The History and Evolution of Physical Comedy On the Silver Screen


At the very start of physical comedy there is the Italian “Commedia Dell’arte”, or Comedy of Art. It’s defining characteristics are comedic interludes, improvisational style and stock characters. The role of the body remains very important in comedy through the ages. Physical comedy even started some careers. We can all remember Jim Dale and his success at an audition after he got a big laugh because he tripped and fell on a stage.
What makes this genre evergreen is its simplicity and spontaneity. And these are the main reasons why it is still being re-used in the comedy movies of our age.


The Origin of Physical Comedy

One of the oldest forms that physical comedy took is the mime. Expressing themselves in nothing but movements, the mime artists had a big success. This silent art was developed in France and the person responsible for pantomime artists with white face is Gaspard Deburau.

Not long after technological achievements made their way into the entertainment industry, motion pictures featuring physical comedy concepts reached huge popularity. Thanks to the limitations of filmmaking of that age, silent comedian stars were born. Some of them are well known, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin etc. This first stage of the evolution of physical comedy had a focus on character falls, clumsiness and facial expressions.

Buster Keaton’s work is, for instance, still influencing the modern film industry. You can see his framing in the works of Wes Anderson, his depressing posture in Bill Murray’s acting and his stunts in Jackie Chan movies. He was one of the few in that time to completely avoid title cards and put more focus on gestures and pantomime.

The Alchemy of Music and Comedy

The next step of the evolution belongs to musical comedy performers. Music, dance and animals proved to be powerful tools for enhancing the effect comedy has on people. This is how vaudeville came into being. Featuring a mixture of all elements mentioned above it reached its peak popularity in the early 20th century.

One of the first actors to realize the importance of motion picture as form of entertainment was Alexander Pantages. He started filming his acts in 1902. His success resulted in partnership with the Famous Plyer-Lasky, an affiliate of Paramount Pictures.

Many motion picture historians think of George M. Cohan as the father of musical comedy. He created a completely new form, combining all the elements of musical theatre. His musicals “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” and “Little Johnny Jones” were something completely new on the stage.

In the mid-20th century many musical comedies were filmed, combining music, dancing, singing and facial expressions. The great example is a movie from 1952, “Singing in the Rain” and the famous “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene.

Physical Comedy in Modern Age

In the late 20th century and up to today, physical comedy still remains one of the best ways to entertain big audiences, e.g.

Cartoon storyboard- In animation and special effects work , the storyboarding stage may be followed by simplified mock-ups called “animatic” to give a better idea of how the scene will look funny feel with cartoonic motion and timing.

YouTube channels featuring physical comedy video clips have many subscribers. Though it did evolve out of the boundaries of normal physical comedy, its humor involving exaggerated physical activity is now known by the name of slapstick comedy.

Representatives of the modern slapstick comedy genre are Melissa McCarthy, Rowan Atkinson and Jim Carrey. Basically, having a scene where a coach slaps somebody against the wall seems to never get old, like in the latest Melissa McCarthy movie, “The Boss”.

This genre shines with many creative achievements and it seems that it will continue to do so. The evolution of physical comedy certainly didn’t change the crucial part of this genre. Physical and visual humor have their roots in our nature and will continue to live on in motion pictures for many years to come.





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