Friday, September 23, 2011

DVD Report: "Learn Slapstick (Get Physically Funny)"

[post 194]

Yep, that's what Wikipedia says: "Physical comedy, also known as slapstick..." And if you go on the Discussions page for their physical comedy entry, you read "I propose this article to be merged with the Slapstick article. There are a lot of information on this article that is much the same in the slapstick article, and hence redundant. In my opinion, the two articles will be more informative and detailed when merged."

I don't have enough time to go around editing Wikipedia, but I couldn't resist replying:

"I disagree. Strongly! Slapstick historically refers to comic violence, and it should be the goal of an encyclopedia to retain these distinctions. The original slapstick, which dates back at least to the commedia dell arte, was a device intended to create maximum noise with minimal striking force: two slats of wood are hinged at one end so that when its trajectory is halted on or near the victim's body, the back slat strikes the front slat, creating a loud smacking sound.

Physical comedy is a broad term that encompasses the predominance of movement in creating laughs — thus "a silly face", one of the three characteristics mentioned in this article, does not belong as a defining term. The term 'Physical comedy" can be equally applied to some or most of the work of Pilobolus, Bill Irwin, Marcel Marceau, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati. Very little mock violence in their work."

Which brings me to Christopher Lueck's instructional DVD, Learn Slapstick (Get Physically Funny). We're off to a better start here, because slapstick is clearly defined as "comedy stage combat," and this is meant to include self-inflicted damage, as well it should. Christopher is the main brain behind the New York Monthly Downtown Clown Revue and teaches slapstick here in town at the Slapstick Dojo. The DVD, which runs slightly under 40 minutes, is subtitled Intro to Slapstick and mention is made of more DVDs to come. I first reported on this project in this earlier post. Because I was out of the country, I did not yet have a physical DVD to view. Now that I do, here's a more complete accounting.

The curriculum is oriented towards breaking down the physical technique, and covers the following moves:

Mostly rolling around joints
Five Basic Slaps
• Front slap
• Backhand slap
• Uppercut slap
• Top hit 
• Eye Poke
Trips & Slips
• Front trip
• Back trip
• Front slip
• Back slip
• Front scissor fall
• Back sit fall
• Back shoulder roll
• Side (crescent) fall
• Plank fall from knees
• Finger Slam 
• Face Slam
• Toe Slam
Funny Faces & Double Take

Each of these is broken down into clear steps and demonstrated by Christopher and two assistants, Mariko Iwasa and Steven Maier. The techniques are very basic, what you'd cover in the first few sessions of a hands-on class, but even an experienced physical comedian might pick up a few tips.

To see the approach to teaching, go to the DVD's web site for a sample video on the front trip.

I teach an intro physical comedy class at Bloomfield College to students with little or no performance or movement training, so I decided to show them the DVD at the end of our second class this fall semester. I think they found it useful, especially because they were able to step back and see it done, step by step, without having to be nervous about being called upon to try it themselves right away! However, even though these students are inexperienced, they were observant enough to point out when certain techniques did not look natural and motivated, which was true of a couple of slips and falls.

Overall, the clarity and presentation are good, the emphasis on safety commendable, and Christopher's affable and reassuring tone helps make the material approachable. There is less discussion of comedy than one might like, and the pedagogy does push a certain style of slapstick, which is fine, except that it might give some the impression that this is the only way to go.

That style is more lighthearted and goofy, one that emphasizes intentional silliness over gritty realism, more circus clown than apache dance. In this cheerful style, reactions should register annoyance more than actual pain. Don't get me wrong: this is of course fine. We're not talking good or bad here, just modes. Ultimately it all comes down to the characters and the storyline. There is certainly darker material to be found in the works of such slapstick stalwarts as The Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplin, and The Three Stooges, whereas Monty Python is often pure silliness. Room enough for both!

One assumption of this style is that it does not matter if we see the performers making the knap (the slapping sound). Here's a short sequence to give you a better idea what I mean:

Again fine, except if you don't learn and practice being able to hide the knap, you'll only be able to do it this way.

All in all, you'll very likely get your $20 worth, so click here to order. But some suggestions for future volumes:
• DVD chapters! This is not a VHS!! We want to be able to go back to a specific technique without scrubbing through the entire presentation!
• More material! 38 minutes is pretty slim for a DVD, even if it's only $20.
• More comedic application. Technique is essential, but it only gets us half way there.

1 comment:

John said...

Best to learn the basics before tying yourself up in knots attempting John Cleese's turns in The Ministry of Silly walks or his goose step in the Fawlty Towers episode 'The Germans'.