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Zen & the Heart of Physical Comedy

Zen & the Heart of Physical Comedy

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Yale Theater magazine Summer/Fall 1987


y far the funniest thing I’ve seen on television in recent years took place not on the Cosby Show, but during an April, 1985, mission of the space shuttle Discovery. The shuttle crew had deployed a $40 million Leasat communications satellite, which subsequently malfunctioned, its power switch refusing to kick on. Our astronauts were called upon to pull up alongside the satellite and trigger the switch, which would spin past them for a brief moment every 30 seconds as the satellite rotated on its axis. Since maneuvering the astronauts close enough to the satellite to manually manipulate the crucial toggle was deemed too hazardous, the shuttle crew was forced to improvise. A makeshift snare that could be attached to the shuttle’s robot arm was constructed from “found objects.”

tubes, and an aluminum frame with a window quick veneer of respectability. The ancient art of shade. For tools, they used scissors, a Swiss jerryrigging so popular a half-hour after the local Army knife, and needle and thread from the hardware store closes for the night. spacesuit repair kit. And great farce. Television audiences back on From the plastic covers they created our first Earth were soon treated to the wonderfully silly space-age slapstick, the “flyswatter,” so called spectacle of a game but outmatched astronaut because that is exactly what it resembled. Three Seddon flailing away with robot arm and 6” x 4” rectangular holes were cut in the plastic, flyswatter at the “on” switch — vainly as it turned the idea being to try to snag the switch in one of out — as it whizzed past her twice per minute. the holes. The plastic sheet with the holes was The incongruity of the situation seemed lost on taped and sewn to another piece of plastic that most of the news commentators, but as a physical had been rolled into the shape of a cone. Inserted comedy maven my brain was immediately into the cone, and taped tight, was an extendable flooded with images of suspiciously similar plastic rod dubbed a “swizzle stick.” Especially classic clown routines. Was it mere coincidence, helpful with the sewing of the plastic covers or had NASA blatantly lifted the idea from was United States Senator Jake Garn of Utah, Buster Keaton’s Cops, where he KO’d passersalong 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

Reminders of our own ineptitude abound in today’s world. Unfortunately, our foul-ups are not always so harmless. Sometimes the stakes are higher. The fatal blow-up of the Challenger space shuttle in January, 1986, was attributed by an investigating panel to pride, self-deception and institutional loyalty. Ooops. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl three months later — the worst in history, with more fallout than the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined —

was a result of human error. Ooops. And if you thought Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a fantastical film, take note that an average of 5,100 U.S. nuclear weapons handlers are relieved of their positions each year because of drug, alcohol, or psychological problems.

“TRIVIA!?” I want to scream. “Don’t you understand how important it is?” As a veteran of clown research, however, I take his astute advice to heart. Ha-ha is rarely taken seriously. In Why Things Go Wrong, for example, Laurence Peter recalls that the original manuscript for his bestselling study of incompetence, The Peter What is amazing is how little impact human error Principle, was rejected time and time again has on society’s collective self-image, how little because publishers couldn’t pigeonhole it. “I it does to alter the trust we place in our high- don’t think it’s satire,” one editor informed him. tech present and higher-tech future. According “I think you are serious.” to Murphy’s Law, whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Few people would deny the law’s

A closer look at last year’s hit parade of catastrophes offers compelling evidence that clown behavior has infiltrated its way into the highest echelons of society. The meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is surely an example of Laurel & Hardy at their most mischievous. In an attempt to complete an experiment on the power capability of the reactor’s steam-driven turbines, the plant’s resident clowns cleverly executed a series of maneuvers that in effect dismantled the reactor’s safety features one by one. This Russian two-reeler is full of laughs as our fiercely determined technicians, Laurelovitch and Hardyofsky, find perfectly good reasons to turn off the emergency cooling system, remove all but a few control rods while leaving the reactor operating, and disengage all safety systems designed to implement automatic shutdown. When Mrs. Hardyofsky — in this version played by a Soviet nuclear expert — returns home, she is shocked beyond belief to learn that the menfolk have deliberately disabled so many safety and warning systems, then run the reactor in a very unstable condition. But they did, and our little tragi-comedy ends with the prospect of millions of people, even the unborn (politely referred to as third- and fourth party victims), paying the price in sequels yet unfilmed. Another fine mess was created by NASA engineers and administrators who allowed the Challenger space shuttle to be launched although several warnings of potential danger had been sounded. NASA’s need to perpetuate a public image of having effectively vanquished the hazards of space flight — to have rendered

it so routine that they could now rocket a cost all of 46 cents. In The Fate of the Earth, schoolteacher into orbit — guaranteed that their Jonathan Schell warns of a plausible doomsday infallibility would be shattered. scenario in which Brigadier General Hardy’s mistaken alert provokes his Russian counterpart, This American silent movie classic opens with Inspector General Hardyovitch, to adopt the engineer Laurel frantically gesticulating as he same posture, which in turn confirms Hardy’s tries to get the attention of his boss, a very busy original fears, and so on, with no way out of the and self-important Mr. Hardy. The subtitles tell escalation before the clock tolls eight minutes. us that Laurel wants to warn Hardy about the “That the fruit of four and a half billion years can weakness of the o-ring seals. But we can see be undone in a careless moment is a fact against 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. is unforgettable, as the camera dissolves on a whimpering engineer Laurel, stammering Safety engineers in the nuclear and chemical through his tears. The subtitle reads, “But Ollie, industries are not oblivious to these concerns, that’s what I was trying to tell you all along.” and indeed have spawned a new science of risk assessment. A probabilistic risk assessment The worst comedy of errors would of course (PRA), a systematic study of potential dangers be one that led to nuclear war. For the first in a given enterprise, is becoming standard time in the world’s history, human error could operating procedure. Engineers now use “fault conceivably result in the extinction of the trees,” “event trees,” and FMEAs (Failure Modes species. Laurel & Hardy are already working and Effects Analysis) to pinpoint potential on this one. In a November, 1979 experimental technical and human failure and its ramifications video, we see officer Laurel make a little boo- on the system. boo. He inadvertently loads a training tape that simulates a Soviet attack onto a NORAD But while mathematicians assess probabilities auxiliary computer. When Brigadier General and, when economically feasible, management Hardy sees the NORAD monitors display this may take extra precautions, there will always be a 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, much shenanigans, the alarm is judged false due is a leading advocate of this school of thought. to lack of corroboration and for once our comedy In Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk has a happy ending. In real life, the U.S. would Technologies, he argues that the complexity of have a full eight minutes to respond. modern technology has already exceeded our ability to foresee potential defects. Published Similar early stage alerts have resulted from in 1984 (though now out of print), Normal 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 the Ukraine within two short years. and insists on restaging man’s inevitable mishaps and miscalculations, and then really rubs it in by “We have produced designs so complicated,” irreverently depicting the ego’s involvement in writes Perrow, “that we cannot anticipate all the the struggle: not just the pride that goeth before possible interactions of the inevitable failures. destruction and the haughty spirit that precedes a The sources of accidents are infinite.” Human fall that Solomon first warned us about, but also errors and component malfunctions occurring the terrible embarrassment that follows, and the within a “tightly coupled” system such as a noble attempts at cover-up. nuclear power plant tend to be compounded, during a short but critical period of time, to a We trip on the sidewalk. In a revealing moment point beyond human comprehension. of truth, our eyes blink, our cheeks blush, our breath shortens, our muscles tense, our stomach 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. “It’s frightening to think that you might not But while we are taught to hide error and above know something,” comments Amos Tversky, a all maintain our cool, the clown is humanity’s lie specialist in the psychology of uncertainty. “But detector test and safety valve. The clown shows it’s more frightening to think that, by and large, us that precise moment of cover-up, the instant the world is run by people who have faith that when one’s self-assurance is stripped away. “It they know exactly what’s going on.” really isn’t the trip itself that’s funny,” explains Bill Irwin. “It’s the gestures and motions Whatever can go wrong will go wrong in a big afterwards, the looking back at the spot, the way. Who could better tell this simple truth about trying to make an excuse for having tripped.” ourselves than the clown? The clown revels in the mundane, celebrating the ever-recurring In 1948, Henry Miller published a wonderful tale awkwardnesses inherent in our daily struggle entitled The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. A to maintain equilibrium. The clown’s world hopeless romantic when it came to clowns, Miller of naivete is but a microcosm of our complex conferred upon them many of the same powers universe. Impeccably dressed and well spoken, and virtues I am so eager to bestow. It was the 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 the edges, the clown confronts base realities, misunderstandings which plague human kind. To admitting the worst but giving us license to be ineptitude itself, that was something even the laugh. dullest oaf could grasp. Not to understand, when

all is clear as daylight; not to catch on, though the trick be repeated a thousand times for you; to grope about like a blind man, when all signs point the right direction; to insist on opening the wrong door, though it is marked DANGER!; to walk head on into the mirror, instead of going around it; to look through the wrong end of a rifle, a loaded rifle! — people never tired of these absurdities because for millennia all their seeking and questioning have landed them in a cul-de-sac. The master of ineptitude has all time as his domain. He surrenders only in the face of eternity.”

Physical Comedy: A Rediscovery of Style

Put simply, physical comedy is the art of revealing what is vulnerable, imperfect, and laughable about man — not through argument, not through discourse, but through the body, through the picture that is worth a thousand laughs. It may be the image of Don Quixote blindly charging the windmills. It could be the Charlie Chaplin of The Gold Rush, desperately struggling to defy gravity and escape from his Klondike cabin as it teeters at an impossible angle atop the edge of a cliff. Or it might be the bulging eyes and paralyzed limbs of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, frozen in a double take, stupefied by yet another unforeseen turn of events. Physical comedy has unfortunately always been theatre’s poor relation, as easy to dismiss in the arts as human error is in our everyday 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 dominate, determining such early directorial Its classical heritage and more recent success aside, the discipline as a whole tends to be decisions as casting and set design. One need only ghettoized. Literary-minded directors disparage study such landmark productions as Copeau’s it totally, quickly forgetting that Shakespeare, Tricks of Scapin, Meyerhold’s constructivist an actor himself, wrote for specific clowns Magnanimous Cuckold, or Brooks’ more recent (Kempe, Cowley, Armin); that Plautus was said staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to see to have played the comic roles in Atellan farces; the integration of physical style into all aspects that Moliere received his comic training from of the mise en scene. commedia troupes; that Feydeau wrote reams of stage directions, plotting the physical action of The potential for physical comedy is not always his precision farce machinery down to the most as obvious as it is in your broader farce. Not every play is The Taming of the Shrew. In some minute detail. plays, even in the most portentous drama, physical comedy elements may appear as a

Charlie Chaplin & Mack Swain in The Gold Rush

motif or perhaps just a telling moment. Often it is a matter of a small 20-second bit here, another moment two scenes later, perhaps a running gag or two — what is sometimes classified under the heading of “stage business.” But there is an art — or at least a craft — to that business. Few actors and even fewer directors have a particularly large physical comedy vocabulary, much less a feel for the style, and therefore little sense for the potential of the material. Unfortunately, as Michel St. Denis points out, 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 clearcut 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, and acting, physical comedy can be even 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 he would film someone slipping on a banana peel. it’s how you do it. Would the first shot show the character walking, 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 joke. Only amateurs believe in “sure-fire gags.” the banana peel, then the character’s approach, Professionals know enough not to isolate the and then (in long shot) the pratfall itself? The gag from character, situation, and structure. The old comedian mulls it over, takes another puff on great gags have a story to tell, and they must tell his stogie, then replies that the first shot should show the character’s approach, the second shot it well.

Tony Curtis surveys the results of pie-throwing mayhem in The Great Chase

the banana peel, and the third shot the character stepping over the banana peel, only to disappear down an open manhole. In comedy, an even older saying goes, the magic number is three and surprise is everything. A generalization, certainly, but a useful one. Watch Bill Irwin’s minimalist version of this in The Regard of Flight. Mr. Irwin is being chased back 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 performance piece, it allows a lapse of time between parts two and three. In the interim, the main action of the piece continues. Just when the audience has begun to forget about the gag, the payoff comes, often with doubled effect. The legendary Swiss clown, Grock, was famous for a heartwarming delayed gag involving his violin bow. After finishing a short flourish on the violin, he tacks on a slight embellishment, flipping the bow up into the air and attempting

George Reeves as Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound.

stumbles over an invisible obstacle on the floor. Second time through, same thing. The third time around — now older and wiser — he leaps over his imaginary obstacle. Triumphant, he smirks unashamedly at the audience. Two steps later, he trips on another unseen obstacle and falls flat on his face.

and four or more times too much. The first time of course sets up the situation, but for all the audience knows, this may be an isolated incident. So he tripped... is that supposed to be funny? When more or less the same thing happens the second time around, we detect a pattern. A situation now exists that must be dealt with. A rhythm is established and an expectation created. The number three is not so much magic as it is Will our hero learn his lesson? Surely he isn’t common sense. Two times would be too little going to trip over that same spot forever?

to catch it back in his hand — unsuccessfully. Embarrassed, he hides himself behind a screen and practices his bow juggling. We see the bow soar repeatedly above the top of the screen. It is clear he has mastered the technique. But back in front of the audience, he again fails. He holds a second rehearsal behind the screen, but when he returns he is beset by new mishaps and soon forgets about the bow. It is several minutes and one violin later (the first one having been pulverized beneath a Grock pratfall) and he is finally finishing off his tune on the violin. Now comes the payoff. Without thinking about it, he casually tosses the bow up into the air and catches it. Realizing what has happened, he is eager to duplicate his success. He starts to toss the bow up again, but before he can release it he assesses the probable risk, thinks better of it, and decides to leave well enough alone.

(immediately molested by Harpo), the ship’s engineer, a manicurist, the engineer’s assistant, a lost passenger, a maid mopping up, and three more stewards with large food trays.

choreography is every bit as involved as any other style of stage movement, perhaps more so. It takes the same sense of space, dynamics, and rhythm, the same flair for imagery and timing, all of which must then be interwoven into the The question is: How far can they go? How far fabric of the play itself. As in dance, it begins can they push the gag — and the walls of the with a command of the vocabulary, an ability to room? Finally, just as Margaret Dumont arrives see patterns, and the artistic sensitivity to yield for a secret rendezvous with Groucho, the door meaning from those patterns. bursts open like a collapsing dam, and out pour the guests like so many fish. Spaced out over time, gags of repetition are usually referred to as “running gags.” A single piece of comic business — such as the sardines in Noises Off — can recur throughout a performance. The predictability of the repetition may provoke laughs in and of itself. Four or five times may not be funny, but fifteen could be hysterical.

The School of Hard Knocks

As a narrative device, running gags can have 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 creates a splendid clown moment. The delay has comedy, gags are built on top of gags, all the heightened the comedic impact, at the same time while contributing to character and plot motifs. enriching Grock’s characterization. For example, two soldiers in a guerilla army are repeatedly wandering off to play cards when they While a four- or five-part gag might prove to should be fighting. A mildly amusing running be needlessly attenuated, some gags positively gag, it pays off in the movie’s climactic scene 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. provides a classic example. Consigned to a closet- What the audience has been trained to see as a sized room aboard ship, Groucho is besieged by joke suddenly takes on unexpected significance. visitors. One by one they crowd into the room like sardines without the oil: three stowaway The best gag is but a building block in the creation cohorts, the steward, two chambermaids of physical comedy style. Physical comedy

Performers — not writers, directors, or theoreticians — can take credit for the recent revival of physical comedy. Theatre clowns and new-wave vaudevillians have created their own shows outside the mainstream theatre. It is they who have rediscovered, expanded, and popularized a lost vocabulary. Physical comedy is hard work, but for many performers it’s also fun and creative. This revival is, if nothing else, a welcome antidote to what I like to refer to as the “white bread syndrome” in physical comedy. Just as modern man has come to accept chemicalized foods, polluted air, talentless superstars, and plasticized politicians, so too have we accepted denatured physical comedy. Physicality thrives on television and in the movies, but few and far between are the true physical moments, where we see the stunt in its entirety, in a single take. No cutting, no tricky camera angles, no stunt doubles. Watch ten minutes of a television action show (or ten

minutes of The Gods Must Be Crazy, for that 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 has thankfully bred its own gymnast spends years perfecting an incredible counter-culture, performers who think the floor exercise for competition. The physical difference between real physical comedy and the comedian spends years inventing pratfalls, processed variety is, well, not unlike that between devising the best way to dive through a window... Wonderbread and homemade, oven-fresh whole roll over, around or with a chair... fall down the wheat. They act with their whole body, offering a stairs... Throw a pie or take a slap... the million more visceral and vibrant performance precisely and one uses of a trap door, a trunk, a revolving because the audience knows they really are doing door... The finer points of hat juggling, cane 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. explained Buster Keaton. “All comedians want their feet in.” The physical comedian’s domain is that of the real. Not every technique need be excruciatingly Keaton himself began his training at the age of difficult to prove theatrically effective, as three, literally being thrown about in his parents’ Pilobolus has amply demonstrated. Acrobatic vaudeville knockabout act, a school of hard tricks that merely say “Look at me! Wasn’t that knocks if there ever was one. Chaplin sang for a great trick?!” clearly belong in the gymnasium his supper as a child, coming of age in British and not on stage. Physical comedians use their 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 transmitted from father to son (less frequently the training will revolve around partner work, to daughters), and kept alive right up to the as they learn how to use their weight, strength vaudeville and silent film eras by circus families, and flexibility to lift, mount, flip, or balance and commedia troupes, and English pantomime tumble with one another. companies. In my own work I have found that this brand of The technical training itself can vary vastly. technique work usually offers fertile ground for Keaton was a superb tumbler, Grock a fresh comedic ideas. The partnerings seem to lead contortionist, acrobat, and masterful musician. naturally to the creation of short scenarios with Bill Irwin is a magnificent eccentric dancer, their own characters and motivations. Likewise, Avner the Eccentric a talented juggler and free play with props, furniture and other scenic magician. What these performers all have in elements leads to imaginary situations that common is their ability to transform these skills. become more real with every practice session.

Technique and material become entwined.

Physical Comedy as Applied Math

The quantum leap from the pure geometry of gymnastics and other technical disciplines to the applied mathematics of physical comedy can most readily be understood by examining a few of the permutations growing out of your basic forward roll. Even this simplest of all gymnastic moves can be “souped up” to create some interesting theatrical effects. The forward roll is elementary. The novice tumbler learns it on day one and repeats it ad infinitum, ad nauseam: how to tuck into a tight ball, how to push off evenly with the feet and ease the weight down with the arms, how to avoid the head and roll symmetrically and smoothly down the spine, how to keep the momentum going forward so that you can stand without using the hands. The next progression in terms of spectacle is to the “dive roll.” The tumbler reaches out further and further until one day he/she is actually diving, that is, the feet leave the ground before the hands hit. Many will fondly remember this from high school gym class, where daredevil tumblers would see how many crouched, terrified classmates they could “tiger leap” over and live to tell about. In the circus, this has traditionally taken the form of the “leaps,” a whole troupe of acrobats springboarding over a row of elephants and horses, often ornamenting the feat with a mid-air somersault.

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.


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 research, countless new examples of it have surfaced since I began writing this article two months ago. In addition to my own contributions to human error, too numerous to mention here, we have witnessed a tragic “how could this have happened?” head-on collision between Amtrak and Conrail trains in Maryland. Earlier this week, Roger Boisjoly, our “engineer Laurel” who had 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 after he testified against them. This morning’s newspaper headline tells of West Germany’s difficulty in disposing of 3,000 tons of radioactive powdered milk contaminated by the fall-out from Chernobyl, milk that Bavarian authorities 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.”

The comment was repeated at a news conference several weeks later and spread like wildfire through the press and then into the public’s consciousness, distilled down to “whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” As for Ed Murphy, he received neither fame nor fortune for his contribution to society. Like a clown, anonymous behind bulbous nose and greasepaint, he told what he saw and went his merry way.

©Copyright 1987 by John Towsen Special thanks to: Susan Avino, Bernie Collins, Hovey Burgess, Arnie Glass, Herb Houser, Dan Kamin, Martie LaBare, Doug Poswencyk, and Sande Zeig

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