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!)
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