Thursday, August 20, 2009

Guest Post — Jonathan Lyons: Always Leave Them Laughing

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Yep, the start of another new regular feature of the blog:

The Guest Post!

I'm honored to include the thoughts of experts in the field to this blog, so let's get started with me introducing Jonathan Lyons...

After earning his BFA in film (majoring in animation) from NYU in 1988, Jonathan began a career in the VFX (visual effects) industry, working for ILM for nearly 6 years. He is currently at Imagemovers Digital, finishing up animation on "A Christmas Carol" for Robert Zemeckis and Disney. His research into clowns and cartoons resulted in a paper "Comedy, Clowns, and Cartoons." which he delivered at the first conference of The Society for Animation Studies, held at UCLA in 1989. In addition to his VFX career, he is working on his own short film which, he says, "is of course a silent comedy."

Take it away, Jonathan...
and my apologies for the delay in getting this up there; this post was written 7 weeks ago right after the movie's release but was a victim of my forced blog vacation...

Always Leave Them Laughing

“When he’s laughing good you know
That’s the time to turn and go
Always leave then laughing when you say goodbye.”

George M. Cohan wrote the lyrics to Always Leave Them Laughing in 1903, and I assume it’s where the expression began. It’s still great advice today. The title has been reused for films such as the Laurel and Hardy short Leave ‘em Laughing (1926) and Always Leave them Laughing featuring Milton Berle (1949).

One of the most challenging aspects of physical comedy is how to end the show. The stand-up comedian has it easy. He or she can simply save the best material for last, then triumphantly run off stage to the sound of applause. But how does the physical comedian top it off?

A circus or stage clown with skill in acrobatics, juggling or magic, could end the show with the best trick, but what of the character comedian? It seems performers often devise a signature style of closing. Charlie Chaplin’s iconic ending, of him wobbling down the road alone, suited his purposes, but was not in itself funny. The Three Stooges, who I’ve been watching a lot of lately, reach a certain plateau of pandemonium, then whoop whoop themselves out of the scene, escaping to their theme music. Warner Brothers animation created the Porky Pig “That’s All Folks” tag.

In feature films, it’s even more difficult to end with a laugh. The audience has expectations of resolution to the various story lines. Occasionally, films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Animal House, end with humorous epilogues of what eventually became of the characters. Funny, but not physical.

What inspired me to think about this was the new movie, The Hangover. The surprise hit of summer 2009, the film has a truly remarkable ending. What follows, may or may not constitute spoilers, so make your own choice to continue. The premise of the film is obvious from the trailer. Four friends take a bachelor party trip to Las Vegas to celebrate the impending marriage of one of them. The next morning they wake to find the suite in a shambles, and the groom is missing. They have no memory of what happened. The ensuing action is quite funny, as they follow the few clues they have to find the groom and unravel the mysteries, a considerable portion of the comedy being physical. At the end the foursome is reunited, as would be expected in a comedy, and they find a digital camera containing photos of their lost night. They agree to view the pictures once, then destroy them. They gather around the camera, switch it on, then recoil in horror at what they see. Cut to the credits. During the credits, they show the photos. It is a series of still pictures, and they are everything you fear they might be. It is physical comedy in its rawest form. It’s shockingly funny. I wouldn’t argue if some of the photos were called obscene. The entire movie sets up the jokes in the photos. Many of the clues from the night before are exposed, and whole new alternative storylines flash by in seconds. It totally sends the audience out laughing.

— Jonathan Lyons (June 29, 2009)

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