The economy of words
Even before they did or said anything, just the physical manifestation of seeing one large and one thin person together [in Laurel and Hardy] was in itself funny. It’s like Tom and Jerry, where you have a cat and mouse who are sworn enemies, but when you see them together as friends, it’s funny. So, the broad sense of humour came from that physical disparity.
I used to watch a lot of Laurel and Hardy as a kid, but then they kind of disappeared from the pop culture consciousness, at least in India. I started rediscovering them when I was studying mass media and film studies, and that’s when I also learnt more about icons like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When I re-watched the shows, I realised that there was always a one-liner that followed their physical comedy. For example, if one of them slipped on a banana peel, there would be a punch line to draw the curtains on that gag. Writing comedy is about the economy of words, and they taught me about that.
They also taught me how two people can riff off each other, and I have incorporated that learning into my routine where I play the roles of both, my dad and myself. I took tips on how to modulate the two voices, among other things.
I would like to recommend a film that was launched in 2018, called Stan and Ollie. It’s directed by Jon Baird and talks about the last tour they did in the UK. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in comedy.
One thing I love about Stan Laurel is that he was the writer among the duo, Laurel and Hardy. And as the writer, he understood what Hardy’s strong points were. He understood that Hardy was the stronger actor and while Laurel had deadpan British humour, he left the loud movements to his partner, who was American.
What I also love about them is that they take so much time to deliver just their expressions, which are mostly in mime. As a performer, I always speak to fill the silent gaps on stage. So, to write a sketch without using words is fabulous to me because I have never experienced anything like that. The sketches were also positive in nature. Comedy changes across generations, and right now, it’s all about edginess. Even though Laurel and Hardy’s sketches are physically violent in terms of chairs toppling over and all that, they are never mean. As modern comedians, we don’t realise the damage that we sometimes do with our words. Laurel, on the other hand, glorified even something like failure, showing us that it’s not something to fear.
I watched the videos of Clean Sweep and Busybody, and these came at a time of the Great Depression in the US. With the Coronavirus, we are heading in the same direction. So, maybe it’s time that we brought the same sort of happiness to the stage that Laurel did. It’s time that we brought positive comedy back again.
Authenticity is key
I think the beauty of Stan Laurel’s work was his self-deprecating humour. The other beauty of his comedy is that it is without words, which helps it transcend everything — any age group, background and any country, which also highlights the universality of humour. He portrayed the human condition through comedy.
What is also important for a comedian is to be authentic — you have got to do what feels right to you, and is in line with your take on the system and what you think is funny. Initially, you want the confidence to make people laugh, so you will go for the easy jokes. Later, you’ll want to be edgy, so you use bad language and include political stuff. There is a quote I often use, “Stand-up comedy is an outward expression of an inward journey.” That applies to most art forms, and we need to work and perform to express, not impress. Successful people don’t change themselves because of their audience, and that is also something we can learn from Laurel.
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