetition

Watching the above scene you'll see the set up is the standard scene we've seen dozens of times: Calm down someone who is hysterical by slapping them. ("The Producers" may have the greatest of all of these -- "I'm in pain. And I'm wet. And I'm still hysterical.")

So the set up (expectation) is the person will be calmed down by a slap. ZAZ (writers/directors of AIRPLANE! -- the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker) took the situation further and through repetition got the laugh.

Other examples of this include the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers in "A Night at the Opera." The well-known gag there is person after person piling into a small room -- comedy from surprise repetition.

Another classic is from "Your Show of Shows" entitled "Vacant Holsters" (a pre-"Blazing Saddles" western spoof scripted at least in part by Mel Brooks). In that sketch the opening shows the hero tossing down a cigarette and putting it out. Then another. And another. Ashtray full of them. Set up then repetition for laugh.

The AIRPLANE! example shown demonstrates how ZAZ took that basic structure and realized you could get incrementally more absurd with the repetition. Instead of simply repeating the same object or action you could get crazier as the gag grew. A new twist on the old gag structure from a comedy classic.

"The Night Is Always Dark" -- Author Biographies

(Our producer requested we submit biographies to be added to the promotional website for the film...)

Stephen “Little Stevie” Hoover – Always kind to his superiors, Stephen is the first to admit you’re wrong. From his humble beginnings in Humble Beginnings, Nebraska, Stephen has
spent the last few years preparing for the next few years.

Hungry for enlightenment, thirsty for education, starving for knowledge, he is looking for a great restaurant. You have to hand it to Stephen, because he’s too lazy to get up and get it himself. Cynic and Romantic, Realist and Optimist, Na├»ve and Shrewd, Loepold and Loeb, Stephen is the first to admit you’re wrong, which he said already.

Although he received no formal education, he did attend Louisiana State. Of his appearance he says, “I’m Protestant but I look Jewish. I vote to exclude myself from the clubs I join.” Give him an inch and he’ll take an inch. Give him enough time, and he’ll go down in history.

L.A. Laird - The poverty-stricken child of only parents, L.A. Laird is a simple, unpretentious bon vivant, a devil-may care-man-about-town loved by millions, although people don’t like

A multi-talented prodigy who exploded out of the Midwest like a shooting star to distinguish himself with brilliant achievements as both an actor and director, Orson Welles never met L.A. Laird who was born many years later and can’t act. L.A. Laird began writing soon after taking it up, and immediately began to show a talent for taking up things. Family and friends alike were surprised with his poetical bent as it is exceedingly difficult to fix bent poeticals. L.A. Laird is now eagerly pursuing a career in screenwriting, although some day he’d like to get into modeling. It is obvious that L.A. Laird has a very promising future behind him.

This writing team is ready to take their next step from local obscurity to national oblivion.

Production Update

Good news! Our screenplay THE NIGHT IS ALWAYS DARK (co-written with L.A. Laird) is still moving forward toward production. The economy hasn't helped matters but the investors are still on board. Comedy is always popular during economic hard times -- people need a laugh.

For any short film directors out there, visit and do a site search for "Hoover." You'll see four or five scripts posted. If you want to make them and enter them in festivals let us know. Looking for IMDB credits at this point and to have samples of our work.

We are waiting for footage from a filmmaker in England who is shooting the Dylan spoof ("The Voice of a Generation") and the sketch comedy ("Up to Date.") Will keep you posted and be putting those up on the site when they get made.

Peter Cook & John Cleese

I had the opportunity a few months ago at Robert McKee's genre seminar to meet John Cleese (one of my comedy idols). Happy to report that Cleese is working on a new screenplay and he's also working on a musical adaptation of A FISH CALLED WANDA.

Cleese mentioned his life changed when he saw BEYOND THE FRINGE being performed at the West End. FRINGE was recently released on DVD and I suggest you look for that. Cleese would later work with Peter Cook -- the prime writer of most of the FRINGE material.

Cook was an absolute comic genius. He created a unique style by blending the lunacy of the GOONS with the British public school sensibility throwing in a dash the absurdism of Lewis Carroll and bringing to a delightful cornucopia of comedic flavors by tossing in a cornucopia.

Cleese and Cook would work together in a special entitled PETER COOK AND COMPANY. Cleese said this bit (and I apologize in advance for the poor quality but it's the only one I could locate) was not well received at the time. I told him it was a classic, absolute genius, and then dropped several more names, which he was kind enough to help me pick up from the carpet.

Ernie Kovacs

One of the great pioneers of television comedy, Kovacs' work stands out even today. Here's one of his more famous bits -- the Nairobi Trio:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Lesson Four: Word Up

Are certain words funny? The careful selection of the perfect word can make a joke a classic.

In general, words with the ‘k’ sound--like ‘kidneys’--are inherently funny. The humor potential of the letter ‘k’ has been known by the experts for years. In the Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys, the character Willy explains it to his nephew: “Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say "Alka Seltzer," you get a laugh . . . Words with "k" in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny.”

Scientist and researcher Richard Wiseman put the ‘k is funny’ theory to the test during his LaughLab research in 2001. Although the main focus of the research was finding the funniest joke, Wiseman also performed a “mini-experiment” to see if the letter ‘k’ actually gets more laughs. (Your tax dollars at work, folks.)

The experiment was built around a simple joke:

There were two cows in a field. One said, “Moo.” The other one said, “I was going to say that.”

During the experiment, people were invited to visit the LaughLab website and rate jokes pulled at random from a database. In addition to the cow joke, Wiseman and his colleagues put several variations in the database including mice that went “eek,” tigers that said “grrr,” and birds going “cheep.” The winning variation which had the most ''k's was this joke:

There were two ducks on a pond. One said, “Quack” and the other said, “I was going to say that.”

From this we learn that the "k" sound does get laughs and that the visitors to this website were easily amused.

Here are some words and phrases you can shout out randomly at parties for laughs: fish sticks, tinker toy, slinky, sissy pants (childish things are funny), hygiene, nose hair, nubile, mood ring, junior college, goofy golf, kumquat (the funniest fruit aside from Oscar Wilde), Jet Ski, gerbil, ant farm, squirrel, communicable, inner thigh, three, five, tattletale, Burger King, aplenty, penmanship, elk, woodpecker, crackpot, fur ball, Magic Marker, Mr. Bubble, uterus, uvula, Latvia, pluck, amok, squeal, McNuggets, show tunes, custard, duck.

Bring your dog around and I'll give him a bonus, too:

Here's a fun site that has transcripts of some of Woody Allen's stand up:

Lesson 3: Triples

The Triple refers to a joke structure (either spoken or visual) where the first two words or visuals set up the joke (the expectation) and the third in the sequence is the non-sequitur (the unexpected; laugh).

For a visual joke pan from the two set up visuals and the third is your gag. For written pieces or dialogue, including standup, the first two setup and the third is your punch.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, come up with four or five words to finish this sentence, "Remember, if you're captured just give them your name, rank, and _______."

Comedy College Lesson 2: The Key Reverse

In this joke structure the key word of a sentence is reversed. Again, known phrases/cliches/phrases set up earlier in a comedy piece set an expectation to break.

Example, "He hasn't a single redeeming vice." The line, from Wilde again (he was a witty fellow) takes the standard phrasing "redeeming virtue" and the key word "virtue" is reversed to "vice." The line works even better because the punch of the joke is the last word.

In general, you want the line that gets the laugh to be at the end of a sentence. This gives the audience or reader a chance to laugh and not stumble over the joke.

Key reverses can be done for prefixes as well. The phrase "I was underwhelmed" began as a joke, though the word has now made it into our lexicon diminishing it's laugh potential.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Flipped Off

Joke Structure Discussion Post 1 (Wherein We Kill the First Frog)

Comedy is generally based on the creation or pre-existence of an expectation and then BAM! The joke hits us delivering to us something different than our expectations. Our minds make the jump and we fill in the gap with laughter, convulsions, and occasionally guffawing, though this is not recommended for mixed company.

There are patterns to jokes and their construction and, since I've never really heard or read anyone point these out, part of a regular feature of this blog will be do so. This is done with the caveat, as one writer put it, that analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog. You may discover something but in the process likely kill the frog.

The "flip" is a simple joke to create. The two key words of a familiar phrase are reversed. Playing on the conventions of the cliche' or accepted phrase, the comedy writer can get a laugh.

Examples, upon meeting the playwright Samuel Nathaniel Behrman after his "farewell" party, George S. Kaufman quipped, "Ah, forgotten but not gone."

Oscar Wilde was fond of these joke structures. His most famous version, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

So, to examine Wilde's masterpiece closely (and this always got Oscar into trouble), the common phrase is, "Drink is the curse of the working classes." Wilde, being the clever chap that he was, flipped the two key words from the common phrase and created a great joke.

Try this joke structure in your own writing and you, too, will be on your way to comedy glory, fame, and fortune.

Once Bitten (Twilight Spoof written by me)

Once Bitten from Loren Risker on Vimeo.

Silents Please

The Voice of Buster Keaton

Originally Published in the Damfinos Newsletter

Talkies created the greatest revolution in film history, and sound’s effect on film comedy was no less revolutionary. Sight gags became less important. Hollywood grew, in film critic Richard Schickel’s phrase “drunk with words.” The stars were no longer pantomimists, but rather fast talkers like Groucho Marx and Bob Hope. W.C. Fields, who’d had a middling silent career, finally achieved prominence on screen now that his inimitable voice could be heard.

Buster Keaton is generally categorized as one of the talkie casualties. However, Keaton’s problem did not stem from having a “bad” voice (as did Vilma Banky and Emil Jannings, neither of whom could speak English), but from having a voice that did not match his unique screen image.

Look at the other great silent comedians:

Raymond Griffith was the only silent comedian whose career was destroyed by the talkies. He had been injured as a young man and could not speak above a whisper. He gave up acting and became a producer at Fox.

Harry Langdon’s rapid and unfortunate decline began before talkies and was due to his ego, not his voice.

Although many will argue speech made Chaplin’s Tramp less universal, his genteel, somewhat bourgeois English accent suited the character well. It suggested a fallen Lord, a noble gentleman who’d been caught in a scandal back in England and had come to America to escape the consequences. Chaplin’s manner was never that of a real tramp.

Harold Lloyd spoke unassumingly with a soft Midwester twang, which jibed well with his image as an all-American Boy with all-American values.

Laurel and Hardy were the only major silent comedians (W. C. Fields was never a major star in silents) to become more popular in talkies. Their voices suited them, especially Hardy’s. Ollie was a Southern pseudo-aristocrat, all manners and no brains, always doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Laurel’s voice was less important because he spoke less, but sound added a certain pathos to his crying scenes that made them all the more effective.

Buster Keaton’s voice was a bass marked by a nasal twang, revealing his Midwestern origin. It makes one think of a Nebraska corn farmer. The voice just didn’t go with the playboy millionaire, a steamboat captain, or a Confederate locomotive engineer. Had Keaton arrived in Hollywood in 1930 he’d have been shunted off immediately into character roles. Fortunately for us, he arrived at a time at which the technology was suited to his unique talents.

The perfect voice for Buster’s character would be a cultured, Ashley Wilkes sort of Southern drawl. Despite Buster’s prodigious skill with gadgets, he always seemed at odds with the modern world (unlike Lloyd, who suits it well). The ideal Buster voice would have enhanced this facet of Keaton’s persona – gentlemanly, more concerned with honor than pragmatism, obsessed with values rendered archaic by the 20th century. Thanks to the magic of silent films it is left to our own imaginations to supply the voice of Buster Keaton.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's A Dastardly Plot!

A few nights ago I was channel surfing and caught the last few minutes of The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), the cult classic about a post-Nuclear England with only 20 people left alive. A notorious flop on first release, it's now celebrated for the visuals of director Richard Lester and cinematographer David Watkin, the often surrealistic gags of Spike Milligan, and the amazing cast -- Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Marty Feldman, and Milligan himself as well as British theatre greats Michael Hordern and Ralph Richardson. There are many classic moments: Frank Thornton, as the only surviving BBC announcer, who goes around giving everybody the news personally; Feldman as "The National Health Service" in a nurse uniform; Harry Secombe as a frustrated bachelor willing to pay for certain wifely duties; An old lady who is now Queen because she was a housemaid at Buckingham Palace and thus the closest survivor to the throne. 

In 1956 the 24 year old Lester had directed Peter Sellers in A Show Called Fred, Milligan's attempt to bring Goon Show humor to TV. 

The Bed-Sitting Room shows what Fred might have looked like with a bigger budget.

But what's always impressed me most about The Bed-Sitting Room is its virtual lack of a plot structure. I suppose it does have something resembling plot -- Ralph Richardson mutates into a the title room, and in the last five minutes or so various character concerns are resolved. This section has one of the film's few major flaws: Rita Tushingham starts showing real emotion about the baby she wants to have, and this seems out of place in a film otherwise devoid of standard plot arcs and character motivations.

The great comedy producer Hal Roach once said that you could do anything you want in a film for about 20 minutes -- after that, the audience demands some kind of plot. The anarchic stage hit Hellzapoppin had a conventional musical romance grafted onto its film version. Even a seeming free-for-all like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup has a definite narrative. Of all Hollywood studio-era comedies, perhaps W.C. Fields' Never Give A Sucker An Even Break came the closest to totally jettisoning conventional plot structure, though that may have been due more to incompetent scripting than avant-garde experimentalism. In any event, Fields:Sucker (as its auteur suggested it be called) was still little more than several (admittedly eccentric) shorts strung together.

By the late '60s, the studio system was crumbling and Hollywood was willing to try just about anything. TV producer Bob Rafelson wanted to move into features and decided a rock group he had created would be his ticket. 

The Monkees had run for two years on NBC, even winning an Emmy for best comedy program. Using Lester's Beatles film Help! as a foundation, The Monkees was more specifically indebted to the Marx Brothers and even the Goons, relying on running gags, fourth-wall breakage and quick-cut editing -- a technique that has completely disappeared from comedy, although ironically it has come to dominate action films and music videos.

After The Monkees left the air in 1968, Rafelson figured he could get one last bit of mileage out of the rock group he'd created, and conceived a feature film that would be a satire on the rock group he'd created. Working with a refugee from Roger Corman epics named Jack Nicholson, and getting input from the Monkees themselves during a pot-fueled writing session, something called Head was dreamed up.

Head has even less plot than The Bed-Sitting Room. It really has no plot at all. Its "structure" comes from running gags. It's the most successful attempt ever at a plotless feature comedy, although as a comedy it has one obvious flaw: weak gags. Rafelson and Nicholson were not comedy writers. They should have let some gagmen from the sitcom go over the script and add jokes.

Still, there many great things in the film, the famous "TV commercial" with the Monkees as dandruff in Victor Mature's hair being the most celebrated. You can actually make a case that Head was the most innovative feature produced by Hollywood in the 1960s.