Dec 12, 2012

My Six Titans of Comedy

In the January 2013 "Comedy Edition" of Vanity Fair, Judd Apatow has a photo of the six people who have most influenced his career in comedy. It is a good list he has. I was inspired to think about the same sort of thing for myself. Here's who would be in my pic as my Six Comedy Titans:

Perhaps the most contemporary influence on my list. Ferrell is fearless and versitile and, well, big. He is a big guy and has figured out how to turn a lunk-headed oaf into someone audiences cheer for as much as the underdog misfit of smaller men ( a path not open to me at nealy six foot and well over 250 pounds).

The lines from his movies are infinitely quotable. Ferrell finds the funny and then leans on it. And he looks as though he is having such a good time while he is doing it, too.

...because this is what bottled chaos looks like. Groucho had the wonderful ability to ride on top of whatever situation he was seemingly entangled in. And talk about anti-authoritarian. The man could just tear down wall after wall of stuffiness and priviledge. Even better, he was often cast as an anti-authoritarian authority figure (great hunter, professor, dictator, etc.).And he could give as good as he got, especially on with his brothers Chico and Harpo. Best of all, he seemed to be operating on his own rules. He is an island of his own.

I particularly love his asides: stepping away from an interaction he wasn't even that invested in to begin with to rattle off a faux Eugene O'Neill heaviness filled with tangents and non-sequitars.

He deconstructed the whole concept of a comedy act. Martin also had a wonderful and subversive code of conduct resulting in a singular form of performer dignity. For instance, as he outlined in his wonderful memoir Born Standing Up, he had to be the only act. He didn't open for anyone and he never had an opener. Also, the audience had to be in darkness. No one laughs when the light is on them. 

Martin would keep ironing out a bit, show after show, until it shined like a diamond. And he very successfully branded himself with his white suit and "happy feet" (on par with Groucho's cigar and painted on moustache).

Martin also "turned off" when not onstage. He was not constantly on. It shows he took his role as funnyman seriously. Unlike his contemporary, the equally crazy Robin Williams (who I also love), Martin refused to be a dancing monkey for interviews and such.

You can trace back most threads in contemporary comedy to the groundbreaking work done by Nichols and May, first at the Compass Theater in Chicago (my youthful Camelot of theatre companies), and later around the country, on Broadway, and on thier awesome Grammy-winning comedy album. Relentlessly honest and ironic, the pair used impeccable comic timing to pack every routine with tiny explosions of subversive hilarity. The two excelled at urbane characterizations and mundane-turned-absurd relationship dynamics. And the percision. Oh, man! Mike Nichols usually played straight man to the flamboyant Elaine May.

On the surface, this seems like a surprise to have on this list, but Beckett is hilarious. And his humor is painful.

If you haven't read Waiting For Godot, do it. It is funny at its most sad.

"Let's go." followed by the stage direction... (They stand.)

Ah, the Great Stone-face. I like Chaplin, don't get me wrong, but I love Keaton. Where Chaplin was bouncy curves and gooey emotions, Keaton remained all angles and stoicism. He never melted or weakened into bendiness. He never descended into sentimentality. Like Groucho, he stood firm against wishy-washiness (maybe not as aggressively hostile as Groucho, though). Keaton's stance invariably demands uprightness, backbone and a firm gaze set ever-forward. A Keaton character had to win hearts not warm them. He was all irony and fatigue, high velocity and tough luck, frustration and toil, and hard-line grace.

One of the most profound lessons of comedy I rememeber, upon discovering the world of Keaton as a high schooler, was from the opening bit of his 1921 film "The Goat." A starving Buster is sent to the back of a breadline that stretches down a sidewalk outside of a clothing store. He gets in line, but doesn't realize he is standing behind a couple of mannequins. And he waits. And waits. And waits. And the camera waits there with him. He's doing absolutely zilch and this comic tension just slowly simmers and builds. This stretching out of time was so simple and so relevatory for me. It has shown up in so much of my work since I first saw that Buster Keaton film as a sophomore in high school.

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