Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beating Yourself Up for Fun & Profit

[post 158]

If you've ever played around with slapstick or stage combat, and I'm betting you have, you know that the victim's reaction is key to selling the effect. As my old friend Joe Martinez put it, what we're doing is Combat Mime, the illusion of fighting, not the painful reality. It's not surprising, then, that many a comedian has had the clever idea of eliminating the attacker altogether, of playing victim to an imaginary foe.

The earliest reference I found to this idea was something I wrote about the acclaimed 19th-century British clown Billy Hayden, who made his reputation in Paris at Franconi's, first as an acrobatic clown, though later as a talking clown:  "He practiced acrobatics alone in the ring for two hours every morning — dancing, tumbling, falling, delivering blows at imaginary partners, and being struck by imaginary feet." (Clowns, p.200) I'm not sure how much from these practice sessions actually ended up in his act.

If you're having a hard time imagining what this might look like, the sofa sequence from Donald O'Connor's classic physical comedy piece, "Make 'Em Laugh," from Singing in the Rain (1952) is a short but sweet example:

Silent film comedian Charley Chase had actually taken this idea several steps further 26 years earlier in his wonderful Mighty Like A Moose, though his fight is heavily (and jokingly) dependent on film editing. The silly but useful premise is that Charley and his wife (Vivien Oakland) are embarrassingly homely, he with buck teeth, she with a big nose. They both have plastic surgery without telling the other, and when they accidentally meet, they flirt heavily without recognizing each other. (Yes, it takes more than a little suspension of disbelief, but then so does Twelfth Night.) Charley figures it out first and, as a staunch advocate of the double standard, is determined to teach her a lesson by staging a mock fight between husband and lover.

Now here's Peter James from the old Spike Jones Show who says "I like to slap myself" and who was breakin' way ahead of his time.

This is the talented Alex Pavlata from his show Francky O. Right, showing what happens when Romeo breaks up with Juliet.

And finally, here's Rowan Atkinson (see this previous post) being tormented by an unseen adversary during his morning commute: A Day in the Life of the Invisible Man.

Drop me a line if you know any more examples!

July 4th Update:  Blog reader Paul Reisman has done just that, providing us with a worthy addition to our collection. Paul writes: "It's from a pretty horrible movie called Trial and Error [1997], but the clip of Michael Richards getting beat up by invisible enemies has always stuck with me."

Let's just say I liked it a whole lot better than that audience of casting directors.

July 18 Update: Steve Copeland writes that the physical comedian on the Spike Jonze show was Peter James. Click here to check Peter James out on IMDB. Click here for a very watchable video about Steve and his partner Ryan Combs and their life on the American one-ring show, the Kelly-Miller Circus.

October 29, 2012 Update: Here's James Corden at the Tony Awards performing his schizoid self-fight from One-Man, Two Guvnors:

• Four short instructional videos based on material from Combat Mime.
The World of Charley Chase web site.
• The Francky O. Right web site.
Official site for Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean.


Steve Copeland said...

First of all, great blog.
Second of all, the comedian from Spike Jones was Peter James.

Adam G said...

Hi John:

I love this idea, a couple of other examples.

1) Dario Fo tells a story about going to a rural town and showing a piece in which he beats a pig in a satchel. Audience members were convinced he had a pig. He could not convince them that the pig was imaginary. The next day, he brings a pig in a satchel, and tries to beat it up. The people are convinced that there is no pig-- he's just making fun of them.

2) Dick Van Dyke on Slapstick

3) A while back, a friend and I created an April Fool's joke for his aikido dojo-- "Stooge Fu- The Ancient and Honorable Martial Art of the Clown"