Sunday, February 7, 2016

Enter and Exit the Republicans (Physical Comedy is Not Dead, part 2)

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In an earlier post I made the argument that physical comedy, far from being dead, is all around us. We just don't recognize it. Today in part two we look at physical comedy in politics, where it can prove especially embarrassing to those so desperate to control their self-image. The first hilarious example is hot off the wireless, last night's Republican debate where, with help from ABC, the presidential candidates proved Chaplin's adage that "good exits and good entrances, that's all theatre is."


In fairness to the Republicans, it was pretty clear that Carson couldn't hear moderator Martha Radditz, who amateurishly introduced Carson before the applause for Christie had died down. Carson, already considered by many to be a fool, was unintentionally thrust into that role by Radditz.  Apparently Trump didn't hear her either. And then, as a nice button to the gag, the moderators had to be reminded by Rubio that they'd never called on Kasich to enter.  You just can't make this stuff up.

For my money, physical comedy is often more real, more visceral, more revealing than verbal humor. Which brings me back to my favorite George W. Bush clip. As many of you surely know, there are many clips of Bush mangling the English language. These were damaging enough to his presidential image, but I always thought that this physical comedy moment of him trying to go through a locked door was far funnier. It's man-in-top-hat falls. It's slipping-on-the-banana-peel territory: the humor is in that initial reaction.

What was it that Chaplin said?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review: Dave Carlyon's "The Education of a Circus Clown"

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Dave Carlyon’s memoir, The Education of a Circus Clown, only minimally touches on the world of physical comedy, but it is a book that many of my blog readers should find interesting, especially those who have spent time with Ringling Brothers... thus this review.

Dave is quite the Renaissance man: writer, teacher, historian, actor, lawyer (!) and, last but not least, clown. His narrative of attending Clown College (1976) and touring with the Blue Unit (1977) stands above most circus memoirs not just because he’s a better writer —it’s a good read— but because he actually focuses on the performer’s struggles to stay vibrant and funny from day to day, audience to audience. He doesn’t try to pass himself off as a super clown, just as a reasonably skilled and talented individual learning his craft one mistake at a time.
First, clowning is hard because clowning is easy. Throw on makeup, and some laughs are automatic. I-get-it laughs. I'm-a-free-spirit laughs. Ironic it's-not-funny-which-makes-it-funny laughs.... The various laughs convince rookies they're comic geniuses.

The limited time, focus, and choice of material accorded to the Ringling clown is a challenge to creativity, both in terms of establishing a strong character and devising innovative physical comedy. The traditional routines Dave and hundreds before him performed in the ring and on the track —whipcracker; clown car; charivari; the walkarounds— all have potential for a more imaginative physicality, but rarely live up to that promise. It is while playing with the audience up in the seats that this First-of-May clown and future author learned his craft. How to relate, how to be real, how making a connection is more important than desperately seeking the big laugh. As he struggles with the divide between the popular image of the clown and the actual need to be funny, he comes to the conclusion that “clown” is not a noun but a verb. "I never imagined that grammar would improve my clowning." Actions are what define the clown, not the “look,” not all the preconceived notions. Amen.

"Don't be clowny, be yourself," that's what Cuz had told me in Atlanta. But "be yourself" is a performance paradox, a gumbo of instinct, habit, and self-conscious awareness as you try to act, as a clown, in an exaggerated way that is simultaneously who you are. Watching Emmett Kelly at the Sarasota benefit in January, I hadn't been impressed. He  seemed to be doing nothing except nodding and greeting the crowd as he shuffled along. Now, more experienced with crowds, I recognized that he had been masterfully weaving a web of connection... Good clowns create human connections."

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan, which I assume markets to libraries, because the list price for this modest volume (the narrative comes to 165pp) is a whopping $95 ($82.46 on Amazon). Hopefully, there will soon be a paperback and/or Kindle edition so it can reach its natural audience, which I think will include many of you reading this review.

Also by Dave Carlyon: Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard of

Click here to read Ernest Albrecht's review of Dave's book in Spectacle magazine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The 2016 London International Mime Festival

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If I weren't in Costa Rica right now I'd be seriously wishing I were in London. Even if you've never been and might never go, it's good to know that the London International Mime Festival is now entering its 40th year. Since its inception in 1977, the festival has gone way beyond mime to encompass circus, clown, physical theatre, mask work, puppetry, and more. In the process, it has not only popularized a lot of deserving movement-oriented work, but has opened eyes outside the already converted. As the NY Times comments this week, "over four decades it has had a significant impact on British theater, disrupting the dominance of scripted plays —something that hasn’t quite happened the same way in the United States."

You can read the Times article here, but meanwhile here are some preview images and videos of five of this month's offerings that highlight physical comedy.

Svalbard (Sweden)

Svalbard bends the edges of contemporary circus and blends it with theatre, physical comedy and live music to create a truly original piece that you will remember for its surreal quality as well as its awe-inspiring skills.

BabaFish (Belgium)

Dominoes topple… an hourglass is overturned. Time is ever-present in this ephemeral retrospective of one man’s life, his scattered memories conveyed through acrobatics, movement, music and dance… Assisted by her father, an inventor by trade, Swedish-born artist Anna Nilsson has devised a Heath Robinson-esque set, where a ball bearing spins around weird and wonderful machinery and pendulums wave. It provides a poignant backdrop for an abstract tale about time running out, characterised by four performers and their unpredictable mix of acting, juggling, hand-balancing and singing.

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris (France)
By and with Jos Houben and Marcello Magni

"An entire performance history lurks behind this ticklish two hander, the opener for the London International Mime Festival, created by Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, two of contemporary theatre’s greatest clowns. This funny, heart-breaking show celebrates the pair’s relationship stretching back to the early 1980s with Complicite and ground-breaking shows such as A Minute Too Late and More Bigger Snacks Now. It also draws on the history of clowning from commedia dell’arte to the slapstick of 19th-century music hall and early 20th-century film... the show continually reaches out to the audience, playing us with a knowing sweetness. It’s a brief hour that gives the kiss of life to the ancient art of the gag." —Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

Familie Floez (Germany)

In Infinita, a cast of irresistible, larger-than-life characters are seen both as warring children, and then in later life as residents of an old people’s home. The wily games of nursery one-upmanship seem hardly to change with the passage of time; survival of the craftiest is still the rule of the day. Infinita plays out in a succession of increasingly hilarious scenes, combining poignancy, astute observation and some superbly skilled slapstick.

Trygve Wakenshaw (New Zealand)

NAUTILUS is the final part of rubber-limbed Trygve’s ‘underwater trilogy’, the follow-up to delirious, sell-out physical comedies KRAKEN (LIMF’15) and SQUIDBOY. Oozing with whimsy, dripping with charm and magnificently mad, Trygve is his own animator in a cartoon world. A master of risqué innocence, he trained with Philippe Gaulier, developing a uniquely eccentric style of mime-comedy that has won him legions of fans the world over.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rube Goldberg + Physical Comedy = Joseph Herscher

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When I was setting up The (Very) Physical Comedy Institute in 2014, I heard from a prospective student who said he was a kinetic artist who had been building Rube Goldberg machines for many years and was now trying to integrate human performance into his work —thus his interest in physical comedy. It was Joseph Herscher, a New Zealander living in Brooklyn, and though I didn't know Joseph personally, I'd actually read about his work (which has millions of hits on YouTube) and had even done a blog post on him way back in 2012.

I already loved his stuff, and especially the idea of integrating it more with physical comedy, so my immediate reaction was "yes, come as a student, but also come as a teacher!" Which he did, but more on that later...

Rube Goldberg (1883–1970) was an inventor and cartoonist who drew popular cartoons of elaborate gadgets that performed simple tasks in the most convoluted way imaginable. His influence on such silent film comedians as Charley Bowers and Buster Keaton was unmistakeable.
To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here's "The Page Turner," an absolutely insane machine that saves Joseph from going to all that trouble of having to use his own hands to turn the page of his morning newspaper. I can't for the life of me understand why every home doesn't have one of these.


You can see the introduction of the human character in that one, but his first big foray into human physical comedy was "The Dresser."

You won't be surprised to learn that "The Dresser" was a year in the making! Well, we didn't have a year at The (Very) Physical Comedy Institute, so what Joseph did in his class was to hang some ropes on pulleys from the Celebration Barn rafters and then add in some objects with kinetic potential. From there we developed our own chain reactions and tried to create sequences involving human behavior.

Before we got to play with the toys, however, we did a variation on the old Viola Spolin building-a-human-machine improv. This one, a "slapping machine," was pretty funny. It was half over before I thought to whip out my phone camera and start recording, but you'll get the idea. (Left to right: Shane Baker, Sara Ski, Drew Richardson, Michael Trautman, and Leland Faulkner)

It was a giant leap forward to next be playing with all kinds of moving objects. All you're going to see in the next clip are the beginnings of some rough ideas being sketched out. We didn't have a year, we had an hour or two! (With Shane Baker, Angela Delfini, Sara Ski, Hank Smith, Michael Trautman, Bronwyn Sims, and yes, that's me at the end patiently awaiting my fate.)

In another class at the institute, DIY Silent Filmmaking, co-taught by Lee Faulkner and Drew Richardson, Joseph was in a group with three other students —Adina Valerio, Steven Koehler, and Bronwyn Sims. Not surprisingly, their film wasn't exactly prop-free:

Fast-forward to summer 2015, when Joseph returned to New Zealand to create a four-part web series, "Jiwi's Machines." These pieces are actual comedy sketches revolving around three characters: Jiwi, the mad, messy inventor (played by Joseph); Jiwi's compulsively tidy sister Jane; and whatever guy Jane is foolish enough to try to impress when Jiwi is within striking distance. I was honored to consult on some of this work, as did my NYC clown colleague, Hilary Chaplain.

Here's the first in the series, "Crumbs":

Joseph has also been a participant in our weekly NYC Physical Comedy Lab in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. (Check out our page on Facebook!) One day last spring we played with a sequence he wanted to use in the web series. The idea was for a chair to shoot backwards, then stop suddenly and catapult its occupant back and up, to be caught by her romantic partner. This is us trying it out, with Mik Kuhlman doing the pushing.

And here's that same scene in Jiwi espisode 4, "Recipe for Disaster."

Not the height hoped for, but at least Jane got her happy ending! You can see the full Jiwi series, as well as the marvelous work that came before it simply by clicking here. Enjoy!!

Monday, December 28, 2015

In Remembrance: Meadowlark Lemon

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I've said it before but I'll say it again: physical comedy is everywhere. Not just in silent films and the circus, but in dance and mime, in straight drama and in television commercials, in rodeos and —you can see where I'm going with this— in basketball. Of course I'm referring to the Harlem Globetrotters and to the great Meadowlark Lemon, a five-decade veteran who passed away yesterday at the age of 83.

Lemon was the type of clown who could make fun of a particular skill because he was actually very, very good at it. “I’ll put it this way,” he explained. “When you go to the Ice Capades, you see all these beautiful skaters, and then you see the clown come out on the ice, stumbling and pretending like he can hardly stay up on his skates, just to make you laugh. A lot of times that clown is the best skater of the bunch.”

In fact, Wilt Chamberlain (who started as a Globetrotter) maintained that Meadowlark Lemon was the most awesome basketball player he had ever seen, even ranking him ahead of Michael Jordan. That may be hyperbole, but the basketball skill was indeed formidable and was enhanced by ball manipulation chops that any juggler would be proud of and some silly but slick movement not too far from eccentric dance. I know that when I first saw the Globetrotters as a kid, my reaction was "I didn't even know that was possible." And all of the skills were packaged with creativity and irreverence, so I laughed A LOT. (It also forever lodged "Sweet Georgia Brown" in my brain.)

Much has been written about Lemon and the Harlem Globetrotters, including a sweet guest post to this very blog by comedy animator Jonathan Lyons. Here are a few fun videos, interspersed with excerpts from the NY Times obituary.

This was a time, however, when the Trotters were known not merely for their comedy routines and basketball legerdemain; they were also a formidable competitive team. Their victory over the Minneapolis Lakers [white world champions--jt] in 1948 was instrumental in integrating the National Basketball Association.

It was his charisma and comic bravado that made him perhaps the most famous Globetrotter. For 22 years, until he left the team in 1978, Lemon was the Trotters’ ringmaster, directing their basketball circus from the pivot. He imitated Tatum’s reams [gags--jt], like spying on the opposition’s huddle, and added his own. He chased referees with a bucket and surprised them with a shower of confetti instead of water. He dribbled above his head and walked with exaggerated steps. He mimicked a hitter in the batter’s box and, with teammates, pantomimed a baseball game. And both to torment the opposing team — as time went on, it was often a hired squad of foils — and to amuse the appreciative spectators, he laughed and he teased and he chattered and he smiled; like Tatum, he talked most of the time he was on the court.

“Man, I’ve had a good run,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, recalling the first time he saw the Globetrotters play, in a newsreel in a movie theater in Wilmington when he was 11.

“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s mine; this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”

Sunday, December 27, 2015

What, and Quit Show Business?

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It's the third day of Christmas and I have a present for you, my loyal blog readers. No, it's not three French hens. Even better: a free chapter from my new book. The performing arts chapter, of course!

Ordering info in right panel, propaganda below, followed by pdf of chapter five. Enjoy!

How Many Surrealists Does It Take 
to Screw in a Lightbulb? 
Why did the Intellectual Cross the Road 
and Walk into a Bar?
A collection of over 
1,000 cartoons, jokes, and epigrams 
for the over-educated and cognitively curious 
(yes, that means you!) 
as compiled and for the most part understood 
by John Howard Towsen, Ph.D. 

“A book to treasure!” 

Bill Irwin, award-winning actor and vaudevillian (Waiting for Godot; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Fool Moon; Old Hats)

"This book is surreally funny!”
Ray Lesser, humor writer; founder & editor, Funny Times

“It’s a must for any fan of comedy."
Fred Willard, legendary film and tv comic actor (Second City; Fernwood 2 Night; This Is Spinal Tap; Waiting for Guffman; Best in Show; Jay Leno; Everybody Loves Raymond

“A wonderful book!” 

Sidney Harris, celebrated cartoonist (20+ collections published)

“A bang-on book!” 

Craig Yoe, cartoonist and comics historian;


Janeane Garofalo, actor, activist, pioneer of alt. stand-up comedy. (SNL; West Wing; Reality Bites; Ben Stiller; Larry Sanders)

""I am thrilled! It's a page-turner, with fantastic continuity. I am truly honored to be able to share funny with you." 

Bill Marx, composer, concert pianist, author —and son of Harpo.

“Light up, lighten up, and laugh your butt off.” 

Phil Proctor, writer/performer (Firesign Theatre;

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Falling for Prime Minister Trudeau

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We've had an action hero as governor of California, a professional wrestler as governor of Minnesota, and now a reality tv star as a presidential contender. But Canada has us beat, a prime minister who's a physical comedian! Yes, the newly elected Justin Trudeau (another JT). And I don't apply that label the way many a politician is characterized as being a bozo, or the way President Ford was so clumsy that spoofing him helped jumpstart Chevy Chase's career. Trudeau really can do stuff. For example, "accidentally" falling down stairs is (or at least was) his favorite party trick.

No surprise this video (of a younger Trudeau) went viral in Canada during the recent election, and was first widely seen in the U.S. when John Oliver included it as part of a hilarious October 18, 2015 piece on Canada.

During the campaign, Trudeau made an ad using an escalator as a metaphor for an economy going nowhere. (I guess a stronger visual than a mime walk.) The Canadian comedian Rick Mercer (The Rick Mercer Report) added on to the ad, turning it into a PSA for elevator safety while slyly referencing the Trudeau video:

Did you notice the stuntman switched escalators for the last shot? (Yes, I'm assuming that's not Trudeau in the second half of the piece.) Another Trudeau physical bit, less daunting this time, led to another pretty funny Mercer parody, "The Pyramid Institute."

And, oh yeah, it also helps that Trudeau's not a fascist.