Saturday, April 19, 2014

Your Physical Comedy Easter Basket

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If you excitedly ripped open your physical comedy Christmas stocking, if you quickly devoured your physical comedy Valentine's Day chocolates, if you got all giddy over this spring's Premio de Primavera, then you'll be hopping like crazy over the dozen goodies the Easter Bunny just brought you. One hundred percent recycled from my private collection and from links that came by way of such usual suspects as Drew Richardson, Lee Faulkner, Greg DeSanto, and no doubt other folks who I am forgetting. As usual, click on any image to enlarge.

Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Report: Chain of Fools

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Chain of Fools
Silent Comedy and Its Legacies
from Nickelodeons to YouTube
by Trav S.D.

Trav S.D. —oddly enough named after his gritty home town in the middle of South Dakota's Badlands — is a so-good-he's-bad vaudevillian: a performer, producer, historian, popularizer, and blogger whose popular blog Travalanche is a must for the variety arts fan.

I remember when I first came across his book, No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous. I couldn't help but think "do we really need another history of vaudeville?" Then I read the book and discovered that the author was a really good writer, a prodigious researcher, and had a fresh slant on his subject matter. When I heard he was publishing a book on silent film comedy, I couldn't help but think "do we really need another history of silent film comedy?" Then I read the book and... yep, you guessed it.

Trav S.D.
A lot of people read book reviews but don't read books, but if you're just the opposite and are already zoning out then let me cut to the chase and simply say that if you're reading this blog (on purpose) then you'll probably find Chain of Fools highly entertaining and informative.

Here's just a few of the things you will like about it:

• I highlighted something on almost every page. It's just chock full of info that was new to me and very interesting.
• He writes very lively and conversational prose, the kind I like to write but don't always succeed at. Nothing pedantic here. He searches for and almost always finds an interesting way to say what he has to say.
• He's very good at context. You really get the feeling what the work and artistic environment must have been for those creating this new medium.
• He makes a convincing case for silent film comedy as a unique art form and not just as a collection of funny performers.
• He doesn't pretend that every silent film comedy was wonderful.
• He's strong on the relationship between story and character.
• He appreciates what Paris and French culture meant to the arts and the growth of cinema.
• He makes Mack Sennett very interesting.
• He has fresh insights on many of the comedians; Harry Langdon and Lupino Lane, to name just two.

Any weaknesses, quibbles, reservations?

• It's sparsely illustrated, and the discussion of individual films will have much more value if you have them on DVD or can find them online. Since he can't assume you do, a lot of space has to be devoted to plot summaries. He handles them well, but exposition is exposition.
• His pre-cinema comedy history is sketchy and is missing some pretty clear links between the two eras.
• Physical techniques aren't discussed in any detail.
• Max Linder's feature films are given short shrift, and some of the comedians of the 40s and 50s (e.g., 3 Stooges; Abbott & Costello; Ritz Brothers; Jerry Lewis) are a little too summarily dismissed for my taste.
• There are a few errors I caught. For example, Keaton's pole vault in College is lauded, but this was actually performed by gold medalist Lee Barnes, and it was apparently the only time (at least in the silent era) when Keaton used a stunt double. That being said, there's no reason to doubt the overall accuracy of the work.

W.C. Fields in Sally of the Sawdust

Here are a few samples of his excellent writing:

I tend to think of Keaton as a verb; Chaplin as a noun.

This principle of ultimate action, of perpetual motion, was not discovered overnight, but came gradually, experimentally, in the same way Jackson Pollock arrived at drip painting or Charlie Parker came to bebop. It was a process of taking matters a little further, a little further, a little further over dozens of films until Sennett hit a new comedy dimension that looked like universal chaos.

There was very little precedent for what Sennett would now attempt. This would be the first time in history a studio head would endeavor to staff an entire company with absurd types. Sennett's comedians resembled human cartoons: fat men, bean poles, vamps, men with funny mustaches, matronly wives and mothers-in-law wielding rolling pins and umbrellas; geezers with canes and long beards, bratty children with enormous lollipops. Diminutive heroes; terrifyingly large villains.

Keaton's character may have a place in society, but he realizes that this is no guarantee of security or even tranquiity. What about the safe that may fall on your head? Or conversely, the wallet full of money that may miraculously fall into your hands. Rich or poor makes no difference. Fate makes playthings of us all. Man plans. God laughs. Keaton seems to feel no need to comfort us about this. No one emerges to make things better. The world is  cruel, capricious, barren of any special benevolence. It is this lack of faith or optimism perhaps that causes Keaton's comedies to speak more to our time than to his own, and made him a big hit with European audiences even as many Americans were scratching their heads.


You can buy Chain of Fools here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Meet Musty Suffer" — Guest Post by Ben Robinson

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Starring Harry Watson Jr.

Produced for video by Ben Model
Films preserved by the Library of Congress
Released April 22, 2014 by Undercrank Productions
Ben Model & Steve Massa, curators
Piano scores written and played by Ben Model
Companion booklet by Steve Massa

Originally produced by George Kleine, March 1916 – June 1917
Eight short films from the twenty-four surviving films in the Library of Congress collection
117 min. 

Reviewed by Ben Robinson

“You know man, she’s grotty, as in gro-tesque.”
—George Harrison, from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, 1964.

Full disclosure: I was one of the Kickstarter backers of this project. That means nothing more than I contributed the minimum to help launch this DVD. I had only seen one film in a private showing, and then followed the rollout of the proposed Kickstarter campaign. Amazingly, the minimum was quickly reached, and $1,000 more was contributed that made possible the additional well-produced printed booklet by Steve Massa that accompanies the DVD and the future YouYube-only release of additional films that did not fit on the DVD. It’s a most welcome addition because anyone who loves silent film comedy, clowns, circus, vaudeville, performance art, avant-garde film or surrealism will inhale this DVD and booklet.

There are mostly simple plots (with riveting action and comedy):

A man applies for job as a messenger; a man in Automat feeds the machines with food to be dispensed; the Outside Inn, a hotel where there is a “thin room” for one of the stock players of this company who is all but the skinny man from the circus. There is a cabinet just the width of his cane. His hat is pinched as if someone sat on it. He seems so thin a single bed is triple the size he needs. A man dreams of love. As a result, six maidens appear in striking lingerie—fun and mishaps ensue.

Musty happens along at the exact moment another man becomes perturbed with his bellhop, played by a boy. The man picks up the boy and throws him out of a door. At that exact moment, Musty catches the boy, looks him up and down, and then discards him too with gritty abandon as well.


In the world of Musty Suffer, anything can and does happen, and it’s not always pretty—to the cognoscenti, that is the beauty of these films: they are not pretty. An oversize rolling pin is saturated with powder. When Musty hits the thief in the Automat with this rolling pin, a cloud of powder arises when the pilferer is bonked. It’s broad, fast…grotesque, but also…clean. An auto accident is so dense with triple whirling acrobatics it is no wonder these films were subtitled “Another whirl.”


These films have not been seen since they appeared in 1916–1917, nearly one hundred years ago. Hence, this is not only a “find,” it is the painstakingly exact work of several film historians, lab technicians and the Library of Congress, which owns these films and generously allowed Messieurs Model and Massa to penetrate their massive archives and bring out these jewels for the world to see once more.  See Musty lay horizontal in space as he is picked up by a human size pair of ice tongs. He is carted about as if he were a wastebasket.


Jewels they are!  If you love a clown who carries a bundle of material that seems too wide for the doorway he seeks to pass through, and therefore engages a saw and cuts wide slots for his cargo (as opposed to just inverting the material, as in the so-called normal world), then you’ll dig this. The dance with the mannequin with the magical surprise ending is worth the price of admission.


The DVD of this whizz bang series brings us Harry Watson Jr., star of the Ziegfeld Follies playing the irrepressible MUSTY SUFFER, whose face contorts, squashes, and explodes much in the same way we have come to appreciate from Stan Laurel or Harpo Marx’s rubber faces. Musty Suffer definitely comes under the rubric of what 19th-century clowns were sometimes called: Grotesques. He  is joined by his vaudeville and circus partner George Bickel who plays a character named Willie Work. There are also characters Dippy Mary and Inna Hurry. (Historical note: Dippy Mary is played by Alma Hanlon, daughter of George Hanlon of the famous knockabout stage extravaganzas of the Hanlon Brothers.)

It would seem impossible to separate this clown from his face, one-armed athletics, or amazing feats of metamorphosis, such as his filmic magical changes of clothing, and then one continuous shot of Mr. Watson, as Musty, deftly engaging us with a genuine “quick-change” act done in almost real time (save for snip edits).  His dream sequence where he has dreamt of being hit in the head with an axe is frightening, deft and clever.


The opening shot gives us Musty drinking the drippings of a tail pipe in a tin cup. When he placed the tin cup beneath the parked car, I wondered silently, “What’s he’s going to do with that?” When he drank what the cup caught, I nearly fell out of my seat. Clearly the authors and curators of this DVD chose to introduce Musty to us with a sock right in the kisser of comedy. His other trademark —opposite his rough physicality—is his spritely magic. In one scene he changes clothing quickly and amazingly by having a barrel pass over him once.


Musty sometimes breaks into a small dance. In this tiny dance, where the legs cross and the arms flail with abandon, he only moves a mere two inches with all of the movement. It takes but a few seconds and he doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet the dance is expressive and funny. His little dance is currently seen in the repertoire of Bello Nock on B’way and in the huge avant-garde theatre extravaganza of RAOUL by James Thierree (as seen at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY).


Harry Watson Jr. was a major star in American vaudeville beginning in the early 1900s. He and his partner George Bickel led the laughs in the Ziegfeld Follies season after season. It was rough work by performers doing as many as fourteen shows a week of very precise physical comedy, because in their act one could get hit in the face easily during their laugh-filled boxing act, which is seen in the Extras of this retrospective.

Musty Suffer is a broad character. In press, he is referred to as a “clown.” Given the broad world of the clown (“An orangutan who can do the impossible” in one definition), the ensuing “clown logic” or flat-out chaos is the definition of “rough and tumble.” This is very rough slapstick, with a nod to 19th- century French cinema, where plates walk up walls like a row of ants seeking their nest. Stop-motion action is highly complemented by Musty chasing a car to hop a free ride, only to be violently dumped (and feeling still not a care in the world).


There are portraits of Harry Watson Jr. in his prime with Ziegfeld Follies, with George Bickel, and it ends with loving, color snapshots of Mr. Watson in retirement in Canada, 1960, five years before his death. He looks happy and rubber-faced as ever.

The Chicago Daily of January 1916 notes that Chaplin might have a rival in Musty Suffer. George Kleine produced a short “Capturing Chicago.” The film shows Musty winning big crowds with an outdoor serenade by him on a trombone as he is paraded through the streets in an open-air moving car. This turns out to have been during a major film exhibitor’s convention held in Chicago at the time.  Clowning can be very $eriou$ business. This was not advertising folly.

Courtesy of the good folks at The Library of Congress and the Billy Rose Theater Collection at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts (New York), we are provided a time capsule that roars forth with hard-clad evidence that while Chaplin was prodded and poked at by the press of these clowns, and businessmen, Chaplin was not to be rivaled in 1916. Even the skills of this team could not knock Chaplin off his box office pedestal. The Musty Suffer films were originally produced as a 5-reel movie that portrayed a “clown Job.” But George Kleine decided to cut them down and present them weekly as a “another whirl” with Musty.

That is fact and history. It is also now part of our collective history that those who took a shot at beating Chaplin were some mighty fine contenders. It was a skewed thought, but Harry Watson’s acrobatics, executed standing on one arm while the rest of his iron body laid on the floor made me think of Sylvester Stallone doing his one armed push ups as Rocky. It’s a valid comparison given the competitive business of film comedy in 1916.

Musty Suffer’s 30 short films were released once a week from early 1916 to the autumn of 1917. Demand was high. Crowds loved ‘em. They were shot in the Bronx, New York, in one of the boroughs of the City of New York, north of upper Manhattan (Harlem). Fortunately, the Library of Congress has preserved 24 of the Musty Suffer films, the best of which are represented on the DVD.

In 2014, humans are at the point of “saving” films, not necessarily making them look all shiny, new and clear as the Chaplin Archive (Bolonga, Italy) has so beautifully done with such a film as Chaplin’s PAYDAY (1923).

Buy on Amazon right here. And if you like it, give it a review and a whole bunch of stars!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

More Rubber Legs: Clown Kotini Junior

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Fresh on the heels of my posts on George Campo, comic acrobat and eccentric dancer, comes this clip of the clown Kotini Junior. Born in Ukraine in 1967, he won a break dancing competition there in 1986, and has toured with Cirque du Soleil and Zirkus Roncalli. In this impressive clip, he melds a frantic, madman clown character with eccentric dance—much like Campo—and with break dance, and also like Campo centering it around a stubborn chair. Enjoy!

Thanks for this one goes to Karen Gersch, who I should point out will be teaching "Balancing Bodies: Serious Comedy Partnering" at The (Very) Physical Comedy Institute this June.

Click here for the Kotini Junior web site.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Life Imitates Art or Too Funny to Be True?

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Do the Keystone Kops ride again? This "dumbest cops" video has gone viral, billed as "actual bank robbery in Detroit."

You know me, I love examples of physical comedy in real life, and this sure would be funny if it were true, but it ain't. (Darn.) It's actually footage shot by an observer during the filming of this 2008 Chevy Mailbu commercial!

That choreography was just a little too perfect!

But this one, on the other hand, is more likely legit, and almost qualifies as a perfect three-part gag — except that there are four crashes. Well, we could edit that!

Keep your eye on the motorcyclist in white first visible in the upper-right-hand corner; first crash is at 7-second mark. Be sure to watch till the end....


Friday, April 11, 2014

Gibberish (Say What?)

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Gibberish — the sort that imitates a foreign language without using its actual vocabulary — is the physical comedy of words. Stripped of their dictionary meaning, words become physical actions, all sound and movement, intonation and rhythm. Gibberish has made for some great comic bits as well as some useful improvisational exercises. Viola Spolin, in her seminal work Improvisation for the Theatre defines gibberish as "meaningless sounds substituted for recognizable words so as to force the players to communicate by physicalizing" — and she includes several gibberish exercises.

As some of you may have already guessed, this post was inspired by our favorite Finnish supermarket cashier, the quite brilliant Sara Maria Forsberg....

Ten million YouTube hits (which is more than this blog gets in a whole month) landed her a guest appearance on the the Ellen DeGeneres Show and this interview on BBC Radio.

Perhaps the best gibberish comedian was "my father" Sid Caesar. His one-sided duel with Drew Carey on Whose Line Is It, Anyway? has been yanked from YouTube, but here's his classic German General:

Obviously you have to have an ear for this, and it's probably better to not actually speak the language. Forsberg speaks Finnish, Swedish, and English; Caesar spoke English and Yididsh. That's it.

And then there's double talk, a close cousin of gibberish (scat singing and the auctioneer's chant are both distant cousins). Double talk is a traditional comedy form that pretty much sticks to actual words, suckering you in, but then quickly transitions from sense to nonsense. Here's one of the old masters, Al Kelly, on The Ernie Kovacs Show (NBC, 1956).

And to bring it up to date, here's a modern multimedia genius, Reggie Watts, incorporating gibberish into his own unique blend of... of... well, of pretty much everything. Or as one critic put it: “It’s hard to say what Reggie Watts is. He’s not a comedian—at least not in the traditional sense of someone who stands on a stage and tells jokes. He’s also not a musician in the traditional sense. He is, however, both of those things when he performs. He creates symphonies from scratch on stage, using nothing but a loop pedal and his own voice. He plays with language, often spewing out nonsensical run-on sentences while shifting accents and languages—he might start as a valley girl, slowly meld it into a British accent, then, seamlessly, begin speaking German. There is rarely a punch line, but that’s kind of his thing.“

Thanks to my son Nat Towsen for this link. (Reggie has been on his show several times!)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beating Yourself Up — Canine Style

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This has had 10,000+ YouTube hits, so maybe you've seen it before but it's here because this particular dog has clearly read my earlier post, Beating Yourself Up for Fun & Profit, and is no doubt channeling his inner Donald O'Connor, Michael Richards, and Rowan Atkinson. And why not? Fighting yourself has to be one of the quintessential slapstick gags: it's physically difficult, it's mime, it's absurdist humor....  it's barf-irrific.


Guard that bone! Yes, animals do have a sense of humor.

Thanks to Ted Lawrence for the link!