Friday, March 5, 2010

Tables are Funny — Live from Barcelona! #2

[post 082]
Pure acrobatics operates in a precise world where time and 3D space intersect in ways even Einstein could not have imagined without vaudeville. As my old Russian circus teacher Gregory Fedin put it, "if you are able to see space, the acrobat has to go through it... go with the curves, like the tracks of a railway."

Physical comedy often hitches a ride along these same curvy tracks, but it also inhabits the messier world of people and objects, of personality and ambition and conflict. When I teach physical comedy, I like to play with this material world as much as possible, with oddball characters at odds with one another, and with all kinds of man-made stuff — chairs and tables, stairs and doors, walls and windows, and with every object that dares challenge our pride with the label "unbreakable." So here in Barcelona we’ve been developing a vocabulary of theatrical acrobatics by using our partner's weight and mass to create counterbalances and human levers. Add to that an exploration of the material world starting with our old friends, chairs and tables. As I mentioned in my previous post, within two hours we had reconfigured four chairs and one table (and by reconfigured I mean smashed to smithereens). No, not a record for my classes; not even close.

Which brings us to this post — Tables are Funny — and a new blog feature that looks at how physical comedy makes use of specific elements within its real-world environment. Stay tuned for Chairs are Funny, Doors are Funny , etc.. I’ll be combining clips of imaginative work from the past with some how-to instruction that should give an idea of how I approach this when I teach hands-on physical comedy.

I first became enamored of table tricks while on the Hubert Castle Circus in the late 70s, where a French troupe, the Gaspards, performed a sure-fire act with many of the tricks you'll see in the videos below. I don't know whatever happened to the Gaspards, I've never uncovered any footage of them, but many other acts have performed very similar routines, which have surfaced in various video archives.

Tables for Dummies
Some obvious things we know about tables:
• they are flat, so we should be able to walk, roll, or lie down on them just as we do on the ground
• they are elevated, so we have the possibility of vertical movement to and from them, including from the table to a higher target
• they can be a surface for working or a gathering place for eating, often bringing people together in a festive and sharing atmosphere
• if it's a dining table, a variety of objects — plates, cups, utensils, food — are placed on and eventually cleared away
• because we associate cleanliness with fine dining, human bodies on top of tables or hands other than our own contacting our food are simply unacceptable in polite company; let us not forget that it was standing on a kitchen countertop that precipitated movie Max's journey into the land of the Wild Things.
• many other structures share some of these characteristics with tables and are therefore eligible for similar treatment at the hands of the unrepentant physical comedian

As with most physical comedy elements, we can look at tables both from a purely physical point of view — what tricks can we perform on them? — and from a comedic angle — how do we make that funny? In fact, we pretty much have to do both, don’t we, or it won’t be physical comedy? Physical + comedy = physical comedy (more or less).

We’ll see numerous variations on these in the videos that follow, but here’s a breakdown of the physical possibilities:
• diving, leaping or falling onto and off the table
• sliding onto, along, and off the table
• balancing in precarious positions on or from the table
• using the table as an obstacle, chasing around it, diving over or under it, etc.
• hiding under the table
• manipulating the objects on the table
• moving, manipulating or even destroying the table itself

Basic Table Technique:

The better the acrobat, the fancier the tricks possible on a table, but you have to begin with the basics. This is what I started them on here in Barcelona:

1. Forward Roll onto Table: Because you are working against gravity here rather than with it, you will need to initiate the roll with more force to push your hips up and over this higher center of gravity, but you will need less arm strength in the second half of the roll to cushion your landing. Be careful to get the hips up and straighten the legs (point those toes!) so you don 't scrape your shin bones on the edge of the table. Unless the table is too long, you should be able to come smoothly off the other end and onto your feet. From there you might go into another roll or into a front fall, as in the video below from my NCI class.

2. Backward Roll from Table: A back shoulder roll is actually easier than a symmetrical roll and also frees up your hands for other activities, such as balancing bowls of soup. First figure out where your butt will sit on the table so that your head is actually off the edge of the table and you are pivoting directly on the shoulders. Sit in the same spot every time and you should be fine. As you go over, think of your shoulders as the pivot point for your rotation and actually see the floor long before your feet make contact. If you are doing a symmetrical, two-hand back roll, push off hard and straighten those legs to avoid the edge of the table.

Here are two in a row, the first by Tony Curtis or his double, from the 1965 movie The Great Race.

3. Peanut Roll onto and off the Table:
[Peanut roll = partners holding each other's ankles.]
First of all you need to be able to perform a smooth peanut roll on the ground, and especially be able to keep the speed up. It's mostly timing and momentum, but some arm strength does help.
Doing it on and off the table looks a lot harder than it is. The person diving from the table needs to plant their partner's feet on the ground and to maintain tension in the arms to minimize the impact. The person sitting on the table can help a lot by resisting on their partner's legs. This is not difficult and, in fact, it's easy to execute the dive from the table in slow motion — admittedly not very spectacular, but a good starting point.

When rolling back onto the table, the partner doing the pulling should be fine so long as they use their butt on the table as a fulcrum and lift more with their legs than they yank with their arms. In the video below two NCI students who just learned the trick muscle their way through it. With more practice, using movement similar to a back extension roll (= back roll to a handstand) will allow the bottom person to make it easier for the lifter, and momentum will replace muscle. Here it is performed by Stefano Battai (Italy) and Giovanni Sanjiva Margio (Australia)

4. Slide Across the Table
This is everyone's favorite stunt! In the movies you might see it across the length of a saloon bar, though in this clip from a barroom brawl in The Great Race, it spans a stage catwalk and down some stairs.

You'll want a smooth laminated table top and will probably want to sprinkle some baby powder on it as well. The idea is to slide clear across the table and off the other side, your body in a slightly arched position, toes pointed. It can be done with no hands, but try starting by placing both hands on the table to boost you up there and push you forward. The hands can grab again to pull you off the end, but with a running start and minimum friction you won't even need to.

Sliding between the legs of one or more people who just happen to be standing on the table is pretty common, as is deliberately knocking objects off the table as you go. I still remember Charles Murray, in a class of mine in Athens, Ohio in the early 80s, sliding desperately across the table to get to a ringing telephone in time. (You see, back then we had these big loud telephones that sat on tables and didn't take messages and didn't tell you who the missed call was from... oh forget it, you wouldn't understand.)

A more common crowd-pleaser is the two-person table slide with the partners approaching from opposite directions. This can be dangerous if you get your signals crossed but is not particularly difficult so long as each person sticks to their side of the table. A demilitarized zone of a few inches is recommended.

An even funnier ending for the table slide is to maintain the swan dive position and belly flop to the ground rather than go into a roll:

5. Hair Pull onto Table
Everyone loves the hair pull, even those of us who are starting to get receding hairlines. In the politically incorrect Age of the Flinstones, caveman grabbed cavewoman by the hair and yanked her left and right, up and down. This was called courting. Nowadays we are only allowed to pretend. As in most stage combat — or as Joe Martinez aptly labeled it, Combat Mime — the "victim" initiates all the action, which keeps things safe and believable.

The basic move goes as follows. To make up for an ice age of discrimination, we'll let cavewoman do the honors.
• Cavewoman reaches her hand into the lushest region of caveman's hair, bringing her hand into a fist as she does so. The idea is to give the impression that she has gathered a clump of hair into that fist, but in fact she should have none.
• Fighting back, caveman grabs cavewoman's wrist in a futile attempt to disengage. What he is actually doing is pressing her wrist into his head because if we ever see a gap between her fist and his skull, the illusion is shattered.
• All movement, from a simple shake to dragging the whole body across the floor, must be initiated by the victim, aka the caveman. The cavewoman follows through, miming being the aggressor. This is both for safety purposes and to maintain the illusion.

Same technique for pulling someone up to the table.
• Cavewoman stands on the table, caveman on the floor.
• Cavewoman reaches down and grabs caveman's hair, as explained above. Caveman grabs her wrist. You may find a two-hand grip easier.
• Caveman plies and jumps to the table while cavewoman mimes being the cause of it all. While caveman may get some support from his woman's arm, the bottom line is still that fist and head cannot come apart.

In class we first tried this jumping to a chair just to get the movement down and our confidence up.

Here are the Three Ghezzi doing it (their full-act video can be seen later on in this post).

6. Ye Olde Tablecoth Pull
We've all tried pulling a table cloth out from underneath the dishes, but did you know it can be done with 4 plates supporting 4 legs of a chair and a person sitting in that chair? The principles remain the same, and are all designed to minimize friction:
• use a smooth table with a sharp edge
• use a tablecloth with no edge seams
• let the tablecloth hang down on your side but not off the back
• put fruit in bowls, etc.; crockery is more likely to stay in place if it's heavier
• taller objects are more precarious, so place them closer to the near edge of the table so they have less contact time with the tablecloth
• pull quickly downwards with both hands as you step back

And, yes, this is me with hair (Toronto, 1989).

And, yes, those front two plates were supposed to stay put. It looks to me like my yank was slightly up rather than slightly down. Don't you make the same mistake! An even worse mistake would be to ask a horse to do a human's job, as in this early Max Linder film:

A Table Safety Note:
Most tables these days fold up. You probably don't want this to happen while you are on them. When I use this type, I like to brace the opposing legs with a 2" x 2" wedged between them so they cannot fold inward. Of course in a workshop setting you can always use a spare human:

Table Acrobatic Acts

No doubt tables have been funny ever since they grew that third leg, and certainly hit their stride with the fourth. I have no idea which caveman did the first table comedy acrobatic act, but such shenanigans were common by the time vaudeville came along, and the black & white photograph at the top of this post is indeed of Buster Keaton's father, Joe. Their vaudeville act was the Three Keatons (that's Buster on the left) and Joe was the Man with the Table. "He would dive on it headfirst, turn handsprings along its top, and then from apogee plunge head down almost to the floor before, with a catlike turn, he would land on his feet."

It's unlikely we'll ever discover footage of the Three Keatons, but Buster never tired of doing his trademark table fall, a bizarrely brilliant piece of business which he may or may not have gotten from dear old dad. To get up onto the table, he places one foot up there so that leg is now parallel to the ground. Hmm...that worked well enough, so why not just do the same thing with the other leg? Here he is, still demonstrating it well into his senior years.

Through the miracles of DVDs and YouTube, we do have some complete table acrobatic acts that hearken back to vaudeville. The oldest piece I have is from the early days of television, performed by two comedy acrobats on the Colgate Comedy Hour. (I don't have their names, but I'm working on it!).

Fast forward to 1966, where Allan Sherman ("Hello muddah, hello fuddah...") is introducing The Three Ghezzis at the London Hippodrome. They combine standard table tricks with clown carpenter shtick to create some high-level mayhem. Pay attention at the 1:40 mark as one of the Ghezzis reprises Buster Keaton's table fall.

Next up are the Stanek, performing in the Tarzan Zerbini Circus (USA) in 1989. (I had not heard of them and the announcer seems to be calling them by another name.)

More recent are Quartour Stomp, who go more in and out of the comedy in order to show off their formidable acrobatic prowess.

Our final full-length piece comes from the excellent web site Circopedia This act by the Fumagalli in the 2007 edition of the Big Apple Circus is more clown than comedy acrobatics, perhaps a bit thin in both areas, but interesting enough.

Shorter Table Bits (the bits are shorter, not the tables)

The Launching Pad
Usually we descend from a table. Usually. Here's Buster Keaton cornered by Joe Roberts in his short film, The Goat (1921). Buster has succeeded in getting invited home by the girl he's been chasing, only to discover that her father is the cop who's been chasing him all day.

The Folding Table
On a sillier note, here's Harpo Marx, thwarting an attempt to fold the legs of a card table.

The Mobile Table
Usually a table is stable, but there's no reason it can't be moved and manipulated, as in this brilliant sequence from the Beijing Opera sketch, The Crossroads, or, The Fight in the Dark.

Breakaway Tables
And finally, it is of course possible to destroy a table. Breakaway furniture has been a mainstay of physical comedy since the invention of the 3-legged stool, and I think when I asked Jango months before my workshop to get me some tables and chairs, that must have been what he thought I meant, because they all kept breaking.

In the 19th century, the Hanlon-Lees were famous for breaking anything and everything: trains and stage coaches, and of course ceilings and tables...

In The Great Race saloon brawl, they break everything within sight: chairs, tables, windows, mirrors, doors, stairs, railings, and two balconies. Here's the most explosive table smash:

On a lamer note, here's the Brit comic Spike Milligan crashing onto a card table in his multi-cultural "waiter, there's a fly in my soup" routine, in this variation making fun of the Irish:

Table That Story

Now after looking at those videos you might think that all table tricks are good for is a highly technical comedy acrobatic act. As much fun as such acts are, they require highly skilled acrobats, which very few of my students are and which I never was. Furthermore, the 10-tricks-a-minute approach is fine for presentational acts but not for routines with a narrative structure where falls, flips, and nosedives have to be motivated.

So let's look at the use of table tricks within a storyline....

First up is Joe's Restaurant, a 10-minute piece created by and starring Christopher Agostino, Laine Barton, Aaron Watkins, Joe Killian and Mari Briggs, and performed at the 2nd NY International Festival of Clown-Theatre (1985). The piece actually grew out of work in a physical comedy class I taught and was reshaped and directed by Steve Kaplan. I remember Steve liked to say "what's the joke here?" in an attempt to sort through all the shtick and hone in on the primary comedy angle in a scene. This piece was more a series of tricks than a story until it was agreed that the joke was that there were not enough chairs for all the customers.

Joe's Restaurant has dozens of tricks, but this is not the only way to go. Instead of trying to string together a series of table tricks into a substantial sequence, it's equally valid to use a single technique at just the right moment in just the right away. The move doesn't have to be hard, it just has to work within the context of the piece. Here's a good example from this past weekend's Cabaret Cabron at the Nouveau Clown Institute. In this funeral home sketch, Giuseppe Vetti and Salvatore Caggiari, who in real life work together as as Il Duo Dorant, reprise the Dead or Alive motif, using just a few partner and table moves from my class. This was put together in one afternoon after three physical comedy classes. Giuseppe is the undertaker, Salvatore the body.

Because this was shot with a basic Flip camera and from a bad angle, first a couple of high-rez stills by Manel Salla "Ulls" to set the mood:

You can find a dozen more stills here, but onto the video:


Jon Davison said...

Fantastic post, John. Funnily enough, we're working on a new show based around tables and chairs right now! This is an excellent resource.

The Go To Guy said...

GREAT POST! How timely, I'm currently trying to develop some table schtick for my new show.

Thank you!


rtravi20 said...

The Joe's Restaurant video looks like it's in slow motion. Can you fix this? It looks like a neat video! i'd love to watch. But it's so slow!

jt said...

Glad you all like it, and be sure to check the new videos I've put up there, some as recently as yesterday (March 19th). That's all I've got for now, though I'm sure other examples will crop up later on.

Ross, sorry you're having a problem with Joe's Restaurant. It's playing full speed on my computer, so I'm guessing the problem is not the video compression, but simply that the length of it is too much for the servers involved getting it to you. If and when I can find the time, I'll try breaking it down into two or three parts and re-posting it.