Why is wordless comedy so successful?
Because it bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the funnybone.
That is why of the situation comedies of the past sixty-plus years, the most enduring series of all is I Love Lucy.
With its speeded-up, chocolates factory conveyor belt.
With its overly-yeasted baked bread emerging Godzilla-like out of the oven.
With its motel location next to the railroad tracks where, whenever a train rumbles by, the bunk bed they are sleeping in slides precariously across the room.
If they are so successful, why then do half-hour comedies not include more silent interludes and vignettes?
(Have you noticed that I only ask questions I already know the answers to? It just makes me look smart.)
Television comedy has its antecedents in radio, a medium on which extended non-verbal comedy routines would, understandably, not play well. Instead of laughter, the more likely audience reaction to it would be, “There is something wrong with the radio.”
(The exception here is a “sound effects” joke, like the running gag on Fibber McGee and Molly, where McGee continually forgets how insanely overstuffed his closet is, and every time he thoughtlessly opens the door, a cacophony of contents spill noisily onto the floor. This non-verbal moment, incidentally, was one of most beloved “running gags” in the history of radio. No words. Just that inevitable, always anticipated, humbling racket.
Many writers are afraid of silent comedy, especially silent comedy performed in front of a live studio audience, fearing that that silence might end up being contagious. Audiences are conditioned to verbal comedy, and there is the worrying concern that if the actors are quiet, the audience might also be quiet as well.
In truth, it’s not just audiences that are conditioned to verbal comedy. The writers are too. Leaving them unpracticed in devising non-verbal material. An ability that came naturally to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, as, lacking the alternative of sound, they were prevented from saying anything in movies until 1927.
Tiptoeing in the footsteps of such giants, I myself have occasionally dabbled in silent comedy on the series I created, invariably to very positive effect. I too am a primarily verbal communicator, which is a particular advantage in blog writing, since without words, it’s just white paper with nothing written on it. But I love silent comedy, and when an idea comes to me, I jump at it.
Three examples of silent comedy from shows I made up. Working chronologically backwards:
“The Stare” – Major Dad (1989)
Major McGillis arrives at Polly’s house for dinner, attired in his “utilities” (head-to-toe camouflage outfit.) While Polly and her two older daughters repair to the kitchen to complete last-minute preparations, the Major is left alone in the living room with Polly’s seven year-old daughter Casey.
The script simply says:
“Casey stares at the Major for a really long time.”
That’s all there was to it. No words were exchanged. It was just a seven year-old girl staring incredulously at this “Warrior God” standing stiffly in her living room, and the more she stares, the more increasingly uncomfortable he becomes.
The audience laughed uproariously for thirty seconds.
It was music to a silent-comedy lover’s ears.
“The Fight” – Family Man (1988)
Shelly has made his wife Andrea angry, I forget about what. It is the following morning at breakfast. Andrea eats alone at the table. A trying-to-lighten the mood Shelly enters the kitchen with a conciliatory “Good morning.” But the still-angry Andrea is not ready to relent. And the wordless altercation begins.
As Shelly approaches, Andrea abruptly gets up, grabs the box of cereal from the table, and carries it back to the pantry.
As Andrea returns to the table, Shelly makes his way over to the pantry, where he retrieves the box of cereal.
As Shelly heads back to the table, Andrea snatches up the carton of milk and returns it to the refrigerator.
Setting the cereal down on the table, Shelly moves to the refrigerator, opens the refrigerator door, and retrieves the carton of milk.
I imagine you are getting the concept. This silent skirmish proceeds for some time, topped by a comedic payoff which I can no longer remember but I am certain it was… not terrible.
I cannot report that “The Fight” met with enormous live studio audience acceptance, because Family Man was shot without a live studio audience. But, underscored by an insinuating tango, the scene played spectacularly on TV.
“The Milk Trick” Best of the West (1981)
To entertain the patrons of the Lucky Chance Saloon, Frog, the proprietor’s hapless henchman performs a classic feat of prestidigitation called “The Milk Trick.”
Here’s how it works. (Not how the trick works, but how to execute it. I’m not sure I know how it works. And I wrote it.)
The magician folds a large sheet of paper into a funnel, he pours milk from a pitcher into the funnel, and when he flings open the paper, the milk has miraculously disappeared.
“The Milk Trick” was played as a “runner”, three isolated vignettes, inserted strategically into the narrative.
The first time, with accompanying fanfare, Frog folds a large sheet of paper into a funnel, he picks up a pitcher of milk, and he pours the milk into the funnel.
Instantaneously, the milk comes pouring out the bottom of the funnel, splashing humiliatingly onto the floor.
The first time… is a failure.
The second time – later in the show – Frog once again announces that he will attempt “The Milk Trick.” Once again, he folds the sheet of paper into a funnel, then, picking up the pitcher, he pours the milk into the funnel.
So far – so good. The milk does not, this time, spill directly onto the floor, prompting Frog’s single verbal interjection:
“Oh ye of little faith.”
With a gleam of excited confidence, Frog joyfully flings open the sheet of paper….
And he drenches his boss with the milk.
The third time, is the show’s “tag”, (an obligatory tack-on, drumrolled by “Stay tuned for more Best of the West”, requiring the viewers to sit through the intervening commercials.)
It is now very late, the saloon is entirely empty. Frog, surreally attired in a top hat and a satin cape, is alone.
He will attempt “The Milk Trick” yet again.
Frog folds the large sheet of paper into a funnel, he pours in the milk. He then flings open the sheet of paper. And this time…
It works like a charm.
The milk has miraculously disappeared.
Frog caps his accomplishment with an understated,
He then bows deeply to the non-existent assemblage, and walks quietly but triumphantly out of the saloon.
It is universally unifying.