Freud believed there were two types of jokes – the tendentious and the non-tendentious. The non-tendentious joke is innocent, which Freud believed didn’t make us laugh as much as the tendentious joke that provokes laughter from sexual or violent humour. Anthony Storr, an English psychiatrist, believes that the tendentious joke is a way of “bypassing the barriers against the direct expression of both obscenity and aggression which civilisation has set up” (1989: 87). By examining two silent films starring Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I will explore why the tendentious humour of vaudeville and slapstick comedy make us laugh. Simon Critchley argues that it is “having a body” that makes us laugh, which I will discuss in relation to the varying control Keaton and Chaplin seem to have over their bodily functions, through engaging with the idea of the body as a machine and the body as an organism. The commentary these films make on the industrialisation and advances in cinematic technology will be discussed in relation to the physicality used by both Keaton and Chaplin in the films Sherlock Jr. and Modern Times. Finally, I will discuss how Keaton and Chaplin embody aspects of Terrie Wadell and Lewis Hyde’s idea of ‘Trickster’ in relation to the carnivalesque atmosphere they create through using their bodies to create humour.
Modern Times was made in 1936 during the great depression, which Chaplin believed was created by the efficiency of the industrialisation taking jobs away from people, and a dependency on machines. Sherlock Jr. was made in 1924, during the cinematic boom of Hollywood, with Vaudeville humour being directly translated from the theatre to the screen. The advances in cinematic technology are seen in the camera work and dynamism of the narrative, relying as much on clever camera control as the acrobatic ability of Buster Keaton. The shift from the verbal theatrical performances to the non-verbal silent film, (Modern Times isn’t a silent film, but there is minimal dialogue) highlights the necessity for the body to create humour, whilst relying on the machine to capture the image. The symbiosis between machine and actor permeates the performances of Keaton and Chaplin through creating machine-like gestures.
The machine-like body is like a puppet in that the comic figure doesn’t seem like a full person but more of an imitation of a person. Through the imitation, we are made hyper-aware of the body, the incongruity of which makes us laugh. One example of this is the scene in Sherlock Jr. when Keaton shadows the Sheikh down the street, copying his every move. Initially, we laugh at the height difference between the two characters, the age difference and their clothing, however as the gag continues, it is the rigidity of Keaton’s movement in unnatural synchronicity with the Sheikh that makes us laugh, shown through the closeness with which he is able to follow him, whilst the Sheikh apparently remains unaware. The Sheikh stops abruptly in the road to avoid a car, leaning forward as he does so, and Keaton leans forward with him. The Sheikh takes a step to one side, and so Keaton follows in time. The repetitiveness of Keaton’s movements blurs the lines between being human and machine, which is reflected in the fact this is the first scene in which the camera moves with the actors. It is as though as Keaton begins to possess machine-like qualities, the camera increases the illusion of reality. The machine-like movements would have been achieved through rigorous rehearsal, highlighting the acrobatic control Keaton has over his body, whilst this scene attempts to create humour through presenting the body as unlike itself. There is a loss of self/identity, which produces an incongruity that makes us laugh.
In comparison, Modern Times attempts to show how the machine and the body are merging completely and the negativity that surrounds reliance on machines that are not always better than humans. The scene to be discussed begins with the controller being offered a test trial of a machine that will increase productivity by eliminating the lunch-hour. The machine works by feeding the men as they work, with no need for interaction, as food is pushed and poured into the workman’s mouth before being wiped away. At first the machine seems to work efficiently, however it begins to malfunction by pouring the soup all over Chaplin, spinning the corn cob too fast whilst pressing it against his mouth, and constantly patting his mouth down with the antiseptic contraption that reminds one of a persistent and oblivious child-minder. Through the machine’s inability to recognise the bolts that have replaced the canapés, Chaplin critiques the lack of humanity of the machine, and places a defective humanity on it as it becomes more human through its weakness. We laugh because the machine isn’t acting like a machine, just like when we laugh at Keaton’s rigid physicality because his body isn’t acting like a human body. Chaplin’s factory scene progresses to Chaplin becoming so ingrained with the tightening bolts that he cannot shake the machine-like movement, and becomes obsessed with making sure the moving assembly line is complete. This obsession leads to him falling into the machine itself, and there is an iconic moment where he is fed through the cogs of the machine, almost becoming part of the machine itself. From being accosted by a defective machine to being swallowed and incorporated into one, Chaplin’s commentary on industrialisation critiques the lack of humanness of machines, and portrays a negative image of how technology is swallowing our humanity and individuality, making our bodies cogs in their greater workings.
The comic incongruity derives from our expectation of the body to act like a body, when in fact Keaton and Chaplin perform these sketches in relation or similar to machines. The body as a machine makes us laugh because when the actors pretend not to be human, we are made aware of our own bodies, how imperfect they are, and the machine-like gestures draw attention to our own clumsiness. The awkwardness with which we inhabit our bodies makes us laugh, according to Critchley, who argues that humour works through “a play of distance and proximity, where the reader has their nose rubbed in the physical object being described, but in a manner that is remote and resolutely unsentimental” (2002: 45). This can be explored in relation to Chaplin using slapstick comedy to bring attention to the dangers of relying on machines, as well as Keaton’s machine-like gestures highlighting the advances of cinema.
We laugh when our bodies do things of their own accord because it seems as though they are out of our control. Bodily functions like sex, defecation and digestion create comedy from the most basic quality of being socially unacceptable, in other words, tendentious. Critchley believed that the body cannot be controlled, and that the abject body in humour doing rude things that are degrading and clumsy, makes us laugh. It is the pompous man farting as he bows that tickles us because we are made aware of how out of control of our own bodily functions we actually are. The involuntary actions that are unexpected trigger laughter such as Keaton falling on the banana skin, because he doesn’t plan for it to happen. Keaton is given a banana by the Sheikh as the Sheikh attempts to woo the girl. Keaton takes the banana away and sits down, suddenly thinking of a genius plan to eat the banana and throw the peel on the ground for the Sheikh to fall on. He calls the Sheikh over, but he stops just short of the skin, leaving Keaton visibly frustrated. As Keaton see’s the Sheikh begin to kiss the girls hand, Keaton jumps up in anger, forgetting his carefully laid trap and falls head over heels, landing on his back before doing a further backwards roll. Keaton’s elasticity in his movement derives from the vaudeville performances he was involved in with his parents from the age of five. The Three Keaton’s performed clown-like stunts where Keaton would mimic his father, who would lose his temper and throw the child around, usually with acrobatic finesse, but sometimes, due to his father’s drinking, the show ended in injuries. The idea of slapstick and vaudeville humour is that the exaggerated aggression causes laughter because we are aware it causes very little harm, however in the case of Sherlock Jr. there was a scene where Keaton broke his neck and continued to film, not realising he had majorly injured. We are often told it is “thoughtless” to laugh at the misfortune of others, which is right. If we were to think about the pain inflicted on the actor, we would feel sympathy or a similarly consumptive emotion. And emotion kills laughter. There is a momentary apprehension at seeing Keaton slip on the banana skin until we remember it is a gag and laugh with relief. Critchley argues, “We laugh because we are troubled by what we laugh at, because it somehow frightens us” (2002: 56-57), which conflicts with my earlier argument that emotion kills laughter. However, what Critchley argues is that we are laugh in order to replace our fear, which is why tendentious jokes are often laughed at despite their violent or inappropriate content.
The medium of film legitimises our laughter at the pain because we are assured by the fictional safety of the characters. In the fictional world of the film, the boy will be ok. The body acting like its own separate entity makes us laugh at the absurd nature of being out of control. The reality is that Keaton rehearsed his rolls, flips and falls, and was safe throughout the majority of his gags. This raises the question of whether we would laugh if Keaton was in real danger. It seems as through his body is unbreakable, so we laugh at the caricature Keaton creates, the physical comedy forming excessive characteristics that become unreal, and therefore separate to ourselves. We are unable to relate to his body, and therefore laugh at the body we cannot have.
Keaton and Chaplin perform ‘Trickster’, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere that breaks down social hierarchy to create laughter. They use their bodies to expose the weaknesses we all experience in order for communal laughter to bring the audience together, however these ‘weaknesses’ are performed through a high level of control, embodied in the energy of the trickster. Terrie Wadell, in her book wild/lives, writes that ‘Trickster’ is an archetype of “transformation and liminality” (2010: xi). In Sherlock Jr. Keaton is simply called ‘the boy’, the generic name removing him to the realm of parody, beyond ordinary identification. Wadell argued that this archetype is an unconscious energy that is altered when it is brought into the conscious sphere and is recognised (2010: 2), which can be explored in relation to the dream-sequence in Sherlock Jr. where the double exposure of Keaton creates a ghost like figure who, in a surreal twist, is able to cross into the film being projected in the auditorium, disrupting the spatial and temporal unity of the film we watch. This idea of ‘Trickster’ is explored further by Hyde, who argued that a ‘Trickster’ doesn’t live in one place, rather he “passes through each… when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief” (2008: 6), oddly applicable to Keaton’s ability to cross into the film. When Keaton’s ghost-like double, or ‘Trickster’ becomes a part of the film, the setting changes, creating situations that are made funny by the fact it is Keaton’s body that remains constant, enlivening each empty landscape or setting with his physical humour. In this scene, what is funny is Keaton’s ability to create humour from his body being present throughout the location changes.
The carnivalesque environment allows ‘Trickster’ to be performed because of the ability to parody realism, as shown in the self-reflexivity of the banana skin gag. Keaton parodies the tired sketch by showing how it doesn’t work anymore; his mind expects the trick to succeed, but his body fails by slipping on it. The carnivalesque is present in cinema because, as Stam writes, cinema grew up “in the shadow of the side show” (1989: 113), with the cinema and the fairground being situated near each other. The physicality of theatre was directly transported from stage to screen, with the light-hearted approach to violence coming with it. Stam goes on to argue that this attitude towards violence “reflects a carnivalesque strategy of radical simplification aimed at the unmasking and ridiculing of the hypocrisies of a Power stripped of all euphemism” (1989: 108). This idea is as relevant to Chaplin’s critique of industrialisation as it is to Keaton’s exposition of our human pomposity. Keaton used physical humour to bring the audience to an equal level, using laughter to form a consciousness free of dogmatism. Henri Bergson, a 20th century French philosopher, in his essay on the meaning of the comic, argued that comedy is about sociability, “our laughter is always the laughter of the group” (1901: 4), laughter is based upon differences, exclusion and a sense of belonging. We are able to laugh at the violent physical comedy of Keaton and Chaplin because they are so immortal in their apparent ability to avoid pain, that they are unidentifiable to us. The humour of the body then, in this case, is used as a social masquerade to critique a wider problem, as ‘Trickster’ is an energy that is able to disrupt normality and confuse our distinctions between our social dualisms, like the body as the machine and the body as an organism.
While Critchley believes what is funny in finality is having a body, for Bakhtin, according to Stam, the body is “a festival of becoming, a plurality, not a closed system but a perpetual experiment” (1989: 157). The varying control Keaton and Chaplin pretend to have over their body as an organism or as a machine, creates a comic effect through their ‘Trickster’ performance. Comedy has the unique privilege to draw attention to seriousness in a way tragedy cannot. Keaton draws our attention to the body as an uncontrollable force through his presentation of the body as n organism, while Chaplin shows how our dependence on technology is detrimental to our health and society by presenting the body as becoming part of the machine.