Monday, May 20, 2019

Stand Comedy 101 - under construction


Who invented stand-up? The origins of a peculiarly American form of comedy.



Photo by Kevin Renes/Thinkstock Images, photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.
Photo by Kevin Renes/Thinkstock Images. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Charles Dickens thought Americans weren’t very funny. “They certainly are not a humorous people,” he wrote in 1868, “and their temperament always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character.”
That’s not to say there weren’t early-American humorists. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Artemus Ward, and Mark Twain helped craft an American strain of comedy. But their humor was marked by lengthy tales and frequent references to small-town life; this wasn’t the scathing satire of French caricaturist HonorΓ© Daumier or the urban sophistication of England’s Punch magazine, which developed the modern concept of the cartoon. But everything changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s when America gave birth to stand-up comedy, a new art form that would eventually change comedy worldwide. But how, exactly, did stand-up come to be?
It’s an odd sort of entertainment. There’s no narrative structure, no plot, backstory, sets, editors, or producers. It’s comedy boiled down to basics: a comedian and an audience, where you either score a laugh or you don’t. As British comedian Jimmy Carr and writer Lucy Greeves put it in their book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh?, “Stand-up comedy is a peculiar performance art form. In a room filled with people, the comedian is the only one facing the wrong way. He’s also the only one who isn’t laughing. For normal people that’s a nightmare, not a career aspiration.”
Historians trace the origins of stand-up comedy to a very specific time and place: the variety, or burlesque shows, that flourished in New York City’s turn-of-the-century vaudeville theaters. Although widely known for its racy stripteases and dancing-girl performances, burlesque also featured energetic, fast-paced comedy routines. The comedians designed their material to appease a new sort of audience: a ragtag crew of native-born Americans and immigrant workers. These audiences were intimately familiar with the physical and chaotic nature of modern city life, and they weren’t interested in the homey campfire tales of the past. “Burlesque provided both an escape from and confrontation with modern urban circumstances,” writes historian Joseph Boskin in his book The Humor Prism in 20th-Century America. “Is it any wonder that many of the routines in burlesque were physically explosive, shorn of time constraint, bordering on the vituperative and relying heavily on slapstick?”
According to Boskin, standard vaudeville gags included “the pie-in-the-face, the female chase, problems of money, gold-digging wives and harping mothers-in-law, the salacious, unobtainable woman, and the defiance of authority.” Then, as now, poking fun at the powers-that-be was especially popular. Boskin notes vaudeville shows often climaxed “in a courtroom, with prisoners and lawyers squirting water at each other from seltzer bottles, and the judge demanding order with a wooden potato masher.”
The urban setting didn’t just shape the subject matter; the structure of the jokes changed, too. “The tempo of the comedy, like the movement of city streets, was swift and jolting and possessed highly recognizable parameters,” writes Boskin. Up to that point, written and oral jokes were mostly witty rhymes or droll anecdotes. Here’s one of the shorter “jokes,” for example, from The Odd Fellow’s Jest Book, published in 1805:
A woman in France having gone to confession, the priest, by way of penance, was proceeding to give her a flagellation. As he was leading her behind the altar for this purpose, her husband, from a motive of jealousy, had followed her, and concealed himself in the church, made his appearance and saying that she was too delicate to bear the discipline, offered to receive it in her stead. The proposal the wife greatly applauded, and the man no sooner placed himself on his knees, than she exclaimed, “Now, father, do not spare him, but lay on lustily, for truly I am a great sinner.”

To keep their routines quick, lively, and appealing to a raucous audience, vaudeville performers refined their material using basic setups and punch lines. These were quick-hit laugh generators that could be linked together to keep the crowd cackling. Jokes, in other words, were becoming what we now know as jokes. Take a classic one-liner from Groucho Marx, who got his start in vaudeville: “Behind every successful man is a woman. Behind her is his wife.”  
The developing cinema industry eventually overshadowed the vaudeville theaters, but the comedic style developed in these venues survived. In the following decades, the wild, rapid-fire shtick was embraced and refined by Sid Caesar, Henny Youngman, and other one-liner kings who worked the “Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts in the Catskills. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, it developed a more confrontational edge thanks to the routines of Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl at folk clubs like the “hungry i” in San Francisco and New York City’s Bitter End.
Some scholars believe that the United States was destined to reinvent global comedy, in one form or another. To these thinkers, the idea of America is inherently funny: There’s such a laughable disparity between the lofty ideals of American democracy and the harsh realities of self-governance that it was bound to generate a lot of jokes. As literary scholar Louis D. Rubin put it in his essay, “The Great American Joke”:
Out of the incongruity between mundane circumstance and heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, democratic, middle-class society and desire for cultural definition, theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, the Declaration of Independence and the Prohibition Act, the Gettysburg Address and the Gross National Product, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dollar Diplomacy, the Horatio Alger ideal and the New York Social Register—between what men would be and must be, as acted out in American experience, have come a great deal of pathos, no small bit of tragedy, and also a great deal of humor.
There’s a lingering question about stand-up’s development, however: Who was the first person to actually do it? Some scholars point to Charley Case, an African-American vaudeville performer. According to Eddie Tafoya in his book The Legacy of the Wisecrack, in the 1880s or 1890s Case got on stage in New York’s vaudeville theaters and did something no one had ever done: He performed comic monologues without props or costuming.
Little is known about Case today. He’s most widely known for the absurd ballads he penned, including “There Was Once a Poor Young Man Who Left His Country Home,” which was later performed by W.C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer, a 1933 film based on the song. Various articles list a few of his jokes, like one in which Case and his brother Hank are sleeping in a bedroom with their father and they hear a noise downstairs. “I think there’s a burglar loose in the house,” the father tells Hank. “You should go down and find him.” “I haven’t lost any burglars,” replied Hank. “Make Charley go down.”
The little we know about Case’s personal life tends to resemble the stereotype of a modern, neurotic comedian. A 1906 newspaper article noted, “He is of a quiet and retiring disposition when off the stage,” and other observers noted he would only perform if he had a handkerchief or bit of string to twiddle in his fingers.
Then there are the circumstances of his untimely end. In 1916, he died at the Palace Hotel on 45th Street in New York “while cleaning his revolver,” as reports later put it.
Charley Case, in other words, might not have just given birth to stand-up. He also gave birth to the idea of the depressed, tortured comedian.
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  Notable Comics:  
  Lenny Bruce  

  Mort Sahl  

  Rodney Dangerfield  


  Bill Hicks  


  George Carlin  

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Physical Comedy 101


Good idea to begin with warm up exercises and icebreakers to get more into the body. 


Silent comedy is a style of film, related to but distinct from mime, invented to bring comedy into the medium of film in the silent film era (1900s–1920s) before a synchronized soundtrack which could include talking was technologically available for the majority of films. Silent comedy is still practiced, albeit much less frequently, and it has influenced comedy in modern media as well.
Many of the techniques of silent comedy were borrowed from vaudeville traditions with many silent comedies such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin getting their start in vaudeville. Silent comedies often place heavy emphasis on visual and physical humors, often including "sight gags", to tell stories and entertain the viewer. Many of these physical gags are exaggerated forms of violence which came to be called "slapstick". The "prat fall", slipping on a banana peel, getting soaked with water, and getting a pie thrown in one's face are all classic examples of slapstick comedy devices.

This all started at Brett's place on Friday night. We had a longing standing tradition of practicing our pratfalls once the evening's festivities got going. 


What are some Physical Comedians 
you watched growing up?


Be careful. Safety first. 

Or in Harold Llyod's case,

Safety Last... 


Physical comedy is important to us both and it reminds me of those distant days working out gags on Cable Access television. Operating out of Adelphia's studio in Hermosa Beach, me and friends cobbled together 14 episodes, which aired on channel 54 Tuesdays at 10pm. Named after what my High School English teacher wrote on my essay, the show's name was Flippant.


The hardest I've ever fallen on stage was during Ron Paul the Musical, written and produced by Cameron Ford. I was playing Ron Paul who was himself playing a punk rock Jello Biafra type in the scene. I hit the chorus and then jumped backward onto the stage. In addition to tips like 'follow through with the action you were doing before the slip' and 'grab onto something for help that only makes the situation worse', I remember the Director telling me not to fall so hard during rehearsal. He told me the audience identified more with the pain than with the joke. He was right. After I landed squarely on my back with a THUD, an audible GASP reverberated through the crowd. Moment watchable at 45:44 in the following video.

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I don't regret it, but I do know have more of an appreciation for the original gangsters of comedy and their apparent control, especially when placing themselves in precarious predicaments.

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  Charlie Chaplin  


Chaplin's childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship, as his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, and he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19, he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. He was scouted for the film industry and began appearing in 1914 for Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. He directed his own films and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the EssanayMutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the best-known figures in the world.

Marx Brothers


The brothers were from a family of artists, and their musical talent was encouraged from an early age. Harpo was particularly talented, learning to play an estimated six different instruments throughout his career. He became a dedicated harpist, which gave him his nickname.[20] Chico was an excellent pianist, Groucho a guitarist and singer, and Zeppo a vocalist.
They got their start in vaudeville, where their uncle Albert SchΓΆnberg performed as Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean. Groucho's debut was in 1905, mainly as a singer. By 1907, he and Gummo were singing together as "The Three Nightingales" with Mabel O'Donnell.[21] The next year, Harpo became the fourth Nightingale and by 1910, the group briefly expanded to include their mother Minnie and their Aunt Hannah. The troupe was renamed "The Six Mascots".
 Laurel and Hardy 


Prior to emerging as a team, both actors had well-established film careers. Laurel had appeared in over 50 films as an actor (while also working as a writer and director), while Hardy had been in more than 250 productions. The two comedians had previously worked together as cast members on the film The Lucky Dog in 1921. However, they were not a comedy team at that time and it was not until 1926 that they appeared in a movie short together, when both separately signed contracts with the Hal Roach film studio.[3] Laurel and Hardy officially became a team in 1927 when they appeared together in the silent short film Putting Pants on Philip

  Buster Keaton  


Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in Piqua, Kansas,[12] the small town where his mother, Myra Keaton (nΓ©e Cutler), was when she went into labor. He was named "Joseph" to continue a tradition on his father's side (he was sixth in a line bearing the name Joseph Keaton)[1] and "Frank" for his maternal grandfather, who disapproved of his parents' union. Later, Keaton changed his middle name to "Francis".[1] His father was Joseph Hallie "Joe" Keaton, who owned a traveling show with Harry Houdinicalled the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, which performed on stage and sold patent medicine on the side.

  Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle  


An American silent film actor, comedian, director, and screenwriter. Starting at the Selig Polyscope Company he eventually moved to Keystone Studios, where he worked with Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. He mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope. Arbuckle was one of the most popular silent stars of the 1910s, and soon became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, signing a contract in 1920 with Paramount Pictures for US$14,000.00 (equivalent to approximately one million in 2018 dollars).
Between November 1921 and April 1922, Arbuckle was the defendant in three widely publicized trials for the rape and manslaughterof actress Virginia Rappe. Rappe had fallen ill at a party hosted by Arbuckle at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco in September 1921; she died four days later. Arbuckle was accused by Rappe's acquaintance of raping and accidentally killing Rappe. After the first two trials, which resulted in hung juries, Arbuckle was acquitted in the third trial and received a formal written statement of apology from the jury.
Despite Arbuckle's acquittal, the scandal has mostly overshadowed his legacy as a pioneering comedian. Following the trials, his films were banned and he was publicly ostracized. Although the ban on his films was lifted within a year, Arbuckle only worked sparingly through the 1920s. He later worked as a film director under the alias William Goodrich. He was finally able to return to acting, making short two-reel comedies in 1932 for Warner Bros.

  W. C. Fields  


Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life seems to have been reasonably happy. He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.


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Many silent era film comedians got their start in Vaudeville, a period of theater which featured variety acts and ran from the early 1880s to the early 1930s.




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And of course, there are many modern practitioners of physical comedy. Here are a brave few...


  Three Stooges  


  John Belushi  


  Chevy Chase  



  Jim Carrey  


  Chris Farley  


  John Cleese  


  Rowan Atkinson  


There are many, many more physical comedians, 
including Steve Martin, Martin Short, 
 Robin Williams, Dane Cook, Conan O’Brien... 
alas too many to mention all here.


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Now to do physical comedy effectively,

without hurting oneself, one must

become a proud member of the CCCP

(Certified Consummate Comedy Professionals)

Whether it's slipping, tripping colliding, falling down, getting slapped, making funny faces, walking into doors, or a simple double-take; one ought to remember that practice makes perfect and can prevent any serious injuries. This also applies to stage combat for serious roles. 

Here are some tips and tricks 

from professionals on how to pratfall:




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Now it's your turn class. With the cameras on your phones shoot a simple sight gag.

Here is a list of possible jokes involving physical comedy:

slips
punches
side falls
tumbling
silly dance
somersaults
forward falls
fake eye pokes
pies to the face
backward falls
kicks to the bum
pulling door in face
can't seem to get bucket off foot

or others TBD

For Safety:
Run it by me first before practicing!

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