Comedy and Digital Filmmaking: How Digital Tools and Comic Improvisation Are Reshaping Hollywood Films (To be More Like Silent Comedy Classics)
This post is about the history of improvisation in comic filmmaking and how the new digital tools are part of a movement in American film comedy toward edgier improvised fare – a form of comedy that has prospered on TV but that Hollywood hasn’t really supported since the earliest days of the film business.
In the very early days, years before talking pictures, film performers would often improvise their performances.
This isn’t so surprising. The earliest film comedies were silent shorts – and the scripts for these single-shot films sometimes contained little more than a situation where a stock character might encounter an obstacle.
For example, the first comedy film ever projected is under one minute long and it features a gardener who can’t water his garden because a boy is kinking the hose.
Even as the silent movies evolved after 1895, the comedy in many silent films depended largely on the improvisatory skill of the performers.
For example, in January 1914 Charlie Chaplin and a small crew shot a short film at the corner of Westminster and Main in Venice, California. The film that Chaplin and his crew made in Venice, Kid’s Auto Race, is noteworthy today because it introduced the Little Tramp character that would become the basis for Chaplin’s worldwide fame. But it’s also worth noting that the first Little Tramp film was largely improvised.
The script for Kid’s Auto Race was apparently not even written down. It seems Chaplin simply set out to improvise some comic business near a spot where a crowd had assembled to watch some homemade vehicles whiz down a ramp and into the streets. The plot of the short film that Charlie Chaplin made that day? Chaplin’s attention-craving Little Tramp repeatedly gets in the way of a two-person camera crew trying to record the races. Eventually the Little Tramp’s persistent photobombing frustrates the would-be filmmakers. Comedy fights and pratfalls ensue. To add to the silliness - also apparently improvised on the spot - the tramp’s scene-stealing antics put him dangerously close to vehicles on the speedway.
Long after he was recognized as one of the greatest comic performers of the silent film era - and even into his talking pictures career - Chaplin’s comedy continued to rely on improvisation.
For example, consider how Charlie Chaplin, playing the title character in The Great Dictator (1940), danced with a Globe.
Charlie Chaplin’s Globe Dance from The Great Dictator now stands as an iconic moment in comedy film history.
The Globe Dance sequence is remembered for merging edgy political satire (the film was released more than a year before the US declared war on the Nazis) and Charlie Chaplin’s unique mastery of spontaneous physical humor - the creative kind of comedy that can’t be written in advance.
Yes, Chaplin and his crew had rehearsed the Globe Dance. But watch the sequence – and notice how the scripted dialogue that precedes the dance seems leaden when compared to the fragile immediacy of the dance itself.
The floating Globe - Chaplin’s almost-lighter-than-air dance partner – and the Dictator’s attention to its movements, add a sweet romantic unpredictability to this sequence.
Part of what makes the Globe Dance in The Great Dictator so effective is that it feels improvised. Watching the sequence, I can’t help but think that the wobbly uncertainty of the way the Globe moves is part of what gives this sequence the anything-can-happen edginess that captivates comedy audiences even today.
Comedy that is unpredictable and edgy – in particular, real-life gags that might come crashing to the floor - have recently seen a renaissance in Hollywood.
For example, the three Jackass movies (2002, 2006 and 2010) were all largely improvised – trading on shocked surprise and high-risk pratfalls.
Another hugely successful recent comedy film with elements of edgy improvisation was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006).
In Borat, English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays a fictitious Kazhak television reporter on a journey that includes interviews and interactions with unsuspecting Americans. Much of the comedy in Borat arises from the mayhem engineered by Sacha Baron Cohen (playing a foreigner with no understanding of American ways) as he improvises his way through incredibly awkward moments.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest satire, The Dictator (2012), clearly owes a debt to Chaplin’s 1940 The Great Dictator.
Both The Dictator and The Great Dictator satirize violent despots, but Baron Cohen’s 2012 film - with its scripted jokes about terrorism, abortion, suicide and pedophilia - is edgy in ways that were never part of Charlie Chaplin's improvisatory physical clowning. But the promotion for Baron Cohen’s The Dictator has included improvised stunts that do feel like traditional improvised high-risk clowning – the kind of silent comedy ideas that might go off the tracks at any moment.
Beside these obvious examples of improvised comedy, it’s worth noting that many of the scripted contemporary comedy films are also including sequences that at least feel improvised.
For example, some of the most memorable sequences from the Austin Powers series were improvised. From interviews, we know that large chunks of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), a film that has grossed over $300 million worldwide, were improvised by Mike Myers. Specifically, Mike Myers has said that he improvised much of Dr. Evil, including the delightfully silly “Zip It” sequence where Dr. Evil won’t let Seth Green’s Scotty get a word out.
There are also scenes in both of The Hangover films – where the comedy comes from courting chaos - as the actors improvised with famously unpredictable co-stars - babies and animals.
But the emphasis on improvised comedy, that was popular in the earliest days of the film business and has always been a part of TV, has not always been popular in Hollywood films.
With the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s, the careers of many of our greatest improvisatory artists – the daring physical clowns who performed in silent comedies - abruptly ended.
Starting in the early 1930s, as movie theaters converted to sound and the movie audience demanded films with dialogue, actors who improvised movement – but couldn’t deliver lines - were out of work, as Hollywood filmmakers began looking to the NY stage for their comic inspiration.
For example, George Cukor’s 1933 MGM film, Dinner At Eight, was based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1932 Broadway hit – and it created opportunity in Hollywood for a new (to the movies) style of script-based comic acting.
The most successful Hollywood comedies of the 1930s were usually tightly scripted and dependent on the kind of witty dialogue that worked well on stage.
That style of comedy writing for motion picture screens - movies filled with punchy one-liners and scripted gags and the actors who could deliver those words - survived for over 60 years in Hollywood.
As Jonah Lehrer noted in his (now discredited and withdrawn due to quote fabrication!) 2012 book Imagine: How Creativity Works, the old model for scripted funny films persisted even through the 1980s with films like Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988).
But starting in the 1990s that model began to change. Today the most successful comedies are “full of improvised scenes.”
The modern face of American film comedy still relies on scripts (perhaps more than the average amateur might imagine) – but Hollywood comic filmmakers are finding opportunities for improvisation. And the role of the traditional scripted verbal gags or carefully choreographed mayhem is changing.
Part of the change in today’s motion picture comedy can be traced to television – where inspired improvisers began evolving a looser-than-1950s-film American brand of TV sketch comedy with shows like Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-1955). Your Show of Shows introduced a mass audience to in-the-moment performers like Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner. While The Colgate Comedy Hour featured hosts like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis who delighted audiences with comic bits that felt wildly improvisatory – and therefore more real and intimate.
The tradition of comedy on TV that allowed for accident and improvisation can be traced through sketch comedy shows like Dean Martin’s and Carol Burnett’s and then into the risk-taking on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s and beyond.
And part of the current improvisatory trend in motion picture comedy certainly started more than 50 years ago – when Second City, a new theater company dedicated to improvisation and a sense of playful invention, began producing comic actors like Alan Arkin and Fred Willard in Chicago. The Canadian Second City branch soon began developing talents like Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty and Rick Moranis. And more recently Second City has graduated improvisational talents like Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
As these talents have migrated to film, their style of playing has influenced American film comedy.
But I think a large part of the recent changes in American film comedy can also be traced to the new digital tools (including more maneuverable, unobtrusive and forgiving cameras and much less expensive processing costs) that now favor smaller crews and longer takes.
When a crew is no longer “burning film” and crew sizes are smaller and more mobile - digital filmmakers are free to let the cameras run as the performers improvise.
This is not to suggest that all the latest comedy films are dispensing with scripts altogether. But in the new digital age, filmmakers are finding new ways to work, allowing themselves and their performers the opportunity to improvise.
My advice to fledgling comedy filmmakers? Follow in the footsteps of Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Charlie Chaplin.
Give your characters a goal and an obstacle to achieving that goal - and throw in an unpredictable element (a bouncing ball, an animal, a baby, etc.). Use a barely-noticeable digital camera in a "real" setting and let your players improvise.
Comedy is hard but you can improve with practice - especially if your tools allow an environment that encourages creative invention, happy accidents and unpredictability.