Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Great Debate: Chaplin vs. Keaton

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Most practitioners and aficionados of physical comedy, myself included, have a strong preference for either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. So I asked dozens of people in the field to share their perspective in a paragraph or two. The results were fascinating and insightful. Enjoy!

Laura Fernandez

Being asked to choose between Chaplin and Keaton is like being asked if we love Mommy or Daddy more. I love Chaplin for his view of the world, his ability to make the political funny, of his stick-it-to-the-man schemes and for his enviable, heart-wrenching pantomime. The Gold Rush had everything from the roll dance, to eating his shoe, to the hungry-chicken routine. Genius.
Keaton is the master of taking the small incident to its absolute conclusion. I revere him for sacrificing his well-being for my entertainment. His use of neutral has taught me so much about how a clown can see the world and reflect it without commenting on it. Authentic.
No, please don't make me choose.
Not possible.
Laura Fernandez is a mime, clown and actress who works in theater and on the street, as well in hospitals, senior homes and hospices, originally in NewYork and since 1993 in Germany. She founded Die Clown Doktoren, the first established group in Germany to visit children's hospitals, and is currently Artistic Director for Humor Hilft Heilen.

Bernie Collins 
Bernie (left) with Philippe Martz

I have often been in the situation where I showed people Keaton and Chaplin films for their very first time. Starting with my son and all the neighborhood kids, through years of teaching the history of clown here in Paris at the Samovar school, and throughout the world while on tour and giving workshops at festivals. Everywhere, hands down, Keaton gets the biggest laughs. On that criteria alone, I’d say Keaton is the better clown. I could go on for hours arguing both sides, but it also comes down to the feeling that Chaplin is “self-contained” and difficult to identify with, whereas Buster, you’d take home with you. I admire Chaplin, I love Keaton. Buster lives on in the films of Jackie Chan. No one is doing Chaplin anymore, not since Mickey Mouse and Gene Kelly passed away.
Bernie Collins is the “B” (for better looking) half of the French-American clown duo BP ZOOM along with ”P” Philippe Martz.

Judy Finelli
Judy juggling at 2

I've always appreciated that Keaton wasn't sentimental. I appreciated that when I was younger because I disliked Chaplin's sentimentality. But as they say —that was then and this is now. I don't mind Chaplin's sentimentality as much now that I'm older. I saw The Kid recently and I loved Jackie Coogan and thought Charlie was generous as a performer and the end result is that the movie is very sweet in a good way except for the odd "heaven" dream. I like Chaplin's nonsense song in Modern Times I think it was. I like that Keaton never cracked but I didn't think he was as effective as the alcoholic doing talkies.
Judy was an early contributor to the New Circus Movement. A former Artistic Director of the Pickle Family Circus, she currently coaches circus skills at Circus Bella, the SF Clown Conservatory, and Prescott Circus Theater, and is the founder of Notoriety Variety.

Deanna Fleysher
Well, it's always a treat to get to choose between a drunk and a womanizer (or in this case, really, a teenage-izer). But for all of Chaplin's disturbing flaws, I like him WAY better. I recognize the technical genius of Keaton the same way I recognize the beauty of a trained physical performer, but I don't personally laugh. Chaplin's performances have so much vulnerability and heart, and I still find him funny. Despite the whole kinda-pedophile thing. But that is a thing.
Deanna Fleysher teaches and performs internationally with the Naked Comedy Lab and Butt Kapinski, respectively.

Kenny Raskin
I've always been more of a Keaton fan. I was actually lucky enough to wear one of his outfits a decade ago. That's another story… I have a lot of respect for Chaplin's talent and his versatility. I just always believed Keaton more. He was always about the dilemma, and I find that closer to my interests as a clown. To watch these two masters in their duet in Limelight really says it all. Chaplin's approach seems to be more outwardly focused, Keaton's more inward. Thank God they both existed!
Kenny Raskin has been toiling as a clown for over 40 years — Cirque du Soleil, Broadway, film, variété, and hospitals.  Not a bad life!

Karen Gersch
Visually, Chaplin's character is an endearing soul; the draped and shabby outfit, the bowlegged stagger of a walk. Eyes darker and moodier than a Kardashian. When he laughs, those little pearl teeth make him the more childlike. But he has all the charm of a frenetic terrier. At times, watching him run circles around antagonists wears me out. I think I lean more towards Keaton's stoicism. He was an early master minimalist —of movement and expression. His face was haunting; one felt the weight of the world in his gaze. And things seemed to naturally conspire against him, which made him more endearing, a victim of the disasters that befell him. (Whereas Chaplin often —intentionally or naively— caused the grief and arduous situations he found himself in).
Karen Gersch has performed and taught in circus and stage for 50 years.  Keaton & Chaplin appear in many of her paintings.

Allan Turner

Chaplin wants us to dream about who we can be. Keaton shows us how to cope with who we are.
Allan Turner is a Canadian writer, actor, and clown. For 18 years he’s performed as the zombie clown Jean-Paul Mullet. New YouTube channel launching this summer!

Glen Heroy 
There was a small art house cinema in my upstate hometown. As a youngling, I spent countless hours there in the dark watching Chaplin films feeling amazed and inspired. While all my other comic influences (Lucille Ball, Art Carney, Carol Burnett) had the ability to make me laugh, Chaplin had the ability to make me both laugh and cry. That’s the dragon I’ve been chasing as a performer ever since. The only Keaton film I’ve ever seen was Film by Samuel Beckett. Again at the art house cinema. I was very young and it was very weird. Before that Keaton was that man on Candid Camera. Don’t get me wrong, because I’m a professional performer I’ve read 3 Biographies about Keaton, and have watched more than a few documentaries about him all in the name of research. Just never gravitated to actually sit through any of his films. When I told Will Shaw this fact he said, “Part of me wants to slap you, but I’m actually envious of the incredible joy you are about to experience when you finally do watch his films for the first time.”
Glen Heroy was featured in the PBS Documentary "Circus" and is a veteran of the Big Apple Circus.

Karen Hoyer
I loved Charlie Chaplin movies and thought he was amazing —until I saw Buster Keaton movies.  Chaplin seemed simpering and smarmy compared to Keaton's deadpan aplomb. And after I read their biographies, I definitely landed in the Keaton camp.  But I have great admiration for both, especially after watching the PBS programs The Unknown Chaplin and Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.  Amazing to watch the gag development.
Karen Hoyer performs and teaches mime, clown, mask, and puppetry. She is based in Chicago, where she co-founded Partners in Mime, Inc. and currently works as Dr. Dot, Chief Bonehead for Healthy Humor at La Rabida Hospital.

Dominique Jando
Between Chaplin and Keaton, my preference goes to Buster Keaton for several reasons. First of all, he is an “honest” clown: he never uses pathos if it doesn’t lead to a gag. He doesn’t try to be poetic, or to create easy, superficial emotion (schmaltz); yet he manages to be poetic and to create true emotion through his talent as an actor, but without ever trying to force it upon us, and without ever trying to make a point of it. (For all his comedic talents, Chaplin is the king of schmaltz.) Then Keaton is a prodigious and meticulous gag builder, able to make them on a minute or a gigantic scale, as the situation demands it. Finally, his character is not a one-situation or one-definition character: he can be either the scion of a rich family or a washout, he can end up a winner or a loser, it doesn’t really matter —so long as there is room for a final gag. Yet whoever he appears to be, he is always himself, his own and single clown persona. He is the ultimate clown.
Dominique collaborated with Alexis Gruss in the creation of France’s first professional circus school, and of Le Cirque à l’Ancienne. For nineteen years he served as Associate Artistic Director of the Big Apple Circus. His numerous highly-regarded books include "Histoire Mondiale du Cirque" and "Clowns et Farceurs."

Hilary Chaplain

I usually go to Chaplin first, and then Keaton surprises me again with his beautiful simplicity. Laugh out loud: The Gold Rush. If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Chaplin —it’s all in the name (only he spells it wrong).
Hilary tours with her solo show “A Life In Her Day” and her short comic numbers. She thinks she knows a thing or two about physical comedy and teaches in NYC and around the world.

Aitor Basauri
In my opinion, the two most influential comedians of the 20th century. Trying to identify what we owe to each of them is a huge task. I believe there are millions of things from each one of them that has an effect on my everyday work. Having said that, I identified more with Keaton. I find him funnier, more to the point, and with more interest for the laughter.
While I say that, there come to mind amazingly funny moments from Chaplin's early films and I doubt my previous comment. His body of work is so vast that he covered everything that there is in comedy and clown. I read both of their biographies and the words of Chaplin I find very inspiring and the life of Keaton speaks to me in loud voice. I still lean towards Keaton, but I can't stop admiring Chaplin.
Aitor is the Joint Artistic Director of Spymonkey, and teaches master classes in Brighton, London, NY, and beyond, and at the École Phillipe Gaulier. He has performed in numerous Spymonkey productions as well as with Circus Knie and Cirque du Soleil.

Dan Kamin
Having to choose between Buster and Charlie would be like choosing between my hands.  I love both of them.  That said, I have a particularly strong emotional attachment to Charlie. I was in college when I saw my first Chaplin film, The Gold Rush, and it absolutely bowled me over. I thought it was the funniest film I’d ever seen, and the most moving. I loved the way Charlie shyly courted the dance hall girl, and how he made the bread rolls dance on the tabletop for her. I was amazed by the way he could turn into a giant chicken, or a man frozen stiff in the snow. I admired how he maintained his dignity under the most humiliating circumstances, and his comical and wildly inventive problem-solving strategies. I liked the way he held himself, and the way he moved.  I wanted to be as cool as he was.
In all his films, The Tramp lives in a hostile world that threatens and excludes him. He demonstrates, again and again, that we can do more than just survive that world. If we’re imaginative and nimble enough, we can find delight, magical surprises, and even love there.
What do forks and bread rolls have to do with courtship?
Everything, it turns out.
But I love Keaton just as much. They’re two sides of a coin of incalculable value. Like Chaplin, Keaton successfully integrated his physical skill with a profound cinematic vision, in his case a vision of man buffeted by a world of immense, powerful and often indifferent forces. In the 1960s, when his great films became available for the first time in decades, my generation was blown away by how relevant they seemed, given the horror and absurdity of what was going on in the world. His verbal humor in the subtitles was not only funnier and droller than that of any other silent comedian, but also strangely contemporary. Keaton's bleak vision of cosmic futility is disguised as the fever dream of a vaudeville pro who’s just trying to get a laugh, but we aren’t fooled. We respond to his stoical beauty as he pratfalls on the edge of oblivion.
Dan Kamin is the author of "The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion."  Dan created the physical comedy sequences for the films  "Chaplin" and "Benny and Joon" and trained Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp for their acclaimed starring performances.  He performs internationally, frequently as a guest artist with symphony orchestras.

Larry Pisoni
Larry with his son Lorenzo

I prefer Keaton, his history/experience. I respond to the manner in which he sets up the story and each gag. Keaton was clearly an acrobat and, to my eye, Chaplin was a dancer. It all comes down to personal preference in the end.
Larry was a co-founder of the Pickle Family Circus, where he clowned alongside Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin, and his own son, Lorenzo. His extensive performance credits include Robert Altman's film, "Popeye" and, more recently, his son's film "Circus Kid."

Bill Irwin
Charlie Chaplin is everywhere. Not just clowns and pantomimists, but breakdancers, stand-up comics and music-video makers draw constantly —often unconsciously— on the work of the silent film comedians the way musicians look back to the blues. And at the center of that amazing work stands Charlie Chaplin, regally —in fact at times a little imperiously— a brilliant clown who learned to make movies when there was no one to learn it from... Chaplin was the early film comic who did most to vary the rhythms and give the wild and silly early silents a grammar and punctuation, making them less quaint. You may not be able to describe all the gags, but you can usually re-tell the stories of Chaplin's comedies. It's harder with, say, the earlier Keystone Cops; with them, there's some wonderful stuff but it feels a little primordial... Even Buster Keaton, the other titan of silent comedy and many people's favorite, while more athletic and acrobatic than Chaplin, occasionally let the stock nature of his falls show a bit in the knockabout —amazing though the falls were. It's a little rarer to be able to recognize stock bits of vocabulary with Chaplin....
You always know what the Keaton character is up to, even if you may not be able to name it or de­scribe it. What's the blend that makes Buster Keaton's physical comedy so wild and so visceral but at the same time so finished, so sure? For one thing, he was one of his era's finest actors and one of the best acrobats ever captured on film. As an acrobat, he had a particular —and very rare— actor's knowl­edge of how to harness the story-telling potential of acrobatic movement. Hang out with gymnasts or circus tumblers, even stunt players, and you'll see how the empha­sis their craft places on execution tends to make it difficult for them to think about narrative. Ask di­rectors how often they've been wowed by acrobats at live auditions and then had to leave it all on the cutting room floor later on. Keaton and a few other graduates of knockabout vaudeville made it work.
Never in his irony does there seem to be any contempt for his characters, or for his audience. It's a fine and difficult line, mordant wit without contempt. What seems to guide Keaton is a true belief in innocence and the possibility of heroism....
Chaplin worked the cause and effect of human motive, too. In ''The Rink'' Charlie and that accomplished foil Eric Campbell endlessly trip, shove and pummel each other on roller skates. If you only see the action sequences, the violence seems a little gratuitous, but viewed from the beginning it's clear that it's all driven by that supreme gag motivator, jealousy (Edna Purviance is on hand). The easiest thing to forget when you put together physical material is the ''why'' of each move. The run, look, slap, fall of the choreography (especially with camera marks to hit) can take over, and the specifics of maintaining life, limb and semblance of dignity —the great human preoccupations— often get lost; then you're left with that depressing shell: zaniness in general. Chaplin, when he became his own director, rarely let that happen.
Bill Irwin is an award-winning clown and actor. As a clown, he is best known for his work with Pickle Family Circus and such shows as "The Regard of Flight," "Fool Moon," and "Old Hats." This text is extracted from two articles written by Bill for the NY Times on the 100th anniversary of each performer's birth: "Chaplin, Inventing Modern Times; How a Classic Clown Keeps Inspiring Comedy" (April 9, 1989), and "Beauty in the Form, and Even in the Face" (July 2, 1995).

Amy Gordon
In the time-honored tradition of clowns kvetching over who did it better, I put forth my opinion that Keaton was the more masterful physical comedian. Like most opinions, it tells more about my predilections than any actual truth. I like funny. Keaton’s situations (usually more dire) and reactions (usually more economical) make me laugh every time, still. While both were genius filmmakers and fabulously creative dudes, Chaplin’s art seems more that of a sentimental actor’s, even if he was more wonderfully physically agile than any of the leading men or comedians of his day. Chaplin was also the bigger thinker on the conceptual scale, making statements with his work that spoke to big issues.  But Keaton’s timeless visual metaphors, understated acting, perfect timing, partner work, jaw-dropping stunts and simple, unvarnished character make him my choice. Plus, he kinda looks like my grandpa.
Forged from vaudeville stock, classical training, and an endless international tour circuit, Amy G is a deluxe weirdo extraordinaire. She's been featured around the world since 2006 in the Olivier Award-Winning "La Soirée,"  currently playing in Club Swizzle (Perth). Amy has worked in theatres, films, tv, festivals, circuses, variety shows and events in over 40 countries, and performed her original material in 6 different languages. 

Moshe Cohen
Chaplin or/and Keaton!!!
Great Clowns, both have universal appeal.
Yet it’s Chaplin who touches me, opens up my imagination, and my laughter.
A recurring conversation over the years, with many people, with many an answer.
All subjective. As it should be.
Moshe Cohen, a.k.a. Mr. YooWho, is the founder of Clowns Without Borders-USA. Over the past 25 years, he has given over 2000 performances in over 30 countries. He teaches workshops exploring the expression of personal humor through physical theater and contemporary clown.

Joel Jeske
I would say Keaton.
Why? Well... I think both have unique and iconic film personas.
Chaplin is a great introduction to silent physical comedy.
However... when I saw Keaton from a modern perspective...I found the subtlety of his comic ability and timing a revelation.
I think Chaplin performed in front of the camera whereas Keaton worked with film as a medium. So... I would say Keaton.
Joel Jeske is a professional physical comedian, director, teacher, and creator of his own theater shows.  He is a creator and performer for the physical theatre company Parallel Exit and has toured with Ringling Brothers, Cirque du Soleil, and Big Apple Circus. An encyclopedia of comedy knowledge, Joel is committed to passing along this unique and distinctive art form to future generations of performers.

Fred Yockers
It's Keaton all the way for me.  Stand-out reasons:
1. His style is much more in my wheelhouse —slapdash with the slow double-take, deadpan reaction.
2. His stunts were much more spectacular.
3. His plots more "epic."
4. And if nothing else, the sympathy for his childhood as an abused vaudeville child, followed by the decline in his end days, making beer commercials.
The son of the legendary Coney Island Steeplechase clown, Freddy the Tramp, Fred Yockers clowned with Ringling Brothers and other circuses, with partner John Towsen for about a dozen years, and as a solo clown nationally and internationally.

David Lichtenstein
I'm a Chaplin man.  While Buster's big stone face sometimes gets the bigger laugh, Chaplin displayed a far bigger repertoire of lazzi; he's a brilliant comic dancer and prop manipulator. And a fuller clown character too. And inarguably Chaplin went far beyond Keaton in producing major films of great social importance.  For the ages, urban poverty and the Great Depression is represented in City Lights, industrialization in Modern Times, and WWII and the fight against fascism are forever captured in The Great Dictator.  Note that he made City Lights just before the Great Depression and The Great Dictator just before WWII, truly a great artist of his times!
David Lichtenstein has been a professional performer specializing in street, clown, and variety theater for over 25 years. He is a Clowns without Borders vice-president.

Sigfrido Aguilar

After graduating from drama school, I traveled to Europe for nine months to observe classical theater in France and England. When I returned to America, I began my self-taught studies of creative stage movement and mime by focusing on the investigation and analysis of the silent film comedians. Observing the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, I learned the essence of what comedic scenic language is for me, my own popular theatrical world of movement and gesture.
From the comic sense, Chaplin, over the years, developed his pathos as a performer and this fact made him transcend his acting with body and soul to become a unique artist.
Keaton, from the beginning with his stone-face signature, had an immediate artistic effect of drama and comedy in his acting, as well as the complete presence of a neutral performer. It is his total neutral value as a theatrical performer that makes me like him the most.
Sigfrido is an internationally renowned performer and teacher. He is the director of the Estudio Busqueda de Pantomima-Teatro in Guanajuato, Mexico and founder of the International Festival of Contemporary Mime in Mexico.

Barry Lubin
Photo: Maike Schulz

Keaton, internalized, was stoic. Chaplin, in childlike ways, explored the world actively. Chaplin represented the childlike self in adult body, not looking for trouble but finding it anyway. I related better to Chaplin for his emotional battles with authority. Keaton found himself in crazy situations made crazier by his stoicism. Then, in genius ways, often subtly, Keaton managed to survive those impossible situations.
My treadmill act was directly influenced by Chaplin, knowing that if he were alive today and walked into a health club, the props and characters would be his playground.
Barry "Grandma" Lubin is the author of Tall Tales of a Short Clown.

Jonathan Lyons
For me, it is first and always Buster Keaton. While in high school, I attended a screening of Seven Chances.  I had never laughed so hard in my life, and may not have since. The chase of a thousand brides was beyond anything I had seen before, and the sheer scale of the event nearly caused me to fall out of my seat.  It was Keaton’s ability to create sequences that were not only hilarious, but spectacular that makes him the easy choice for me. Chaplin was better on a personal level, up close, but Keaton was big enough to partner with storms and steam trains.
Jonathan Lyons is a lifelong fan of physical comedy. A professional animator by trade (Lucas Films, "Pirates of the Caribbean"), he also wrote the book "Comedy for Animators" and authors the blog,

Jeff Raz

I loved Chaplin first, because my mother loved him. As an adult, I got to know and love Keaton. Both great, both teachers to us now, both still vital.
Jeff is a clown , actor, teacher, and director. He has had leading roles with Vaudeville Nouveau, Make A Circus, Pickle Family Circus, and Cirque du Soleil. He founded and directed the Clown Conservatory (San Francisco) and is the author of the new book, "The Secret Life of Clowns."

Joe Dieffenbacher
Chaplin was the first silent comedian I saw and, as a  visually oriented kid, I was fascinated by this wholly visual clown. As an adult, I appreciated his themes and his depiction of a tramp's life and how he dealt with it, sometimes aggressively, sometimes dreamily. I discovered Keaton much later via Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns. Here was the supreme visual comedian! As a budding slapstick comic, he was a great inspiration: I loved how his physical comedy took in the big picture (houses falling on him, boats taking over his love life, trains taking out his home, even Mother Nature having a go), and he is the author of the clearest, most profound advice on creating comedy. "Think slow. Act fast. Create a situation and introduce a character that tries their best. No begging." Keaton inspired me to attempt a show with a deadpan character, a pure slapstick routine with a ladder (I called it The Trap).  It was for the street, a place where exaggeration is often your greatest ally. But with Keaton as my guardian angel, I stuck it out and it remains one of my favorite shows to perform. Working with that kind of economy and clarity taught me so much about comic performance. Choosing a favorite is impossible, they both offer so much. Comparing them I'd say Chaplin makes you watch him —he is always the center of attention, like a demanding child (a very funny and skilled one). Keaton lets you watch him, invites you to consider and enjoy his worldview. No begging. Chaplin's films took on social issues and I appreciate him for that. Keaton was less specific but still able to comment on how the little man deals with the big bad world. The loss of his independent status just as he was exploring feature films is to me one of the great tragedies; what he might have produced had he been allowed to continue as an independent filmmaker! To me, their greatest achievement is the fact that over a hundred years later, their films still elicit laughs from modern audiences. Might all comedians be so lucky...
Joe Dieffenbacher has been working as a physical comedian, teacher and director for over 30 years. His  style incorporates circus, commedia dell’arte, mask performance and puppetry, the large-scale visual comedy of stadium shows, the focused work of the theatre clown, as well as the confrontational approach of the stand-up comic. He is known internationally for his circus, stage and cabaret work with his company Nakupelle.

Michael McGuigan
Oh man, tough one.  Arrrrgh.  I like Keaton's character more. There is a sweetness about him that earns points over Chaplin in that department. But truth be told I reference storylines and specific gags of Chaplin more than Keaton.  Chaplin's The Circus has so many brilliant bits it's not funny (oh wait, it's VERY funny) and the social commentary of Modern Times and The Kid greatly appeals to my sense of agitprop theater.  If I think of it this way, approaching their work for what I can use to influence my work, it would be an exercise in futility for me to steal from Keaton's character, which I love dearly and would imitate extremely poorly. But Chaplin is a gold mine of bits and storytelling that I can outright steal and make my own. So I think I gotta go with Chaplin, by a red nose.
Michael McGuigan is a longtime wide-world physical performing artist, teacher, and Managing Director of Bond Street Theatre, NYC. 

Johnny Melville
Chaplin and Keaton were geniuses in their own way. However, Chaplin was a very strong "unconscious" influence on me in the fifties when Scottish TV only really featured a limited kind of telly. We only had TV from 5-12 for a long time in my youth —I was really brought up on radio comedy. But when it did come it was mainly Chaplin: his speed, his riotous situations, all had an effect on me that was to bloom when I started to clown around London's tough housing estates when I was 26-29 and learning my trade in the raw. Hit and miss, try this try that, but like Chaplin's and Keaton's' own beginnings. As I started to study those clown historic heroes I was based at the Oval a few hundred meters away from Chaplin's Camberwell home. It was Keaton who took my focus later,  however, as his clown I believe is more the intellectual clown, more adult, and therefore more appreciated by the adult, than the more cheeky and kid-childlike style of Charlie. So, in a nutshell, Chaplin influenced my child and was the instigator of my clown beginnings, and soon Keaton became the cream on the cake, at least as the role model. Chaplin, of course, developed his art into the movies much more. Poor Keaton had the comedown after the silents ended and drink took him off his potential, that very sad, all the more hurtful to see him in Limelight as a shadow of what he had been, whereas Chaplin is still going strong as the inventive performer.
Johnny Melville is a Scottish-born, Barcelona-based actor, director, clown, writer, energy-sculptor, and "lightwork healer." He is celebrating his 45 years in the biz in 2018.

Steve Smith
Steve at 65

I feel like this is like trying to pick your favorite sibling, or which of your children you love the most.
Keaton has unmatchable technical skills both in front of and behind the camera. His ability to communicate so well and so deeply even with his great Stone Face is remarkable. And for physical stunts and falls... unequaled.
Chaplin is more lyrical & poetic and often criticized for being sentimental. To that I say pish, posh & pshaw. He was a brilliant storyteller who knew how to underscore each scene of each story with clarity of movement, focus and the music he composed to make his art as accessible to the largest number of people as possible.
And, oh by the way, both of these geniuses were INVENTING THE MEDIUM as they worked.
Steve Smith —teacher, director, performer, clown & comic spirit. From circus to cruise lines, cabarets to coliseums, theatre, theme parks, television & more...a very fortunate human being now in his 47th year in the business of show.

Mimi Calado 
How difficult for me to have to choose the best in a comparison of two geniuses like Keaton and Chaplin. Both make me laugh a lot and inspire me to this day. Buster Keaton had a better body for comedy, acrobat, and exemplary comedian, but I believe that the way Chaplin managed to talk about political and humanitarian matters without losing the comedian's funny way of practicing poetic comedy makes him the best.
Mimi Calado is a Brazilian clown and mime currently living in New York City. He most recently performed with the Yankee Doodle Circus.

Vladimir Olshansky
Buster Keaton is a wonderful comedian. But just a comedian. Chaplin is a brilliant comedian humanist. In my opinion, Keaton was a stronger actor than Chaplin. Chaplin was not only a great comedian artist but also a citizen, a citizen of the world. Hitler wanted to kill Chaplin, not Keaton. When there was a  “witch hunt,” Chaplin was forced to leave the States. He was not a communist, he was a humanist. If we compare the topics addressed by these two great comedians, then it becomes obvious. It is so important for an artist to experience all the pain and imperfection of our world and express it in his work. Then his art becomes clear to all mankind. All over the world, people imitated Chaplin, not Keaton. Chaplin was able to express what excited ordinary, small people around the world. Therefore, as a person and as an artist, he is more significant than Keaton.
Vladimir Olshansky originated the role of "Yellow" in Slava Polunin’s "Snow Show," and has worked as a clown in the Cirque du Soleil. He moved to the U.S. in the late 80s, where he was one of the pioneers in the development of the "clown doctor." In 1996, he co-founded "Soccorso Clown,"  a national organization of hospital clowns in Italy. Presently, he is performing his metaphysical comedy "Strange Games"

Nola Rae
I love and admire both Chaplin and Keaton, but I love Keaton more. His character was the more gentle, always falling into scrapes rather than necessarily causing them. Situations happened to him and he struggled to do his best but without malice. (The French film comics Jaques Tati and Pierre Etaix had similar gentle and naive characters). Keaton was always trying to be accepted. Chaplin was forever the rebel. Both clowns had wonderful faces. But Keaton, realizing he had a bad smile for film, made the fact he didn't smile an advantage. The eyes said it all. There are deadpan comedians, but Keaton was not one of them. His emotions always shone out. A great clown without guile and without smile was always going to be extra special.
Trained at the Royal Ballet School and with Marceau Marceau, Nola Rae MBE is one of Britain's most celebrated visual performers, playing 68 countries to date.

Don Rieder
I appreciate Walter Kerr's understanding of Keaton in The Silent Clowns. Kerr understands Keaton's silence, the pause, the architecture of the gag, the understanding of the camera and the frame. Keaton's craft is nearly perfect. In terms of content, though, he and his gag writers show a marked insensitivity towards minorities and people of color. Paleface, while sympathetic to native Americans losing their land to corporate greed, uses Hollywood 'Indians' and offensive stereotypes. The text frames show that the 'Indians' cannot speak in fully formed sentences in 1922. The action in Cops is initiated by the stereotyped Balkan bomb tossers with ridiculous mustaches. In Seven Chances, jokes are made at the expense of Jews and black women. In The Navigator there are the "savages." And in Steamboat Bill, Jr., if this is Mississippi, where are all the black people? There is one black man and Keaton frightens him into eye-popping panic. A choice typical of the period. Another case of Keaton's apparent racism or adoption of the racism of the period is The General. Keaton supports The Lost Cause, secession, and the war to protect the right to own people. Finally, there's The Cameraman. Keaton in top form as a gag writer and stunt performer, but the opening scenes in "Chinatown" pander to anti-Chinese sentiment. Keaton has always played comedy using stereotypes. Consider the fact that he began in The Three Keatons with its Irish domestic violence routine playing to anti-Irish sentiment. No Irish need apply.
No, I prefer Chaplin who did not resort to racial and ethnic stereotypes for his comedy, who portrayed cops as people who protected the status quo by abusing the poor, who poked fun at the upper classes, who sympathized with the poor, and who, as a performer, had the more complex phrasing and the grace and articulate elegance of a dancer. But a Time's Up and #metoo of that period would have chased him to Switzerland well before HUAC.
Don Rieder is a clown, dancer, storyteller, director, and author. He has toured internationally and is a master teacher whose credits include the Cirque du Soleil, The National Circus School in Montreal, The National Theatre School of Canada, and numerous American and Canadian universities. 

Matt Mitler
Keaton, Keaton, Keaton. I became enamored of silent and early comics when I was quite young, and Keaton simply made me laugh more. He still does. Years later, I began to appreciate Chaplin's technical skills, and his mathematical precision, but Keaton still had him beat. The thing with Keaton is that it's never showy, there's a simplicity even in his most outrageous stunts, a selflessness. Chaplin was the bigger crowd pleaser, but I never bought it, I couldn't get past the ego. I give him kudos for his creative range —acting, producing, writing, and directing, and (ok he beats Keaton here) his musical compositions, but Keaton was more visionary as a director/writer and took film into landscapes that were thoroughly, divinely surreal. If you read up on Keaton, you see that he didn't do what he did for acclaim, but because he truly loved it. Of course, you don't need to read anything, it's evident in his every moment. The other thing was that Chaplin played the fool, but at the expense of others, while Keaton himself is always the brunt of the joke.
Matt Mitler has brought his anarchic physical comedy to stages, plazas, and centers for disadvantaged populations. He is founding director of Dzieci Theatre, an experimental ensemble balancing work on performance with work of service.

Jeff Seal
First and foremost, I think Chaplin is funnier. I genuinely and consistently laugh at every film he made from Kid Auto Races at Venice to City Lights. On a side note, while I like his talkies I don't think they're very funny. I think it's ironic that Chaplin resisted talking for 10 years after sound came to films and when he finally made the switch to Talkies he wouldn't shut the fuck up. All of his sound films have these long drawn out monologues that drone on and on (except for the final speech in The Great Dictator which is moving and beautiful). Anyway, back to Keaton: while I think he's funny and I love watching his films they don't make me lol as much as Chaplin's do.
Chaplin didn't exploit the medium of film quite as well as Keaton and he never really outgrew the one-reelers, but I think Chaplin more than makes up for it with the Tramp's pathos. Chaplin's films are genuinely moving in a way that Keaton's never were. When asked why his shots were never as "interesting" as Keaton's, Chaplin said, "Because I'm interesting!" I agree! However, Chaplin did incorporate some sophisticated editing in the opening to The Kid, which predicts and predates Sergei Eisenstein's Theory of Montage.
Chaplin wrote, directed and SCORED all his movies himself while Keaton hired gag writers and co-directed most of his films with Eddie Cline. Also, Chaplin made two of the greatest silent films ever, Modern Times and City Lights in the 1930s when literally everyone else was making Talkies and Keaton was getting drunk while living in a trailer on the MGM studio lot. Look, I still love Keaton but I think most people say they like Keaton more than Chaplin just because it sounds cool.
Jeff is a comedian and filmmaker and a graduate of the Clown Conservatory at the SF Circus Center. He makes comedy videos for Bankrukt Productions and is one of the artistic directors of Cloud City, an arts space in Brooklyn. 

Dave Carlyon
Buster is better. I respect, admire, and honor both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Each had immense comic talent and great physical skill (which are different things). Little can match Chaplin’s roller skating in The Department Store. They also had equally impressive drives, its own separate talent, that created wonderful work. However, in my estimation, Keaton has three advantages.
First, Keaton is more inventive. (And I’m not saying that just because Chaplin gets credit for the fork-&-roll dance in Gold Rush that Roscoe Arbuckle had done before him.) Though Chaplin is inventive too, his inventiveness focuses on himself. His sets and scenes contribute to the story less than they serve as a backdrop to better display him and his comic business. For instance, in Modern Times, he built a factory without any function except to be a setting for the jokes he wanted to do. He costumed a woman with buttons like bolts on her front for the joke of using his wrenches on her. Keaton, by contrast, always plays with the reality of the world he’s in. As a performer, he uses the specific physical elements around him as his partner. When he engaged the mechanical world, in The General, he didn’t build a train to show off comic business he thought up, but thought up comic business to fit an actual train in the reality of the story he’s telling. As a filmmaker, he manipulates the physical space and the movie frame in similarly inventive, playful ways. Sherlock, Jr. is a master class in using the techniques of filmmaking to tell the story, to craft comedy, and to subtly display how films create the illusion of reality.
Second, Keaton’s work has a clarity that his counterpart lacks. With Chaplin, everything tends to a wink & a shrug & a slide & a kick. Though those moments are fun, sometimes funny, together they cloud the view, so we come away with more sense of him than what we’d seen around him. Consider Keaton sitting on the bar connecting the train wheels in The General when they start to move. It’s a gag. It’s clean. It works. Now imagine Chaplin doing that scene: he’d use his wonderfully expressive eyes to show us a thought, then a feeling, then another thought, next he’d wiggle his eyebrows and shrug, or stumble and make another face, or do all of it. In actor jargon, he'd make a meal of it. Excess can work great in comedy but Chaplin’s moves pile up on each other, creating a fog of “Chaplinesque,” which overwhelms our sense of the films themselves. Most clowns can, at the flip of a cane, do a reasonable facsimile of Chaplin-like moves. (Do we need another Chaplin-wannabe shrugging shoulders, tilting head up coyly, and pursing lips in an impish smile?) By contrast, imitations of Keaton barely work because they usually go for a pose of the immobility, which doesn’t capture him. Despite his reputation as the Great Stone Face, it’s the seemingly infinite variety of his moves that animate his movies. And whether those moves are frantic activity or stillness —its own kind of activity for a good physical performer— he uses what he does to create particular moments for a particular purpose.
The third point follows from that: Keaton has an emotional honesty I don’t see in Chaplin’s relentless sentimentality. Though Chaplin deserves credit (some credit) for making satirical points, sentimentality is his default mode, to orchestrate our responses, tug us to make sure we notice poignancy, all but wave his arms so we don’t miss him smiling bravely through sadness. He does it very well: I sometimes fall into whatever emotion he’s pitching. But it’s still sentimentality. Keaton works differently. Not calling attention to himself or his character’s plight in the insistent way Chaplin does, Keaton focuses on the move, the image, the shot, and then gets on with it. No begging for us to love him. Instead, he lets us meet him halfway, finding our own way into the moment he’s created, deciding how we feel about it.
Dave is an ex-Ringling clown, Equity actor, and director who wrote the award-winning books, "Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man …" and "Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes­."

Will Shaw
I have been greatly inspired and influenced by Mr. Keaton and certainly “resonate” with his work more.  However, it seems to me that Chaplin’s accomplishments are so great that we tend to take them for granted:  they’re just part of the cultural landscape like mountains are part of the natural landscape. In reality, of course, his work didn’t exist before he created it. To this day, his Little Tramp character is still the most common logo of the entire art of cinema. Keaton is a bit more of a niche taste —almost a startling revelation when discovered by people of our era because it is so great while Chaplin’s massive popular appeal has kept his work, to some extent, always a given.  So, while I personally am a Buster fanatic, if forced, I would say that Chaplin’s accomplishments were a bit greater.
Will Shaw is the winner of the Bistro Award from Backstage, the theatrical trade paper, as one of New York City's top cabaret performers. He has been seen on Letterman, the Daily Show, Sesame Street, and pretty much everywhere else.

Aaron Watkins
Laurel & Hardy.
Aaron is perhaps best known as the editor of If Every Fool's "Clown-Theatre Gazette."


As for me? I wouldn't argue that one is objectively better than the other, but ever since my first introduction to them in the early 1970s, I was always in Keaton's camp, to the point of hero worship —I even had a cat named Buster Kitten. I found Keaton funnier and more relatable. I thought and spoke of Keaton as "Buster," but Chaplin was always just "Chaplin" to me, never "Charlie." All art is manipulative, but I went along more easily with Keaton moment to moment, whereas I found myself resisting Chaplin's efforts to tell me what to think and feel. As Keaton once said, "What you have to do is create a character. Then the character just does his best, and there's your comedy. No begging." And Keaton, with his surrealistic touches and existential angst, seemed more modern, or perhaps more timeless.
The 70s were also my formative circus years, so I naturally gravitated toward the acrobat more than to the mime/dancer. Still, both were a marvel in their use of physicality in comedy. Absolute geniuses.
So yes, I admire both, and now it's time to sit back and do some serious re-watching, enlightened by all of these great perspectives, thank you very much!


Here are Chaplin and Keaton sharing "centerstage" for the only time in Chaplin's 1952 film, Limelight, a quarter-century after the silent-film era.

But as Ben Robinson points out, Keaton (as a waiter) and Chaplin (as himself) did share the screen in a 1922 promo film for the Independent Screen Artists Guild.

And finally, via Dan Vie, here's a 52-minute Spanish documentary juxtaposing the work of Chaplin and Keaton.


Anonymous said...

Yes, quite fascinating and insightful, covering a lot of perspectives to make me think. For me, I tend to appreciate Chaplin and enjoy Keaton.

Dan Vie said...

Very cool, John! More to see who has offered comments here than even the subject matter - this is a great format. Hopefully, one hundred years from now, people will be remembering and watching traces of all your acts and debating the subtleties of your characters - may it be so!

Dan Vie

Dave said...

What a commentary! Great idea John. I’m not sure I could have added anything even if I had caught the boat/deadline. What an auspicious academy of acrobats and mountebanks you hearded up! I could see this could easily be a basis for a book.

Reading the comments it’s apparent how much the backstory of these two has shaped peoples view of them. Everyone responds viscerally to the images on screen but the mythology of their lives seeps in pretty quick. None of us are old enough to have had much to do with the men themselves but who can say what they were like to work with or as people? Taskmasters, I’m sure. Chaplin’s rags to riches story and apparent mastery of music as well as movement, manipulation, directing and writing make him stand out. A hard act to follow but I image being around Keaton, drunk, bitter and broken can’t have been easy either.

Do we judge just on the output or do we include word view, background, innovation, physical skill? Both were marketed on their backgrounds, Keaton was solid America and Chaplin the chipper Englishman. Keaton knew his place in the world and did a great job. Chaplain was an insecure immigrant (and ultimately treated appalingly despite his fame).

Bottom line: chalk and cheese.

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