A Supercut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amazing Stunts–and Keaton’s 5 Rules of Comic Storytelling

Joseph Frank Keaton was born into showbiz. His father was a comedian. His mother, a soubrette. He emerged into the world during a one night engagement in Kansas City. His father’s business partner, escape artist Harry Houdini, inadvertently renamed him Buster, approving of the way the rubbery little Keaton weathered an accidental tumble down a flight of stairs.

As Keaton recalls in the interview accompanying silent movie fan Don McHoull’s edit of some of his most amazing stunts, above:

My old man was an eccentric comic and as soon as I could take care of myself at all on my feet, he had slapped shoes on me and big baggy pants. And he'd just start doing gags with me and especially kickin' me clean across the stage or taking me by the back of the neck and throwing me. By the time I got up to around seven or eight years old, we were called The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage. 

By the time of his first film role in the 1917 Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle vehicle, The Butcher Boy, Keaton was a seasoned clown, with plenty of experience stringing physical gags into an entertaining narrative whole.




Like his silent peers, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, Keaton was an idea man, who saw no need for a script. Armed with a firm concept of how the film should begin and end, he rolled cameras without much idea of how the middle would turn out, fine tuning his physical set pieces on the fly, scrapping the ones that didn’t work and embracing the happy accidents.

Could such an approach work for today’s comedians? In later interviews, Keaton was generous toward other comedy professionals who got their laughs via methods he steered clear of, from Bob Hope’s wordiness to director Billy Wilder’s deft handling of Some Like It Hot’s farcical cross-dressing. His was never a one-size-fits-all philosophy.

Perhaps it's more helpful to think of his approach as an antidote to creative block and timidity. We’ve cobbled together some of his advice, below, in the hope that it might prove useful to storytellers of all stripes.

Buster Keaton’s 5 Rules of Comic Storytelling

Make a strong start - grab the audience with a dynamic, easy to grasp premise, like the one in 1920’s One Week, which finds a newlywed Buster struggling to assemble a house from a do-it-yourself kit.

Decide how you want things to finish up - for Keaton, this usually involved getting the girl, though he learned to keep a poker face after a preview audience booed the broad grin he tried out in one of Arbuckle’s shorts. Once you know where your story’s going, trust that the middle will take care of itself.

If it’s not working, cut it - Keaton may not have had a script, but he invested a lot of thought into the physical set pieces of his films. If it didn’t work as well as he hoped in execution, he cut it loose. If some serendipitous snafu turned out to be funnier than the intended gag, he put that in instead.

Play it like it matters to you. As many a beginning improv student finds out, if you let your own material crack you up, the audience is rarely inclined to laugh along. Why settle for low stakes and diffidence, when high stakes and commitment are so much funnier?

Action over words Whether dealing with dialogue or exposition, Keaton strove to minimize the intertitles in his silent work. Show, don’t tell.

Films excerpted at top:

Three Ages
Cops
Day Dreams
Sherlock Jr.
One Week
Hard Luck
Neighbors
The General
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Seven Chances
Our Hospitality
The Bell

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Improbable Time When Orson Welles Interviewed Andy Kaufman (1982)

"Sitcoms are the lowest form of entertainment," declares Andy Kaufman as portrayed by Jim Carrey in Milos Forman's biopic Man on the Moon. "I mean, it's just stupid jokes and canned laughter." The scene comes in the period of Kaufman's life in the late 1970s when, growing ever more well-known on the back of acts like his "Foreign Man" character, he receives an offer to take part in ABC's Taxi. The real-life Kaufman, eventually convinced to join the show's cast, developed the Foreign Man into the unplaceable mechanic Latka Gavras. Quite possibly Taxi's most memorable character, Latka also won the appreciation of no less demanding a cultural figure than Orson Welles.

Guest-hosting the Merv Griffin Show in June of 1982, Welles describes Taxi as a show that has "kept television from being a criminal felony" just before bringing Kaufman on for a brief (and uncharacteristically straightforward) chat. He heaps praise on Kaufman's performance as Latka, adding, "I want to know why it is that you go and wrestle with people when you can act so well." Kaufman had shown up wearing a neck brace, an accessory signifying the end of his stint as a professional wrestler, one of the many inexplicable but somehow compelling choices in a short career that blurred the lines between comedy, performance art, and life itself.




"Nobody ever came from nowhere more completely," Welles says, drawing a big studio-audience laugh with this description of not just Latka but Kaufman as well. Asked how he came up with such a distinctive character voice, Kaufman says only that he "grew up in New York, and you hear a lot of different voices in New York" ("You don't hear that one," replies Welles). He also cites the accents of a high-school friend from South America and a college roommate from Iran. Less than four years later, both Kaufman and Welles would be gone (and actor Ron Glass, looking on from the other side of the couch, joined them this past November).

Or at least both men would be gone if you don't credit the rumors about Kaufman having elaborately faked his death. "I don't know whether it's the innocence of the fellow or the feeling you have that he is not stupider than everybody, but maybe smarter, that adds to the fascination," Welles says. Again he speaks ostensibly of Kaufman's Foreign Man/Latka persona, but his words apply equally to the man who not just played but periodically — and sometimes unpredictably — became him. 33 years after Kaufman's death, or in any case disappearance from life, that fascination remains as strong as ever.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Innocent Christmas Typo Causes Sir Patrick Stewart to Star as Satan In This Animated Holiday Short

In certain sectors, over-the-top ad agency greetings are as much a part of the holiday season as A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.

Anomaly London put in their thumb and pulled out a plum when Sir Patrick Stewart agreed to voice their latest effort, above.

And what better way to top his celebrated turn as Ebeneezer Scrooge than by tackling the most Christmas-y role of them all?




Santa, is that you?

No, dear child, ’tis Satan, summoned by an innocent mis-spelling on the part of a young girl eager for a Christmas puppy.

When the post office delivers her similarly misaddressed envelope to hell by December 25, the buff and tattooed Lord of Darkness’ heart grows three sizes. Everyone likes to be told they’re special.

Next thing you know, he’s traded the fiery furnace for a gluten-free bakery in Shoreditch, where he’s a happy team player, making latte art and wearing a goofy cap.

The ending is a sweet mix of “I hate you, you ruined Christmas, go to hell!” and “God bless us everyone.” Santa doesn’t survive, but the childlike capacity for wonder does.

Those with sensitive stomachs may want to go easy on the eggnog while watching this soon-to-be-holiday classic. The projectile vomiting rivals the Exorcist’s.

And happy holidays from all of us at Open Culture!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Dr. Demento’s New Punk Album Features William Shatner Singing The Cramps, Weird Al Yankovic Singing The Ramones & Much More

Calling all fans of the Dr. Demento Show. The new album, Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, features "demented" covers of classic punk tunes and "30 covers of songs originally aired on the Dr. Demento radio show." Think "Fish Heads."

On the nostalgia-inducing album, you can notably enjoy two fixtures of American oddball culture, William Shatner and Weird Al Yankovic, singing "The Garbageman" by The Cramps (above) and The Ramones' "Beat on the Brat" (below). The Misfits, Joan Jett, Fred Schneider of the B52s, the Vandals, The Dead Milkmen, The Meatmen--they all make an appearance on the album too. It's due out today.

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The Proof That Mel Blanc–the Voice Behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck & Porky Pig–Was a Genius

Bugs Bunny is a talented mimic.

His effortless impersonations of the celebrities of his day are not always politic (see Al Jolson) but  there’s no denying that his impressions of Liberace, Edgar G. Robinson, Bing Crosby, and Hollywood Bowl conductor Leopold Stokowski introduced these personages to subsequent generations.

Clearly he was not working alone. In the 1981 interview with David Letterman below, Mel Blanc, who voiced Bugs, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn and many other animated favorites demonstrated his versatility.




Blanc shaped the characters from the get go, inventing voices for character sketches and storyboards, though it was clear to him that tough nut Bugs should have an equally tough  accent - either Brooklyn or the Bronx. (Rather than split hairs, he invented a hybrid.)

Hank Azaria, who is as central to The Simpsons’ mythology as Blanc is to Warner Brothers, marvels (up top) at Blanc’s ability to mimic one character imitating another, as Bugs and Daffy Duck do above.

Regionalism steered many of Blanc’s most memorable creations, from Foghorn Leghon’s Texas drawl to French loverboy, Pepe Le Pew.

Nice Maurice Chevalier, Bugs...

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Seinfeld, the Sitcom Famously “About Nothing,” Is Like Gustave Flaubert’s Novels About Nothing

"A show about nothing": people have described Seinfeld that way for decades, but creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David didn't set out to create anything of the kind. In fact, with Seinfeld himself already established as a stand-up comedian, they originally pitched to NBC a show about how a comic finds material in his day-to-day life. But in its 43rd episode, when the series had become a major cultural phenomenon, Seinfeld's character and Jason Alexander's George Costanza (whom David based on himself) pitch a show to television executives where "nothing happens," and fans seized upon the truth about Seinfeld they saw reflected in that joke.

In the video essay above, Evan Puschak, known as the Nerdwriter, figures out why. It's a cultural and intellectual journey that takes him back to the 19th-century novels of Gustave Flaubert. "Flaubert was a pioneer of literary realism, in large part responsible for raising the status of the novel to that of a high art," says Puschak.




In 1852, Flaubert wrote a letter describing his ambition to write "a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style." Instead of wanting to "string you along with multiple suspense-heightening narrative developments," in Puschak's view, "he wants to bring you into the text itself, to look there for the carefully constructed meanings that he's built for you."

And so, in their own way, do Seinfeld and David in the sitcom that became and remains so beloved in large part with its numerous departures from the traditions the form had established over the past forty years. "It wasn't until Seinfeld that the conventions of the sitcom were deconstructed fully, when all forms of unity, familial and especially romantic, were wholeheartedly abandoned. For Seinfeld, these additional elements were just so much fluff," distractions from telling a story "held together by the internal strength of its comedy." The critic James Wood, quoted in this video, once wrote that "novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it really all begins with him." By the same token, two epochs exist for the writers of sitcoms: before Seinfeld and after. Not bad for a show about nothing — or not about nothing.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What to Say When You Don’t Understand Contemporary Art? A New Short Film, “Masterpiece,” Has Helpful Suggestions

MasterpieceRunyararo Mapfumo’s short film above, will feel very familiar to anyone who has struggled for words to share with a friend after his or her underwhelming Off-Off-Broadway solo show, open mic performance, or art installation…

Equally familiar, from the reverse angle, to any artist who’s ever invited a trusted friend to view his or her passion project, hoping for approval or at the very least, interest… something more robust than the paltry crumbs the friend manages to eek out under pressure.




A British Film Institute London Film Festival selected short, Masterpiece focuses on a tight group of male friends… one of whom has reached beyond the communal comfort zone in the service of his art. His earnestness confounds his old pals, who clown around outside the gallery where they've gathered for an after hours preview of his work, one staunchly asserting that he only showed up because his mum made him, and also, he was told there’d be free food.

Once inside the friends are left alone to puzzle out his masterpiece. What to say? Maybe they should draw parallels to the current socio-political situation? Perhaps they could tell their friend his work  is reminiscent of German Expressionism?

Yoko Ono or Marcel Duchamp would have made a more apt comparison, as writer-director Mapfumo is surely aware. Masterpiece is notable for more than just its pitch-perfect take on artist vs. befuddled but still supportive friends. As Mapfumo told Directors Notes:

I’ve been told time and time again to “write what you want to see.” I started thinking about what that meant to me in a everyday context. These characters are black men that I recognize…I didn’t want the conflict to revolve around their identity but rather through their observations. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her most recent artistic endeavor is Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division's production of Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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