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.
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!!