Wednesday, July 10, 2019

"Physical Comedy Hangs Hilariously On"

An included element in my Best of the West pilot (1981) was a climactic gunfight, where, due to malfunctioning “hardware” – a precipitating tidbit gleaned from my research – the dueling combatants hit everything around but each other.

The audience reaction was gratifying.

That’s why I like physical comedy – the resultant volcanic laughter.  Who’d want to avoid that? 

My early bosses, for one.

As a rookie television-writer, I was dissuaded from putting physical comedy into my scripts.  The explained reason was that, if the physical bit’s execution was just marginally “off”, it would fall flat in front of a live studio audience, leaving the performers, what they called, “eggy”, meaning they’d have embarrassing egg on their faces.  So we were forbidden to include that stuff.  (Quick!  Name your three favorite bits of physical comedy from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  I’ve got to move on.  But I’ll come back for that later.)

My appreciation of physical comedy did not derive from silent movies, whose flourishing heyday I missed out on by thirty-five years.  I saw examples of it on TV.  I don’t mean on variety shows, like when Milton Berle, calling for “Make-up”, got slammed in the face with an enormous powder puff.  (The image persists after sixty-five years.)

Even half-hour comedies employed physical comedy. 

I’ll give you a bigger “even” than that.

Even radio half-hour comedies employed physical comedy.  How unlikely is it that a medium you are unable to see would provide samples of great physical comedy? (Unless you are listening too close and the radio falls on your foot.)

One of the best physical comedy jokes occurred on the top radio sitcom of its day, Fibber McGee and Molly.

You just had to hear “McGee” say, “I think I left it in the closet” and all of America, and Canada as well, chucklingly knew what was coming.  For, despite “Molly’s” ignored warning, the next sound you heard was a door opening, and, for numerous sidesplitting seconds, the contained contents clamorously exploding from the overstuffed closet.

Physical comedy on radio!  (As truly unfathomable as ventriloquists on radio.  Although tell that to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.)

Most radio, however, was exclusively “talk”, as was – and still is – the medium directly evolving from radio, television.  Which, although visual, is watched primarily with the ears.

With a few hilarious exceptions.

Virtually every episode of I Love Lucy – filmed in front of a live studio audience, but they apparently weren’t afraid – involved an episode-long “build-up” to a physical comedy payoff at the end. 

What we remember about Lucy is not the intelligent repartee, but, instead, “Lucy Ricardo”, madly stuffing “conveyor belt” chocolates into her blouse, or a homemade bread baked with excessive yeast, escaping the oven and eventually filling the kitchen.

Dr. M’s personal favorite involves a fleabag motel room beside the railroad tracks, where the bed sliding maddeningly across the room whenever a speeding train comes barreling by.

You can laugh just thinking about that.  (Though it is way better to see it.)  

As TV progressed – and became more verbally “cerebral” – the presence of physical comedy diminished, but was not entirely left by the wayside.

The Dick Van Dyke Show trumpeted its allegiance to physical comedy with an “Opening Titles” sequence in which “Rob Petrie”, regularly tripped over an ottoman. 

A decade or so later, Three’s Company proclaimed its affinity for physical comedy, calling its lead character “Jack Tripper.”  (Who weekly delivered on his surname.)

Simultaneously, Laverne and Shirley incorporated physical comedy, “Laverne” often hanging from something, her flailing feet, dangling desperately in mid-air.  (Interestingly, Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, “Laverne’s” Penny Marshall were all originally dancers.)

Edging toward the Millennium, physical comedy was still – albeit infrequently – employed.

I recall two standout moments on Everybody Loves Raymond, one, in which Ray’s Dad crashes his car through their living room wall, the hilarity enhanced by the fact that the show never did that.

The other memorable sequence from Raymond was both physically funny and smart, portraying an essential element of longstanding marriage.

The episode offers a marital “battle of wills”, each spouse refusing to take care of a filled suitcase left on the staircase landing after a holiday, which has been now sitting there for two weeks, the scene culminating in a physically executed tour de force.

Watch this, and you’ll see why I’m a lifelong fan of physical comedy, which I shall demonstrate tomorrow with a compilation of scenes from my work.  None of which I can show, as they exist only on videotapes stored in my garage.

Unlike this, which I uncovered on YouTube.


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