Takes of course existed for centuries onstage, where they were highly exaggerated so as to be discernible to the back of the balcony. But it took the new medium of the cinema and its revolutionary technique the closeup to fully exploit the possibilities of the take.
There were far too may types of takes in silent film comedy (most of which are long archaic) to list here. You could writes paragraphs just on reactions to being hit on the head (as James Agee in fact did, in his classic 1949 essay "The Golden Age Of Comedy"). Often highly exaggerated in the stage style, these techniques would pretty much disappear from mainstream comedy with the advent of sound film and its ever-increasing emphasis on "reality" -- although some takes like "Dreamy Smile After Being Hit On Head" would survive through Our Gang and The Three Stooges into the 1960s with Gilligan's Island (a veritable collection depot for old slapstick devices),.
The most famous take of course is the DOUBLE TAKE. Turn to look at something, bring your head back then turn your head in acknowledgement. The double take has many variations. The head can be returned whip-fast, or the return can be slow with the eyes gradually popping out.
Scottish comedian James Finlayson, a longtime foil for Laurel and Hardy (and whose "D-oh!" exclamation would be co-opted by Homer Simpson in the 1990s) perfected what he called the DOUBLE TAKE AND FADE AWAY: Turn, go back, whip second turn, then go back slow to expression of exasperatrion.
Bob Hope, with his matchless dialogue timing, used a double take made possible by sound: DOUBLE TAKE WITH WISECRACK, as in this classic exchange from The Ghost Breakers:
(Radio host Hope has now finished his show and is talking with a secretary)
HOPE: Wasn't that a great show I just did?
SECRETARY: It was if you're any judge.
(Hope smiles, then does double take. A pregnant pause as the two star at each other).
HOPE: I'll think of sumthin'
There are many other types of takes -- here are just a few:
SLOW BLINK -- Buster Keaton's stoneface persona did not really lend itself to takes, but he used this one effectively. A variation is the SLOW BLINK WITH GULP, for registering fear.
EYE BULGE --Jackie Gleason was heavily influenced by the great silent comedians. He even had a silent character, The Poor Soul, on his 1950s TV variety show. Gleason often used the eye bulge in his Honeymooners sketches. Sometimes it was the eye bulge alone, other times it was followed by a gulp, still others by slamming the table. Like many take forms the eye bulge faded with the decline of slapstick, but it did not disappear completely. Geoffrey Rush used one a few years ago in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
SPIT TAKE -- Calmly drink your cup of coffee (or tea). You are surprised. Before you can swallow, you spit out your mouthful of liquid. Noteworthy as a take which involves a prop, this messy bit of business had existed for years but was made virtually iconic by Danny Thomas, who used it frequently on his '50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy. The device became SO identified with Thomas that its very fame nearly killed it off, aside from occasional ironic references. This latter usage would survive into the 1980s on that Mt. Everest of reference humor SCTV, which sometimes used the spit take (as well as other slapstick devices) in their parodies of old TV and movie forms.
TAKE DOWN THE FOURTH WALL
There is a special kind of take which flirts with the concept of "breaking the fourth wall" (i.e. acknowledging the audience). This was hardly unknown in silent comedy: A girl starts to get out of the bathtub and Buster Keaton blocks the lens with his hand; Fatty Arbuckle is changing his pants in a dressing room and motions for the camera to rise so as to preserve modesty. More commonly, hack comics, desperate for laughs, would point at some action onscreen then turn to the audience laughing, praying they could convince at least a few to join in.
Oliver Hardy refined this acknowledgement into a take. Stan commits some blunder. Instead of immediately chastising Stan, Ollie turns to the camera and sighs in annoyed resignation, his face in sort of a half-smirk, half-grimace. That turn to the camera is the significant motion. He's communicating with US, directly, before returning to berate Stan for his faux-pas.
Jack Benny took this idea further. A guy walks up to Benny and ask for a quarter Jack slowly turns to the audience and smiles, as if to ask, "Is he kidding?". Not only does Benny's take acknowledge the audience, but the joke depends on pre-knowledge of Benny's carefully crafted cheap persona.
Johnny Carson, Benny's most devoted disciple (Carson even wrote his undergraduate thesis on Benny, while he was a student at the University of Nebraska in the 1940s), was perhaps also the most devoted practitioner of takes. I suppose if you have all that airtime to fill, you need every comic tool you can lay your hands on. While Carson might occasionally use exaggerated slapstick takes (especially in sketches), he was much fonder of Bennyesque 4th wallbreakers: half-smile of bemusement, leering smirk, resigned acceptance, et al... These takes were made even more effective by employment of what is known in the TV business as a "slave camera" (one that is always focused on the star), ever ready to capture Carson' every gesture.
Note how takes were scaled down as the technology became more intimate: stage, silent film, talkies, TV. Sometimes Johnny Carson would look in his slave camera with no visible change of expression. With a nod to today's dominant form of TV programming we might call this the "Reality Take."
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