In a time where words are becoming cheaper and less convincing, silent comedy can be a great source of inspiration for writers. By studying the techniques of clowning, the writing of scenes involving physical comedy can become stronger and more punctuated with humor. Also, by learning when not to use words, we can make our words more powerful. The inspiration, punctuation and power were on full display at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival with the group Ten West.
Why is it that when you pop in a DVD of an old Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd movie there can still be chuckles heard around the room? Some of these flicks are more than 80 years old and yet they are still pretty damn funny. These movies and the humor of expert physical comedy are timeless. If they watch movies 100 years from now, I suspect that City Lights will still be funny. Why is it that these jokes can last so long?
I’ll go back to my old friends Addison and Steele for this one with their definition of wit. As I stated in an earlier article, the paper The Spectator says, “…every resemblance is not that which we call wit, unless it be such (a) one that gives delight and surprise to the reader.”
Delight and surprise fit these physical gags to a T. Seeing Chaplin run back and forth in a house trying to get it to not fall off of a ledge is amusing because we know that he’s going to be Ok either way and surprising because we didn’t expect to see such a non sturdy house.
But to go a step further, when testing puns or wordplay jokes to see if they actually contain wit Addison and Steele believe, “The only way therefore to try a piece of wit, is to translate it into a different language. If it bears the test, you may pronounce it true; but if it vanishes in the experiment, you may conclude it to have been a pun.”
This is the real kicker then. These types of jokes can reach anybody in the audience. All ages, all languages, pretty much anyone that can see. Add together the surprise and delight with this type of universal appeal and you’ve got yourself a timeless piece of comedy.
How do you add this to your writing? Just quiet down the motor mouth with the dialogue for a couple of pages and let something happen. This is easier to do in a play or a screenplay but it can work with any type of creative writing. I’ve even seen musicians stop playing and walk out into the audience for great comedic affect. It surprised and delighted, and the way they did it was translatable and humorous to all who attended.
Watch some of these silent movies by comedic geniuses. Go to see a silent play or performance. And if you live in the Los Angeles area or near a spot where they tour, definitely go to see Ten West.
I was fortunate enough to not know anything at all about Ten West when I walked into the theatre for my 2nd Chicago Sketchfest show. After an introduction of classical music and the characters of Charon (transporter of the dead) and his victim, I knew that I was in for an atypical style of sketch comedy.
The two performers, Stephen Simon and Jon Monastero had professional timing that made the audience laugh at pretty much every joke from beginning to end. Everyone in attendance was in the palms of their hands. They began with some fun situations, Charon’s passenger switching places and trying to row away from hell, one character falling from side to side while his partner tried to keep him upright, and an amusing inappropriate introduction to a funeral. Since they had the audience won over at that point, they decided to become a little more daring.
They went around collecting donations for the deceased, and they ended up stealing an audience member’s bag and rifling through the contents on stage. It’s hard to tell, but they may have actually found a bag of marijuana in there. Unintentional comedy gold! :)
They further involved the audience by pinpointing the available females in the room, then approaching them with hugs and business cards. I was astounded by how positive the reactions were from the audience involved in these sketches. I believe that there was so little hesitancy because the performers were so strong. Everyone just wanted to be a part of it all.
The show received a half standing ovation and the performers and director Bryan Coffee most definitely deserved it. It was one of the funniest sketch comedy shows I’ve seen in my life. Ten West is a must see for writers and comedy lovers.
What Can We Learn From This?
1. Trust the silence.
More often than not, having a character not talk will be funnier than having a character talk. This will make the words that the characters do speak more powerful. It can build up tension and make the stakes higher in a scene when they resume talking.
2. Go for it 100%
If Ten West had gone into the audience, raided their stuff and then given it right back, it would have been like apologizing for what they did. They kept moving forward and they never broke character for a second. By committing to everything they did, the audience committed their attention.
3. Let Us See Your Character
By having the characters speak three or four lines at most through the whole show, we were forced to pay attention to how the characters acted. I think it was Earl Nightingale who said, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a word your saying.” Let a character develop through actions or through silent build up for a change.
Practice these techniques by writing several silent scenes. Experiment with the way your readers or audience might perceive your characters. Then actually try it out in a show or in a short story. I would be surprised if more than a couple of people said, “Why aren’t they talking?” They’ll be too interested in what you’ve written to care.