I want the reader to try and imagine something. Try to picture a modern comic actor, for example, let’s take Jim Carrey. Now, put that individual on camera and tell them to be funny, but there’s a catch. They can’t use sound in any form.
What would Jim Carrey, and many comedians and comic actors like him, do absent sound? My best guess is that Carrey would stomp around like crazy and make bizarre faces. After all, it’s Carrey’s mannerrisms that fuel his early stand-up work and his first few movies. Many stand-up comedians today, even blessed with the gift of sound, decide to stomp, hop, drop, waddle, and do any other form of bodily comedy that might make an infant laugh in a desperate attempt to bring out a little more humor. Often, the sign of a clown masquerading as a comedian is that they move and yell absurdly before any real jokes are told. Devoid of sound, I would bet that 97% of today’s comics would be utterly flummoxed as to how to get a laugh without looking stupid.
And thus, I give you the genius of Buster Keaton. Keaton, whose peak as a film star lasted a mere 5 years, understood what so many bad comedians can not figure out in 40 years – that comedy ultimately comes from situations and characters and not from sheer stupidity. His great works from 1923-1928 demonstrate this maxim of comedy, and he does it without anyone saying a word. If you took a Times Square survey on how funny a man could be whose emotional range seems stuck on “stoic,” the results would likely find him to be the least funny person in the world. But this is because so many just don’t get what’s at the heart of good comedy.
There’s a time and a place for comedic overacting like Carrey’s. I love Liar Liar and some of his other pre-Truman Show work. I love some of Will Ferrell’s movies as well. But there’s a qualitative difference between those two and Buster Keaton that shows just how well Keaton understood comedy.
In Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., the movie opens with a steamboat captain recieving a letter from the son he sent off to school years ago. The boy has finally grown into being a man, and the captain is ecstatic in anticipation of his strapping, learned young pride and joy returning. Of course, the gag that the audience has full awareness in a moment of comedic irony is that the young boy has grown into being Buster Keaton, an undersized, underdressed buffoon. When the captain recieves the letter, he starts bragging to an assistant about how tall the boy must be, how he must be strong as an ox, etc. This is establishing the potential for a great comic situation at their first meeting.
Here’s how the “meeting scene” would have been handled if Chris Farley or Will Ferrell: the character would have made an ass of himself immediately. He would have been dressed over-the-top, the meeting would have happened right away, and the characters reaction would have been him yelling “DAD!” at the top of his lungs and giving an un-professional grasp of some kind. If you think I’m making this up, watch Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, or Elf.
Here’s how Keaton handled it without sound: In the letter to his father, he told him he would be the young man at the train station wearing a white rose. This creates two streams of comedy. When they cut to the train station, Buster is walking around looking at all the older gentlemen and sticking a lapel flower in their faces. Meanwhile, his father is walking around the train station looking at every big and tall young man, some of whom even have flowers. This goes on for a minute or two and then the father and his assistant follow Buster with the fear that HE might be Bill Jr. Their actual meeting comes after Keaton does something very un-manly and the father (in a title card) yells at his assistant the witty 1920s film-speak version of “don’t call my son a fag.”
One of the points here should be that the conditions of the actual meeting – the son being happy to see his disappointed father – is already known to the audience. That has a comedy value in and of itself because it’s something a lot of people can relate to, and thus the joke is still funny even when the punchline is known. The trick, though, if the audience can anticipate the conclusion is to make the rest of the joke even funnier. That’s what Buster Keaton did so well, and what so few of today’s comedy writers fail to understand.
Any article on Buster Keaton’s genius would be remiss if it did not mention that he thought up much of his material on the actual days of filming. Many scenes from the 1927 classic The General were dremt by Buster hours before shooting. Try pulling that in today’s Hollywood, where the script has to written and rewritten at least 5 times, or until it’s dead of life, before anyone can film it – even though film in today’s world is a cheaper commodity that it was in 1926.
For someone whose prime only lasted 5 short years, and whose career was killed by MGM, poverty, alcoholism, and mental disease, Keaton’s short time as a comic auteur has given us much to study and learn from when we consider the elements he had to work against (namely, not being able to resort to a fart joke). Unfortunately, too many of today’s stand-ups are more intent on talking about their experience getting drunk and passing out than actually study someone like Keaton and find out how to develop their craft. For shame. Many of Keaton’s greatest films – Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The General, The Navigator, etc. – are in the public domain and can be viewed by anyone with a computer connection and the will to find them online.