It takes more than a little bravery to tell an audience outright that you are going to explain to them how comedy works and that you intend to make them laugh a lot in the process, even suggesting that they don't have much choice in the matter. But if they don't laugh, you lose on two counts. And it takes a lot of talent, training, and practice to pull it off as well as Jos Houben did Tuesday night in New York at an evening hosted by the Alliance Française as part of their Crossing the Line performance series. Yes, lots of laughs and a standing ovation.
Jos is one part vintage vaudevillian and one part Lecoq-trained movement specialist, a dynamic combination that infuses The Art of Laughter with a whole lot of fun and just as much insight. With only a chair, table, bottle, glass, hat, and napkin as props, this "master class" breaks physical comedy down into manageable chunks, building both the gags and the theory as he goes.
The bottom line for Jos is the human body — "none of you showed up here tonight without yours" — and especially the significance of our verticality, which our egos so readily equate with dignity. Some of this reminds me of a Tom Leabhart lecture-demo on the inner experience / physical manifestation work of François Delsarte, which certainly influenced modern mime, but with Jos the backbone is clearly connected to the funny bone. Many of the comic moments that arise, from the simplest trip to disastrously awkward encounters with the opposite sex, are funny because of our deviance from this vertical ideal.
Jos starts with the simplest physical comedy moves: a trip, a hand fumbling an object, a shoe flying off. How do we react to these? What if others are watching?? He builds these blunders into various combinations and then lets them occur in simple situations with the other. What happens between a man and a woman? Between two guys?
There are a few clips on YouTube, and I offer four below to give you a taste, but they fail to convey the overarching narrative that makes the whole of this presentation far greater than its (excellent) parts. If you have the opportunity to see this show live — and Jos does perform it in English and in French all over the world — do not miss it!
Preview, in French:
Again in French, two more sustained sequences. The first selection focuses on body parts, starting with the pelvis.
The second clip demonstrates creating "an accident" and building it into a sequence.
• Read Jos's impressive bio here.
• See the work of Jos's students from the École Jacques Lecoq, performing at the Louvre, in this previous post.
• Web site for the École Jacques Lecoq, where Jos currently teaches.
• See Jos in New York, November 9th thru December 4th, in Fragments, short pieces by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Brook.
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