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Dr. Rich Edwards

Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 1: Chaplin's Physical Comedy

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It's a bit off topic but Chaplin always brings to mind Douglas Fairbanks who starred in a number of comedies in his early career. Most notably the very weird indeed,"The Mystery of the Leaping Fish." A 1916 two reeler with Fairbanks parodying Sherlock Holmes. I mention it because Fairbanks and Chaplin were great friends. Although they didn't officially meet until the following year Chaplin may have influenced Fairbanks who is much better known today as a swashbuckler than a comedian. You'll know why after watching this really weird short. There is just a certain "je ne sais quoi" borrowed of Chaplin's personality in the way Fairbanks jitters down the street. Also, there are a number of gags and plot lines borrowed later by both Chaplin (illegal drug usage in, "Easy Street") and the wall safe door by Keaton in his own parody of Holmes, "Sherlock Jr." Fairbanks was certainly athletic enough and a great acrobat and almost all his films exhibit the five criteria for slapstick but I would never consider Fairbanks such. His comedies were more screwball. So there's something still elusive for me in our definition of slapstick.

 

https://youtu.be/fprVONwmYnc

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The episode itself was great. I enjoyed the breakdown of the clips with discussion rather than just seeing the clips by themselves. I think the episode showed what a great physical comedian Chaplin was and how everything he did was planned. It's funny to see how he did everything before, yet it looks so simple on screen. I've always liked Chaplin and found him timeless. The episode further proved my point as I found myself chuckling. The man was truly a genius.

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I just watched the three Chaplin movies ("By the Sea," "Tillie's Punctured Romance," and "A Dog's Life") because I wanted to see the context for the clips you used.    

 

Thanks for posting the Internet Archive link on "The Movies" page -- I'd never used it before.  What a great resource!

 

https://archive.org/

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It's a bit off topic but Chaplin always brings to mind Douglas Fairbanks who starred in a number of comedies in his early career. Most notably the very weird indeed,"The Mystery of the Leaping Fish." A 1916 two reeler with Fairbanks parodying Sherlock Holmes. I mention it because Fairbanks and Chaplin were great friends. Although they didn't officially meet until the following year Chaplin may have influenced Fairbanks who is much better known today as a swashbuckler than a comedian. You'll know why after watching this really weird short. There is just a certain "je ne sais quoi" borrowed of Chaplin's personality in the way Fairbanks jitters down the street. Also, there are a number of gags and plot lines borrowed later by both Chaplin (illegal drug usage in, "Easy Street") and the wall safe door by Keaton in his own parody of Holmes, "Sherlock Jr." Fairbanks was certainly athletic enough and a great acrobat and almost all his films exhibit the five criteria for slapstick but I would never consider Fairbanks such. His comedies were more screwball. So there's something still elusive for me in our definition of slapstick.

 

https://youtu.be/fprVONwmYnc

That has got to be the oddest silent film I've ever seen!  What a hoot!

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I was just wondering if this course should have started off with a module on Vaudeville. It was my understanding that much of the over the top violence and gags got started so that people in the cheap seats could tell what was happening on stage. A second point. How much of the comic and social value in these movies are lost on us because we can't understand what it was like to live 100 years ago?

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I teach on commedia (the origin of slapstick), and one thing I point out to my students is the separation of classes between the pranksters and their victims. Chaplin's characters - who initiate the gags - are normally not high on the class or respectability scale. The police (of higher respectability) are the butts of his jokes (but they ultimately get the last laugh). We see this challenge to authority or class in many of his films. Keaton also typically plays the "average Joe," the little guy, or the underdog.

 

In original commedia, the servant Harlequin or Arlecchino would initiate the slapstick aimed toward the higher-classed masters. This is an element that hasn't changed for hundreds of years.

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I really enjoyed the discussion, especially amused as someone pointed out, WHERE it was talked about; it was like watching a breakdown of a football game, but in this case being the brilliantly painful moves of Charlie Chaplin. Overall, the video was beyond fascinating as it is helping me see Chaplin with bigger eyes. I was aware of his youth, on his struggles, and before this, as an audience watching his movies made me feel as if he was almost trying to reach out to you. As if from what he found, he wanted to return a bit of it to people (and especially those) who might be in his previous predicament. What I love about Charlie Chaplin, and this discussion (on both the video and the board) is that he isn’t just a funny man, he’s the people’s funny man, ready to do what he has to do to do what he does best, make his audience laugh. What really made me awe, was the break down of the cops & Tramp scene in the 1918 film “A Dog’s Life”. I never would have seen the scene with that much detail if it hadn’t been pointed out to me, I usually look at the timing, based on Lucille Ball and John Ritter’s comedic techniques, but visuals and settings, really takes it to a whole new level for me. I am thrilled to learn on how detailed Charlie was; down from his timing, to the characters, to the simple trash can that is casually next to them. It’s fascinating to know how much he grew over time as well, and also how daring he was with certain topics like in the 1940 film “The Great Dictator”.

 

I am looking forward to more future discussions, and this has motivated me to rewatch my favorite Chaplin movie “City Lights” with much more open eyes.

 

City Lights has the greatest ending of any film.

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I am surprised that no one has yet mentioned Red Skelton. His ability to take a fall and be the butt of the joke made him a very popular comedian for 40 years. A great clown. Watch some of his TV episodes to watch slapstick brought into the 150's and 1960's.He was influenced (behind the scenes) by Buster Keaton.

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I really enjoyed the first episode of Breakdown of a Gag. 

I learned what a gag is and had fun watching the three examples shown. I love Chaplin's films, he was a genius, a creative and gifted artist who perfectly knew his stuff and knew how to entertain his audience. He could be tender and touching, but also mischievous, violent and aggressive, but in spite of that, I can't help loving him

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I was just wondering if this course should have started off with a module on Vaudeville. It was my understanding that much of the over the top violence and gags got started so that people in the cheap seats could tell what was happening on stage. A second point. How much of the comic and social value in these movies are lost on us because we can't understand what it was like to live 100 years ago?

 

I would be interested in comedy's roots in vaudeville, too.

 

As for the social context, I'm sure we in 2016 are missing some of the references. For instance, George "Spanky" MacFarland in the Our Gang/Little Rascals series wasn't called Spanky because he was mischievous. Spanky used to be a nickname given to toddlers who were unusually bright or precocious. At least, that's what I have read, probably online.

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Thanks so much for your reply.

 

I think you are right: that Chaplin's early experiences shaped his comedy, the personality that he created for the screen, and his ability to infuse his films with social commentary. In fact, I would say that your observations dovetail nicely with Episode 1 presented on Canvas.

 

What do you think?

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Thanks so much for your reply.

 

I think you are right: that Chaplin's early experiences shaped his comedy, the personality that he created for the screen, and his ability to infuse his films with social commentary. In fact, I would say that your observations dovetail nicely with Episode 1 presented on Canvas.

 

What do you think?

 

I think that you are right.

 

It was not my intention, but yes- I see your point. Here I thought I was aligning myself with your post while, unintentionally dovetailing onto this week’s video presentation. It certainly is a case of two for the price of one. Slapstick?

Very observant of you.

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I would be interested in comedy's roots in vaudeville, too.

 

As for the social context, I'm sure we in 2016 are missing some of the references. For instance, George "Spanky" MacFarland in the Our Gang/Little Rascals series wasn't called Spanky because he was mischievous. Spanky used to be a nickname given to toddlers who were unusually bright or precocious. At least, that's what I have read, probably online.

 

Interesting to speak about vaudeville as that is a great point.  I wonder how far back you truly have to go to capture comedy.  My first thought reading your post was the humor from William Shakespeare and the actions within his plays.  The history of comedy could be a whole other course eh!?!

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Interesting to speak about vaudeville as that is a great point.  I wonder how far back you truly have to go to capture comedy.

 

At least to the ancient Greeks.

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The physical comedy in these gags goes beyond acrobatics to include physical "attributes"  - the way the tramp dresses defies his "classy" demeanor - also the commentator pointed out the satirical "social commentary" employed by Chaplin...it may be what make his films unique ...Modern Times and The Great Dictator come to mind - the films referenced in this module were new to me.

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I'm starting to wonder if the "idiot cop" archetype will start to disappear the way the "idiot soldier" has since 9/11.

 

I don't remember where, but I recently heard someone talking about how you'd never have something like a "Sgt. Bilko" today, because you just can't play the military for laughs anymore.  So many classic slapstick movies and bits would be verboten as well.

 

Sure, when the time is right, someone will come along and do it, and things will return to normal.  As someone who loves comedy, and writes it for a living, I hate when stuff gets taken off the table like this, but these are the times we live in.

 

I wonder if Sgt. Bilko lost fans as fewer and fewer people had direct experience with the draft and life in wartime. Sgt. Bilko was a 1950s comedy, yes? At that time, the United States was still policing a devastated Europe, but the threat level was reduced. Now, the United States isn't using the draft -- and an all-volunteer army means that fewer citizens understand military procedure.

 

Just a guess. But if it's true, it would add to the theory that context is a factor in comedy trends (among many others!).

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I wonder if Sgt. Bilko lost fans as fewer and fewer people had direct experience with the draft and life in wartime. Sgt. Bilko was a 1950s comedy, yes? At that time, the United States was still policing a devastated Europe, but the threat level was reduced. Now, the United States isn't using the draft -- and an all-volunteer army means that fewer citizens understand military procedure.

 

Just a guess. But if it's true, it would add to the theory that context is a factor in comedy trends (among many others!).

 

Sgt. Bilko (otherwise known as "The Phil Silvers Show") went off the air when it was still at the top of the ratings after 5 years. Silvers didn't want a drop in quality and the production costs were getting too expensive.

The draft was still in effect until the 1980's, so many were still familiar with military life.

It was, and still is, a hilarious show, and made Silvers a star. And if you want to see burlesque slapstick, watch Silvers in "Top Banana" a movie filmed and presented as a Broadway show. Old jokes, some new bits and variety within the show. But as others have stated about joke delivery, these pros are right on the money and it is still very entertaining.

Slapstick uses jokes over and over, with each comedian putting his, or her, twist to them (i.e. Chaplin and the banana peel). Done correctly, a joke, despite it's age, is still funny. Abbott and Costello made a career of old "corn", but they were also masters who knew how to really get the joke across.

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Sgt. Bilko (otherwise known as "The Phil Silvers Show") went off the air when it was still at the top of the ratings after 5 years. Silvers didn't want a drop in quality and the production costs were getting too expensive.

The draft was still in effect until the 1980's, so many were still familiar with military life.

It was, and still is, a hilarious show, and made Silvers a star. And if you want to see burlesque slapstick, watch Silvers in "Top Banana" a movie filmed and presented as a Broadway show. Old jokes, some new bits and variety within the show. But as others have stated about joke delivery, these pros are right on the money and it is still very entertaining.

Slapstick uses jokes over and over, with each comedian putting his, or her, twist to them (i.e. Chaplin and the banana peel). Done correctly, a joke, despite it's age, is still funny. Abbott and Costello made a career of old "corn", but they were also masters who knew how to really get the joke across.

 

Sorry, I typed incorrectly. The draft was still in effect until the 1970's.

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Watching the evolution of Chaplin was great! I consider the films of Chaplin just as good or better than any other present day film that's been made.

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The 1st gag - the banana peel - was executed flawlessly. Chaplin did it so naturally. It did not look forced at all. In addition the posturing before hand, the nonchalant pose with the cane.


 


Again in the second gag, he makes the slipping look so natural.


 


Interesting about the social commentary entering the third gag. I am sure at first it was a basic, generic rebellion against the authority figure. But as Chaplin went on it is clear he was saying things with his films. Which brings an interesting question. The bit about slapstick stopping the plot. If the slapstick carries a social commentary that is following the overall theme of the film, is that gag then PART of the plot, as it is delivering the message of the film?


 


I remember the gag in payday where Chaplin hides parts of his paycheck from his wife, in his clothing and hat rim, and the skillful choreographing of that scene is comparable to the one we saw in 'A Dog's Life'.


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Oh Goodness!  These are all shorts I am seeing for the first time.  What a gift!  What amazing skill and timing.   I know pratfalls are 'just pratfalls' but what skill!  Can I say skill again?   I seem to keep saying it: Skill!  Those sets are super simple and could have been built in an afternoon. Nothing elaborate, no multiple camera angles, no fake accents,  just flawless simplicity done well.

 

There is indeed a ton of character in Chaplin.  There's the outfit with the too big clothes, the walk, etc.  He's the little harmless guy and we want to root for him.  I wonder if Vin Diesel could make us root for him like that.  I don't think so.   We all can relate to the little guy.

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It seems that once a "gag" always a gag. We see the beginning with chaplin and a banana peel and it hen evolves done through time to other sight gags like the pie in the face. I dont know if this is too early to talk about but there is mention of the Sgt Bilko show, which of course came much later. So if the door is open I would like to present one of my favorite gagsters of physical comedy and language comedy, Soupy Sales. He definately got wacked numerous times with a pie by his un seen compatriots. Thank you and I am already enjoying the course on slapstick comedy. I definitely have others to present which I believe would fit the bill as comical physical gagsters for a later time.

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The three Chaplin comedy-bits accentuate the exaggeration, physicality, ritual, make believe and violence of slapstick. Each exhibit  athletic style and ballerina-like grace with perfect timing, which certainly must be make believe. The slipping on one's own banana peal and the slippery soap bit have both become American comedy rituals, The addition of social commentary, in this case - contending with authority [third clip] with aggressive physical contact, gives the Chaplin slapstick bits its added [exaggerated] punch. 

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I would have to say I love how much personaility was gained in such a short amount of time. I love that he took the time, as he did more films, to make really think out what he was going to do. He thought more of a show stopping perfomance than a quick laught. He was genius as both but he seemed that he took great care to master his comedy craft.

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