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ZEN AND THE HEART OF PHYSICAL COMEDY:

THE REVENGE OF MURPHY’S LAW


Yale Theater magazine JOHN TOWSEN
Summer/Fall 1987

B
y far the funniest thing I’ve seen on tubes, and an aluminum frame with a window quick veneer of respectability. The ancient art of
television in recent years took place notshade. For tools, they used scissors, a Swiss jerryrigging so popular a half-hour after the local
on the Cosby Show, but during an April, Army knife, and needle and thread from the hardware store closes for the night.
1985, mission of the space shuttle Discovery. Thespacesuit repair kit.
shuttle crew had deployed a $40 million Leasat And great farce. Television audiences back on
communications satellite, which subsequently From the plastic covers they created our first Earth were soon treated to the wonderfully silly
malfunctioned, its power switch refusing to kick space-age slapstick, the “flyswatter,” so called spectacle of a game but outmatched astronaut
on. Our astronauts were called upon to pull up because that is exactly what it resembled. Three Seddon flailing away with robot arm and
alongside the satellite and trigger the switch, 6” x 4” rectangular holes were cut in the plastic, flyswatter at the “on” switch — vainly as it turned
which would spin past them for a brief moment the idea being to try to snag the switch in one of out — as it whizzed past her twice per minute.
every 30 seconds as the satellite rotated on its the holes. The plastic sheet with the holes was The incongruity of the situation seemed lost on
axis. Since maneuvering the astronauts close taped and sewn to another piece of plastic that most of the news commentators, but as a physical
enough to the satellite to manually manipulate had been rolled into the shape of a cone. Inserted comedy maven my brain was immediately
the crucial toggle was deemed too hazardous, into the cone, and taped tight, was an extendable flooded with images of suspiciously similar
the shuttle crew was forced to improvise. A plastic rod dubbed a “swizzle stick.” Especially classic clown routines. Was it mere coincidence,
makeshift snare that could be attached to the helpful with the sewing of the plastic covers or had NASA blatantly lifted the idea from
shuttle’s robot arm was constructed from “found was United States Senator Jake Garn of Utah, Buster Keaton’s Cops, where he KO’d passers-
objects.” along for the ride on what was no doubt his most by with a boxing glove mounted on the end of
productive junket to date. one of those extendable, zig-zag hat racks? Or
Objects found on a space shuttle, that is. “We was it pirated from one of Red Skelton’s endless
had bits and pieces of everything out,” recalled How can you help but love such a scenario? efforts to swat a particularly pesky fly nesting on
mission specialist Rhea Seddon. “We were Taxpayers have been spending over two billion his nose? Remembering Chaplin’s adage that “in
measuring with tape measures and cutting and dollars a year for the space shuttle, but look at the end everything is a gag,” I could not help but
pasting and wondering what in the world this what you get for your money: The all- purpose imagine his little tramp in the role (albeit refining
thing was going to look like when we finished Swiss Army knife that you’ve never left home the timing, milking the takes, and building the
up.” Their raw materials included plastic covers without. The plastic cover (“flexible but durable”) gag to a stronger payoff).
from flight manuals, several spare plumbing that gave your lame high school term paper a
validity. Indeed, its faddish popularity is attested
to by the successful merchandising of Murphy’s
Law posters and datebooks. Yet tens of billions
of dollars continue to be spent on the Star Wars
defense system, and good old-fashioned human
error is rarely factored into public debate on the
issue. We as a society don’t care to confront
it. Human error is too messy, it’s difficult to
measure, and it really is much easier to dismiss
it with a dose of good old- fashioned wishful
thinking. Accidents, after all, only happen to
other people.

Writing from a clown’s perspective, I naturally


adopt Murphy’s Law as the ideologically correct
starting point for my research. Folk wisdom,
after all, is right up the clown’s alley. I soon find
myself in conversation with a reference librarian
at New York University. “I can’t seem to find any
information on Murphy’s Law or Murphy himself
in any of the encyclopedias or biographical
dictionaries,” I complain. “Murphy’s Law?” he
replies. “You’d have to check in the trivia section
at a public library.”

Laurel and Hardy in The Second Hundred Years was a result of human error. Ooops. And if you “TRIVIA!?” I want to scream. “Don’t you
thought Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a fantastical understand how important it is?” As a veteran of
film, take note that an average of 5,100 U.S. clown research, however, I take his astute advice
Reminders of our own ineptitude abound in nuclear weapons handlers are relieved of their to heart. Ha-ha is rarely taken seriously. In
today’s world. Unfortunately, our foul-ups are positions each year because of drug, alcohol, or Why Things Go Wrong, for example, Laurence
not always so harmless. Sometimes the stakes psychological problems. Peter recalls that the original manuscript for his
are higher. The fatal blow-up of the Challenger
bestselling study of incompetence, The Peter
space shuttle in January, 1986, was attributed by What is amazing is how little impact human error Principle, was rejected time and time again
an investigating panel to pride, self-deception has on society’s collective self-image, how little because publishers couldn’t pigeonhole it. “I
and institutional loyalty. Ooops. The nuclear it does to alter the trust we place in our high- don’t think it’s satire,” one editor informed him.
disaster at Chernobyl three months later — the tech present and higher-tech future. According “I think you are serious.”
worst in history, with more fallout than the to Murphy’s Law, whatever can go wrong will
bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined — go wrong. Few people would deny the law’s
A closer look at last year’s hit parade of it so routine that they could now rocket a cost all of 46 cents. In The Fate of the Earth,
catastrophes offers compelling evidence that schoolteacher into orbit — guaranteed that their Jonathan Schell warns of a plausible doomsday
clown behavior has infiltrated its way into the infallibility would be shattered. scenario in which Brigadier General Hardy’s
highest echelons of society. The meltdown at the mistaken alert provokes his Russian counterpart,
Chernobyl nuclear reactor is surely an example of This American silent movie classic opens with Inspector General Hardyovitch, to adopt the
Laurel & Hardy at their most mischievous. In an engineer Laurel frantically gesticulating as he same posture, which in turn confirms Hardy’s
attempt to complete an experiment on the power tries to get the attention of his boss, a very busy original fears, and so on, with no way out of the
capability of the reactor’s steam-driven turbines, and self-important Mr. Hardy. The subtitles tell escalation before the clock tolls eight minutes.
the plant’s resident clowns cleverly executed a us that Laurel wants to warn Hardy about the “That the fruit of four and a half billion years can
series of maneuvers that in effect dismantled the weakness of the o-ring seals. But we can see be undone in a careless moment is a fact against
reactor’s safety features one by one. that a vain Mr. Hardy is too busy impressing which belief rebels,” laments Schell. And, one
his big-shot friends to listen. The final image might add, it only has to happen once.
This Russian two-reeler is full of laughs as our is unforgettable, as the camera dissolves on
fiercely determined technicians, Laurelovitch a whimpering engineer Laurel, stammering Safety engineers in the nuclear and chemical
and Hardyofsky, find perfectly good reasons to through his tears. The subtitle reads, “But Ollie, industries are not oblivious to these concerns,
turn off the emergency cooling system, remove that’s what I was trying to tell you all along.” and indeed have spawned a new science of risk
all but a few control rods while leaving the reactor assessment. A probabilistic risk assessment
operating, and disengage all safety systems The worst comedy of errors would of course (PRA), a systematic study of potential dangers
designed to implement automatic shutdown. be one that led to nuclear war. For the first in a given enterprise, is becoming standard
When Mrs. Hardyofsky — in this version played time in the world’s history, human error could operating procedure. Engineers now use “fault
by a Soviet nuclear expert — returns home, she is conceivably result in the extinction of the trees,” “event trees,” and FMEAs (Failure Modes
shocked beyond belief to learn that the menfolk species. Laurel & Hardy are already working and Effects Analysis) to pinpoint potential
have deliberately disabled so many safety and on this one. In a November, 1979 experimental technical and human failure and its ramifications
warning systems, then run the reactor in a very video, we see officer Laurel make a little boo- on the system.
unstable condition. But they did, and our little boo. He inadvertently loads a training tape
tragi-comedy ends with the prospect of millions that simulates a Soviet attack onto a NORAD But while mathematicians assess probabilities
of people, even the unborn (politely referred to auxiliary computer. When Brigadier General and, when economically feasible, management
as third- and fourth party victims), paying the Hardy sees the NORAD monitors display this may take extra precautions, there will always be a
price in sequels yet unfilmed. massive attack, U.S. forces are immediately realm of uncertainty, of the unmeasurable, of the
placed on early alert. Six minutes later, after unthinkable. Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist,
Another fine mess was created by NASA much shenanigans, the alarm is judged false due is a leading advocate of this school of thought.
engineers and administrators who allowed to lack of corroboration and for once our comedy In Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk
the Challenger space shuttle to be launched has a happy ending. In real life, the U.S. would Technologies, he argues that the complexity of
although several warnings of potential danger have a full eight minutes to respond. modern technology has already exceeded our
had been sounded. NASA’s need to perpetuate ability to foresee potential defects. Published
a public image of having effectively vanquished Similar early stage alerts have resulted from in 1984 (though now out of print), Normal
the hazards of space flight — to have rendered malfunctioning silicon computer chips that Accidents predicted the impending meltdown of
a nuclear reactor, a prophesy that came true in By nature a physical comedian, the clown catalogs all is clear as daylight; not to catch on, though
the Ukraine within two short years. and insists on restaging man’s inevitable mishaps the trick be repeated a thousand times for you;
and miscalculations, and then really rubs it in by to grope about like a blind man, when all signs
“We have produced designs so complicated,” irreverently depicting the ego’s involvement in point the right direction; to insist on opening the
writes Perrow, “that we cannot anticipate all the the struggle: not just the pride that goeth before wrong door, though it is marked DANGER!; to
possible interactions of the inevitable failures. destruction and the haughty spirit that precedes a walk head on into the mirror, instead of going
The sources of accidents are infinite.” Human fall that Solomon first warned us about, but also around it; to look through the wrong end of a
errors and component malfunctions occurring the terrible embarrassment that follows, and the rifle, a loaded rifle! — people never tired of
within a “tightly coupled” system such as a noble attempts at cover-up. these absurdities because for millennia all their
nuclear power plant tend to be compounded, seeking and questioning have landed them in a
during a short but critical period of time, to a We trip on the sidewalk. In a revealing moment cul-de-sac. The master of ineptitude has all time
point beyond human comprehension. of truth, our eyes blink, our cheeks blush, our as his domain. He surrenders only in the face of
breath shortens, our muscles tense, our stomach eternity.”
For Perrow, these inevitable “normal” accidents churns. Furtive sideways glances check the scene
make some technological enterprises — such as for eyewitnesses. We attempt a quick return to
nuclear power, nuclear weapons, Star Wars, and normalcy. Denial, denial, denial.
genetic engineering — simply too dangerous. Physical Comedy:
“It’s frightening to think that you might not But while we are taught to hide error and above A Rediscovery of Style
know something,” comments Amos Tversky, a all maintain our cool, the clown is humanity’s lie
Put simply, physical comedy is the art of revealing
specialist in the psychology of uncertainty. “But detector test and safety valve. The clown shows
what is vulnerable, imperfect, and laughable
it’s more frightening to think that, by and large, us that precise moment of cover-up, the instant
about man — not through argument, not through
the world is run by people who have faith that when one’s self-assurance is stripped away. “It
discourse, but through the body, through the
they know exactly what’s going on.” really isn’t the trip itself that’s funny,” explains
picture that is worth a thousand laughs. It may be
Bill Irwin. “It’s the gestures and motions
the image of Don Quixote blindly charging the
Whatever can go wrong will go wrong in a big afterwards, the looking back at the spot, the
windmills. It could be the Charlie Chaplin of The
way. Who could better tell this simple truth about trying to make an excuse for having tripped.”
Gold Rush, desperately struggling to defy gravity
ourselves than the clown? The clown revels in
and escape from his Klondike cabin as it teeters
the mundane, celebrating the ever-recurring In 1948, Henry Miller published a wonderful tale
at an impossible angle atop the edge of a cliff. Or
awkwardnesses inherent in our daily struggle entitled The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. A
it might be the bulging eyes and paralyzed limbs
to maintain equilibrium. The clown’s world hopeless romantic when it came to clowns, Miller
of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, frozen in a
of naivete is but a microcosm of our complex conferred upon them many of the same powers
double take, stupefied by yet another unforeseen
universe. Impeccably dressed and well spoken, and virtues I am so eager to bestow. It was the
turn of events.
society’s experts are always there to assure us clown’s special privilege, he wrote, “to reenact
everything is all right. Ragged and rough around the errors, the follies, the stupidities, all the
Physical comedy has unfortunately always
the edges, the clown confronts base realities, misunderstandings which plague human kind. To
been theatre’s poor relation, as easy to dismiss
admitting the worst but giving us license to be ineptitude itself, that was something even the
in the arts as human error is in our everyday
laugh. dullest oaf could grasp. Not to understand, when
life. Americans are especially fond of equating
clown and physical comedy with children’s
entertainment — especially since children take
such delight in watching clowns prove adults
make mistakes too. By definition a non-literary
form, physical comedy lacks the endorsement of
distinguished academicians. An oral tradition,
it tends to be imperfectly transmitted, and
more often than not surfaces in a bastardized,
amateurish, and uninspired form.

Despite its runt-of-the-litter status, physical


comedy clearly represents one of the grand
traditions of the living theatre, classical in the
best sense of the word. From the roving clowns of
antiquity to the comedies of Keaton and Chaplin,
from the commedia dell’arte to the productions
of Mnouchkine and Fo, physical comedy has
shown itself to be a vital, three-dimensional
style of performance. Like the theatre, physical
comedy seems to have the blood of the phoenix
coursing through its veins, its latest rebirth
evident in the theatre clowning and new-wave
vaudeville of the 1980’s.
In some plays the physical comedy element may Charlie Chaplin & Mack Swain in The Gold Rush
Its classical heritage and more recent success dominate, determining such early directorial
aside, the discipline as a whole tends to be decisions as casting and set design. One need only motif or perhaps just a telling moment. Often it
ghettoized. Literary-minded directors disparage study such landmark productions as Copeau’s is a matter of a small 20-second bit here, another
it totally, quickly forgetting that Shakespeare, Tricks of Scapin, Meyerhold’s constructivist moment two scenes later, perhaps a running gag
an actor himself, wrote for specific clowns Magnanimous Cuckold, or Brooks’ more recent or two — what is sometimes classified under the
(Kempe, Cowley, Armin); that Plautus was said staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to see heading of “stage business.” But there is an art
to have played the comic roles in Atellan farces; the integration of physical style into all aspects — or at least a craft — to that business.
that Moliere received his comic training from of the mise en scene.
commedia troupes; that Feydeau wrote reams of Few actors and even fewer directors have a
stage directions, plotting the physical action of The potential for physical comedy is not always particularly large physical comedy vocabulary,
his precision farce machinery down to the most as obvious as it is in your broader farce. Not much less a feel for the style, and therefore
minute detail. every play is The Taming of the Shrew. In some little sense for the potential of the material.
plays, even in the most portentous drama, Unfortunately, as Michel St. Denis points out,
physical comedy elements may appear as a there is “no possibility of expressing truth to a
theatrical style without a strongly developed
technique.” So while the performer must
possess certain physical skills, the director
must know how to motivate these within a
dramatic framework.

The choices to be made are rarely as clear-


cut as they would be for stage combat or
dance choreography. The most obtuse,
academic-minded director would have to
admit that Hamlet ends in a swordfight. The
script says so, and if only for safety’s sake
it is nowadays accepted practice to bring in
an expert. When a script positively calls out
for physical comedy, however, there is still
the chance the director will miss the boat
entirely, producing a radio version of the
play on stage.

When we think of physical comedy, images


of slippery banana peels, baggy pants,
and air-born custard pies come to mind.
Contrary to popular opinion, pratfalls,
bespattered faces, and trousers around the
ankles are not necessarily amusing in and of
themselves. Devoid of character, situation,
Tony Curtis surveys the results of pie-throwing
and acting, physical comedy can be even mayhem in The Great Chase
more excruciatingly unfunny than your typical I am reminded of an old yarn told about more than
poorly told joke. As always, it’s not what you do, one great comedian. The comedian is asked how the banana peel, and the third shot the character
it’s how you do it. he would film someone slipping on a banana peel. stepping over the banana peel, only to disappear
Would the first shot show the character walking, down an open manhole.
Start at the beginning. The basic unit of physical the second a close-up on the banana peel, and
comedy is the gag, the physical equivalent of a the third the man slipping? Or mightn’t he show In comedy, an even older saying goes, the magic
joke. Only amateurs believe in “sure-fire gags.” the banana peel, then the character’s approach, number is three and surprise is everything. A
Professionals know enough not to isolate the and then (in long shot) the pratfall itself? The generalization, certainly, but a useful one. Watch
gag from character, situation, and structure. The old comedian mulls it over, takes another puff on Bill Irwin’s minimalist version of this in The
great gags have a story to tell, and they must tell his stogie, then replies that the first shot should Regard of Flight. Mr. Irwin is being chased back
it well. show the character’s approach, the second shot and forth across the stage. On his first cross, he
Magic number three usually ends this type of
gag. To repeat the same or similar business would
needlessly prolong matters. But the problem
must be solved with some sort of surprise, often
involving a reversal of logic. There is a finality
to it so that we may move on to new business.

Notice what this simple script has done for


us. Rather than just watch a funny man trip,
we also watch him think. Thwarted twice, he
undertakes his own personal probabilistic risk
assessment, figures out the problem and solves
it, simultaneously showing us his glee. For a
brief moment, we too are fooled into thinking
that particular drama is over. But just as this
conclusion starts to register, there comes the
reversal as a second unseen obstacle sends him
sprawling.

Surprise being essential to comedy, the smart


performer may play with the cadence of the
1-2-3 gag by initiating the third part either
sooner or later than the gag’s rhythm would
lead us to expect. Most common is the delayed
gag. Especially useful in a play or a longer
George Reeves as Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound. performance piece, it allows a lapse of time
between parts two and three. In the interim, the
stumbles over an invisible obstacle on the floor.
and four or more times too much. The first time main action of the piece continues. Just when the
Second time through, same thing. The third timeof course sets up the situation, but for all the audience has begun to forget about the gag, the
around — now older and wiser — he leaps over audience knows, this may be an isolated incident. payoff comes, often with doubled effect.
his imaginary obstacle. Triumphant, he smirks So he tripped... is that supposed to be funny?
unashamedly at the audience. Two steps later, he
When more or less the same thing happens The legendary Swiss clown, Grock, was famous
trips on another unseen obstacle and falls flat on
the second time around, we detect a pattern. A for a heartwarming delayed gag involving his
his face. situation now exists that must be dealt with. A violin bow. After finishing a short flourish on
rhythm is established and an expectation created. the violin, he tacks on a slight embellishment,
The number three is not so much magic as it is Will our hero learn his lesson? Surely he isn’t flipping the bow up into the air and attempting
common sense. Two times would be too little going to trip over that same spot forever?
to catch it back in his hand — unsuccessfully. (immediately molested by Harpo), the ship’s choreography is every bit as involved as any
Embarrassed, he hides himself behind a screen engineer, a manicurist, the engineer’s assistant,
other style of stage movement, perhaps more so.
and practices his bow juggling. We see the bow a lost passenger, a maid mopping up, and three It takes the same sense of space, dynamics, and
soar repeatedly above the top of the screen. It is more stewards with large food trays. rhythm, the same flair for imagery and timing,
clear he has mastered the technique. But back in all of which must then be interwoven into the
front of the audience, he again fails. He holds The question is: How far can they go? How far fabric of the play itself. As in dance, it begins
a second rehearsal behind the screen, but when can they push the gag — and the walls of the with a command of the vocabulary, an ability to
he returns he is beset by new mishaps and soon room? Finally, just as Margaret Dumont arrives see patterns, and the artistic sensitivity to yield
forgets about the bow. for a secret rendezvous with Groucho, the door meaning from those patterns.
bursts open like a collapsing dam, and out pour
It is several minutes and one violin later (the first the guests like so many fish.
one having been pulverized beneath a Grock
pratfall) and he is finally finishing off his tune Spaced out over time, gags of repetition are The School of Hard Knocks
on the violin. Now comes the payoff. Without usually referred to as “running gags.” A single
Performers — not writers, directors, or
thinking about it, he casually tosses the bow up piece of comic business — such as the sardines
theoreticians — can take credit for the recent
into the air and catches it. Realizing what has in Noises Off — can recur throughout a
revival of physical comedy. Theatre clowns
happened, he is eager to duplicate his success. performance. The predictability of the repetition
and new-wave vaudevillians have created their
He starts to toss the bow up again, but before may provoke laughs in and of itself. Four or five
own shows outside the mainstream theatre. It
he can release it he assesses the probable risk, times may not be funny, but fifteen could be
is they who have rediscovered, expanded, and
thinks better of it, and decides to leave well hysterical.
popularized a lost vocabulary. Physical comedy
enough alone.
is hard work, but for many performers it’s also
As a narrative device, running gags can have
fun and creative.
By accomplishing without thinking what had payoffs in terms of character and plot. In The
been impossible when he tried so hard, Grock Gods Must Be Crazy, certainly a well constructed
This revival is, if nothing else, a welcome
creates a splendid clown moment. The delay has comedy, gags are built on top of gags, all the
antidote to what I like to refer to as the “white
heightened the comedic impact, at the same time while contributing to character and plot motifs.
bread syndrome” in physical comedy. Just as
enriching Grock’s characterization. For example, two soldiers in a guerilla army are
modern man has come to accept chemicalized
repeatedly wandering off to play cards when they
foods, polluted air, talentless superstars, and
While a four- or five-part gag might prove to should be fighting. A mildly amusing running
plasticized politicians, so too have we accepted
be needlessly attenuated, some gags positively gag, it pays off in the movie’s climactic scene
denatured physical comedy.
thrive on repetition. The famous stateroom scene when their migratory habits allow them to escape
in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera capture and prolong their army’s resistance.
Physicality thrives on television and in the
provides a classic example. Consigned to a closet- What the audience has been trained to see as a
movies, but few and far between are the true
sized room aboard ship, Groucho is besieged by joke suddenly takes on unexpected significance.
physical moments, where we see the stunt
visitors. One by one they crowd into the room
in its entirety, in a single take. No cutting, no
like sardines without the oil: three stowaway The best gag is but a building block in the creation
tricky camera angles, no stunt doubles. Watch
cohorts, the steward, two chambermaids of physical comedy style. Physical comedy
ten minutes of a television action show (or ten
minutes of The Gods Must Be Crazy, for that Technique and material become entwined.
matter) and you may find yourself yearning for Comedians cannot settle for the pure world of
the virtuosic finesse of a Buster Keaton. the gymnast or juggler, but must instead combine
them with the everyday, the commonplace. A Physical Comedy as Applied Math
Physical comedy has thankfully bred its own gymnast spends years perfecting an incredible
The quantum leap from the pure geometry of
counter-culture, performers who think the floor exercise for competition. The physical
gymnastics and other technical disciplines to
difference between real physical comedy and the comedian spends years inventing pratfalls,
the applied mathematics of physical comedy can
processed variety is, well, not unlike that between devising the best way to dive through a window...
most readily be understood by examining a few
Wonderbread and homemade, oven-fresh whole roll over, around or with a chair... fall down the
of the permutations growing out of your basic
wheat. They act with their whole body, offering a stairs... Throw a pie or take a slap... the million
forward roll. Even this simplest of all gymnastic
more visceral and vibrant performance precisely and one uses of a trap door, a trunk, a revolving
moves can be “souped up” to create some
because the audience knows they really are doing door... The finer points of hat juggling, cane
interesting theatrical effects.
everything they seem to be doing. “I like long twirling, or quick change... and so on, to the
takes, in long shots. I like to work full figure,” outer reaches of one’s imagination.
The forward roll is elementary. The novice
explained Buster Keaton. “All comedians want
tumbler learns it on day one and repeats it ad
their feet in.” The physical comedian’s domain is that of the
infinitum, ad nauseam: how to tuck into a tight
real. Not every technique need be excruciatingly
ball, how to push off evenly with the feet and ease
Keaton himself began his training at the age of difficult to prove theatrically effective, as
the weight down with the arms, how to avoid the
three, literally being thrown about in his parents’ Pilobolus has amply demonstrated. Acrobatic
head and roll symmetrically and smoothly down
vaudeville knockabout act, a school of hard tricks that merely say “Look at me! Wasn’t that
the spine, how to keep the momentum going
knocks if there ever was one. Chaplin sang for a great trick?!” clearly belong in the gymnasium
forward so that you can stand without using the
his supper as a child, coming of age in British and not on stage. Physical comedians use their
hands.
music hall alongside Stan Laurel. Traditionally, acrobatic training to relate to everything around
the physical training is a life-long process, them, including fellow performers. Much of
The next progression in terms of spectacle is to
transmitted from father to son (less frequently the training will revolve around partner work,
the “dive roll.” The tumbler reaches out further
to daughters), and kept alive right up to the as they learn how to use their weight, strength
and further until one day he/she is actually
vaudeville and silent film eras by circus families, and flexibility to lift, mount, flip, or balance and
diving, that is, the feet leave the ground before
commedia troupes, and English pantomime tumble with one another.
the hands hit. Many will fondly remember this
companies.
from high school gym class, where daredevil
In my own work I have found that this brand of
tumblers would see how many crouched, terrified
The technical training itself can vary vastly. technique work usually offers fertile ground for
classmates they could “tiger leap” over and live
Keaton was a superb tumbler, Grock a fresh comedic ideas. The partnerings seem to lead
to tell about. In the circus, this has traditionally
contortionist, acrobat, and masterful musician. naturally to the creation of short scenarios with
taken the form of the “leaps,” a whole troupe of
Bill Irwin is a magnificent eccentric dancer, their own characters and motivations. Likewise,
acrobats springboarding over a row of elephants
Avner the Eccentric a talented juggler and free play with props, furniture and other scenic
and horses, often ornamenting the feat with a
magician. What these performers all have in elements leads to imaginary situations that
mid-air somersault.
common is their ability to transform these skills. become more real with every practice session.
In the ingenious hands of the physical comedian,
the humble forward roll becomes more
chameleon-like. It may come in handy at the tail
end of a fighting technique, a safe way to deposit
the victim on the ground after some spectacular
flip, à la Douglas Fairbanks. Or the roll may be
put to use over, around, or through costumes,
furniture, or scenery, as often as not with a prop
in one’s hand.

Four specific techniques follow that give only


a small sampling of the different directions
you can take this simplest of tricks. Whether it
be a dive roll out the window, a pedestrian roll
while carrying plates of food, a forward roll with
someone on your back, or a double roll holding
ankles, I would caution against going home and
trying these unless you have tumbling mats,
collision insurance, good acrobatic skills, and
can call upon the assistance of an experienced
spotter.

All drawings by Christopher Agostino.


Epilogue
What with grabbing ankles and all, we seem
to have come a long way from the fate of the
Earth. Is any of this really related? In its own
way, I imagine physical comedy technique
connecting to our real world as significantly as,
say, Picasso’s brush technique or Hemingway’s
sentence structure did to the Spanish Civil War.
Art speaks to us in strange ways and, no matter
how idiosyncratic, technique is still technique.

In physical comedy, the starting point is the


body: the body as metaphor, the body as our
most tangible reality. “We did a piece called
Winterbranch some years ago in many different
countries,” commented choreographer Merce
Cunningham. “In Sweden they said it was
about race riots, in Germany they thought of
concentration camps, in London they spoke of
bombed cities, in Tokyo they said it was the atom
bomb. The wife of a sea captain said it looked
like a shipwreck to her. Of course it’s about all of
those and not about any of them, because I didn’t
have any of those experiences, but everybody
was drawing on his experiences, whereas I had
simply made a piece which was involved with
falls, the idea of bodies falling.”

Everything we do, everything we build, from the


infant’s first steps to the neutron bomb, grows
out of our imperfect body and its imperfect
mind. We walk and sometimes we fall. Our reach
often exceeds our grasp. We can never be sure
anything is perfect because we as a biological
species are not perfect.
While Murphy’s Law may be difficult to The comment was repeated at a news conference
research, countless new examples of it have several weeks later and spread like wildfire
surfaced since I began writing this article two through the press and then into the public’s
months ago. In addition to my own contributions consciousness, distilled down to “whatever can
to human error, too numerous to mention here, go wrong will go wrong.” As for Ed Murphy,
we have witnessed a tragic “how could this have he received neither fame nor fortune for his
happened?” head-on collision between Amtrak contribution to society. Like a clown, anonymous
and Conrail trains in Maryland. Earlier this week, behind bulbous nose and greasepaint, he told
Roger Boisjoly, our “engineer Laurel” who had what he saw and went his merry way.
urged NASA to postpone the Challenger launch,
sued the space agency and contractor Morton
Thiokol for punitive and compensatory damages
for their efforts to demote and discredit him ©Copyright 1987 by John Towsen
after he testified against them. This morning’s
newspaper headline tells of West Germany’s Special thanks to: Susan Avino, Bernie Collins,
difficulty in disposing of 3,000 tons of radioactive Hovey Burgess, Arnie Glass, Herb Houser, Dan
powdered milk contaminated by the fall-out Kamin, Martie LaBare, Doug Poswencyk, and
from Chernobyl, milk that Bavarian authorities Sande Zeig
are still hoping to use in animal feed for export
to third-world countries.

Murphy’s Law is indeed very much with us. For


the curious, our folk hero turns out to be a Captain
Edward A. Murphy, Jr., an Air Force development
engineer from Ohio who in 1949 was working on
Edwards Air Force Base’s project MX981 — a
precursor of today’s space efforts. Frustrated that
a component part in a harness he had designed
for test pilots was malfunctioning, he discovered
that a strain gauge had been incorrectly wired by
a technician. “There are only two ways to wire
a strain gauge,” said Murphy the maker of laws,
“the right way and 90% from the right way. If
there are two or more ways to do something, and
one of those ways can result in a catastrophe,
then someone will do it that way.”