The principal impracticality, of course, is that superheroes have to have a right-place/right-time habit akin to John McClane's wrong-place/wrong-time one to be even remotely effective. Only a few are prescient, and those, it seems, serve more to complicate storylines than to avert badness. Comicbook writers have been combatting this impracticality for years. Spider-Man has his "Spidey sense," various characters work as reporters, or computer gurus, etc., and I suppose Batman is just so smart that -- when the bat-signal isn't involved -- he can still calculate the likelihood of crime in a given radius. But it's all a little convenient. What's my point? Let me take it right off the bat with Bats, my favorite. He can't. Act. In. Enough. Time. Especially when the bat-signal is involved. I imagine it as if I were Bruce Wayne. (It's my 'blog--I can do what I want.) I see the signal, miraculously distinct against atmospheric water vapor, and I leap into costume, out the window, grapple-swing into my car (you know, the Batmobile?), drive to police headquarters, grapple-swing/shimmy up to the roof and . . . Two-Face is there, holding Gordon hostage, having already killed half an orphanage in the crime Jim had just gotten a warning about when he turned on the bat-lamp. Hell: Even a cell-phone call can't overcome the time it takes to get through midtown, no matter how late at night.
Another big one is the costumes. Even the most practical of superheroes have an iconic flambuoyancy that -- in reality -- would serve to somehow impede them to the point of their immediate death. Capes are nicely covered by a sequence in The Incredibles, but you can also look at some of the fight scenes involving caped characters in movies. Talk about your liabilities. Even a Musketeer knows the first thing you do is whip that bad boy off and use it one your opponent. Capes are pure drama or, if you prefer, opera. "Okay," the FBs say, "Okay, but what about someone more pragmatic. Like Punisher." FBs, listen to me very carefully on this. He is a gun-toting vigilante who goes up against other gun-toters, mostly at night, and somehow thought it would be a good idea to imprint an enormous white skull over his vital organs. The only guy asking for it worse is Bullseye. There are myriad impracticalities involved in superhero costumes, from color to shape to size to generally advertizing complete vulnerability with either explicit contours of anatomy or, failing that, partial nudity. Suffice it to say: Impractical.
The final impracticality I will submit -- though there are many, many more -- is that, sadly, superheoes are real, real dumb. Or ignorant; take your pick. Now I don't want to generalize here . . . well yeah, I kind of do, but it's justifiable I think. Superheroes never seem to get anywhere. This comes of being born from a serial story-telling genre, obviously, once such a thing got mixed with good, old-fashioned American values. I mean, Dumas wrote serial adventure stories, and they still had an end. On top of the superhero struggle being self-perpetuated, it's also completely devoid of social insight -- meaning both insight into society and into social behavior. Every superhero is essentially anti-social. Even the squeaky-clean ones. Captain America is/was as "out" a superhero as one gets, his methods nurturing compared to some, yet he still operated by a creed devoid of any kind of social understanding. I don't know if this comes out of the stories having originally been written largely for teenage boys or what (see, I lack social insight, too), but I do know that power fantasies do not help the real world too durn much. Especially when it comes to social problems such as crime and tyranny.
This is why, as I come full-circle in my fandom, I prefer the 1989 Batman film to the 1995 Batman Begins. Burton's film makes no approach toward reality, yet takes the character very seriously. It is stylized, it is operatic, it is ultimately a more successful vision of the world a character like Batman occupies. I love Batman Begins for taking the character seriously again, re-upping it from the quasi-disdainful visions of Joel Schumacher, but in trying so hard to make Batman a believable, naturalistic character, Nolan has put him into a world in which he will never really belong. Chris, the cape can just be dramatic-looking camoflage; the ears can just be odd and frightening; Gotham can just be crime-ridden rather than economically depressed. There are plenty of movies that portray true societal problems, and a few that even suggest realistic, complex solutions. Superheroes were never meant to be sophisticated. They're meant to be audacious.
So. Why stand up for our men and women in tights? Well, they got to me young, they did. When I was a pre-teen (even maybe a "tween"), and in hungry need of some kind of guidance for how to weather the storms of growing up, something about Batman made sense to me. Hell: Superman got to me way before then. In some ways I've been indoctrinated, I suppose. Similar to the myths of older cultures, superheroes gave me a common language with my peers (the geeky ones, anyway) and even my parents to some extent, and they lit up the questions I always had about how to please people and deal with adversity in nice, bold, primary colors. And now? Well, now there's definitely a lot of escapism to my pursuit of more heroic adventures. Reading a comicbook is still the best way I can relax and go to sleep at night. But I would be lying, too, if I said I didn't occasionally wonder "What would Batman do?" when I'm faced with a difficult quandry. And sometimes, just sometimes, that wondering leads me through to previously unimagined possibilities.
In all this world, the most buoying thing, the greatest force, the excellent material of my skein of days is your presence in my life, which allows me the opportunity to occasionally offer you a fraction of the joy your existence brings to me, my friend.
My candy heart is big with love for you all.
- The straight man. In many instances, this is the default for prop comedy. After all, as much as you may get upset, the hairbrush will remain vigilantly a hairbrush. The funny thing is that, like a good straight man, a prop says more to the audience the less it does. It's key that the performer adhere to one of the most basic rules of good scenework: to make the scene partner look good. It's just that in this case, the scene partner is a supposedly inanimate object.
- The first love. There's a lot of mileage to be gotten out of approaching a prop as though it were something you've never, ever seen before. The stages of exploration tend to mirror a person's first notice of the opposite (or rather, the sexually attractive) sex. A whole range of emotions become involved here. While it may not be explicitly "falling in love," neither are a lot of love stories. Hate the thing, but hate it with curiosity, or inescapability. A common gag from this scenario is to use an object whose use is obvious to the audience, and determine another use for it altogether.
- The His-Girl-Friday. One object becomes useful in a variety of ways, conventional and unconventional. The trick here is to maintain a relationship with the prop. It's not enough to use a turkey baster to funnel oil, beat a gong and baste a turkey; this has to inspire gratitude or amazement or something changing in the performer. Otherwise, it quickly degenerates into Gallagherism. This relationship has the benefit of incoporating higher and higher stakes, as it is founded on need or necessity.
- The family member. Sometimes an object is so much a part of you that it pains you to be apart from it, much less see it suffer in any way. You may get frustrated with it, call it no good, etc., but the moment anyone else does you're there to say, "Hey! You can't talk to her like that!" This is a very familiar prop, usually worn on the person in some way. You know it like no one else does. Establish this relationship firmly enough, and you have one of the greatest toppers of your prop-comedy career: giving your prop away.
- The nemesis. For those more inclined toward positive relationships, this can also manifest as a sort of the worthy adversary, or even the buddy-cop, so long as there's plenty of head-butting. The relationship here is one of enmity, of occasional hatred and much strategy. The prop is against you at every turn, it's doing it on purpose, yet it is somehow allowed to continue to exist. Often times, this interplay requires a lot of technical trickery on the performer's part, engineering ways to be "attacked" by the object. However, it can be very simple, too. Refusing to move can be a confounding adversarial technique.
- The boss. It may at first be difficult to imagine an inanimate object as having higher status than a performer, but in all of these relationships status should be shifting as events unfold. A prop can be "the boss" if it's extremely valuable or a symbol of authority, like a crown, or simply if the performer recognizes that this prop has wants that must be fulfilled. In this relationship, the prop has the ability to punish or praise the performer, these actions being a matter of interpretation on the performer's part.
- The servant. Not quite as rich a terrain here, as objects are generally considered to be servants to us all anyway. There are, however, interesting facets of relationship to be explored when one considers the "clever servant" archetype, or the ways in which one tries to master people, as opposed to props.
And, of course, relationships change over time. These are not categories to singly adhere to, but forms to specify something more organic and unpredictable.
It may seem silly to some to create these sorts of relationships with objects. It occasionally seems that way to me, too, until I observe that these relationships already exist off-stage. Have you never seen a coworker assault his or her unruly stapler, or an older gentleman who caresses his cane as he sits? Theatre, in the all-encompassing sense, comes down to people coming together to have a good natter, and other people coming to watch it happen. Good prop comedy is not an exagerration of our relationships with objects, but an exploration of our relationship to our environment. Good prop comedy is funny, true, and by different turns often frightening or melancholy. It should be fascinating.
And we shouldn't have to explode a watermellon to do it.
Friend Grey has a great story about a teacher she had at Dell'Arte. The students there had to present an original, solo clown piece at least every week, and this teacher had a habit of viewing these pieces with a bucket of tennis balls by his side. If, in his opinion, the scene was not playing up to snuff, he would begin to peg these tennis balls at the performer, all the while shouting, "NOT...FUNNY...!" This became something of an inside joke as we worked on various Zuppa del Giorno shows. That, and our favorite, gentle way of telling someone their idea sucked: "Hm. That might be a great idea for next year's show...."
Friend Adam (if I haven't completely alienated him with my response [and if my atrocious XBox playing hasn't alienated him, how could a caustic response to his opinions?]) posted a comment on my last entry regarding clowning (see 1/28/08) that suggested that clowns are not funny, and that the reason for this is that they overwhelm, and turn a cathartic fear response into more of a Godzilla!-Run-for-your-meager-lives! response. I guess my entry didn't clear up any of Adam's feelings in this matter. Or, at least, I failed to extricate the word "clown" from the American stigma for it. To me, you see, "clown" is not a fair word to use to describe the circus or birthday clown. Hell: I don't even like "circus clown," because the word "circus" means a whole lot of different things, too, once you step outside the three rings of Barnum & Bailey.
So before I continue, let me break some things down. I see the stereotypical western clown as a kind of collage of comic traditions. (Note: THIS IS NOT A SCHOLARLY TEXT. For heaven's sakes, don't cite me as any kind of authority. It's been a decade since I took any kind of history class, and I didn't start taking an interest in clowning until about five years ago.) As I stated so elegantly, and ineffectively, on the 28th, the "birthday clown" has become a kind of grotesque take on some time-worn and valid comic traditions:
- The clothing. We know the score (scare?). Baggy pants. Enormous shoes. Funny hat. Usually layered clothing (vests, jackets, skirts, etc.), and usually brightly colored. Obnoxious, some would say, but put the same shapes--perhaps slightly muted--into tweeds and patches, and you're looking at "charming." At least, that's how most people described the likes of Keaton, Chaplin and Arbuckle. You've also got a low-status character, someone who's poor, who carries all he or she owns around with him or her. Take it back to 16th century Italy, and you're looking at one of the most beloved characters in comedy: Arlecchino (see shamelessly uncredited photo above). He was famous for being one of the funniest clever-servant characters, easily identified by his costume made almost completely of patches. That costume, once the character caught on in England, became represented by a body suit decorated in numerous diamond-shaped, multi-colored patches.
- The props. For our sworn enemy, the arsenal is awfully typical: horn, bludgeon, balloons, magic paraphenalia, etc. Prop comedy, too, has been much maligned of late, mostly owing to its not translating into a stand-up-comedy milieu very well. (Damn you, Gallagher! Damn you straight to hell!) I could write a whole entry on prop comedy alone -- and wouldn't my readership just spike over that? -- but for now suffice it to say that props, too, have suffered from senseless exaggeration. The term "slapstick" actually refers to a special bludgeon used in commedia (and probably dating back to the Romans) made of two flatish sticks banded together that, when properly struck, made an amped-up whacking noise. Such a device required a sense of musical timing for proper use, and had a transformative effect. Comedy's great for transformations, and not just of a balloon into a poodle.
- The violence. In our birthday clown, this is harmless stuff, mostly. Cream pies and inflated clubs. In this case, I witness mistake in toning down the consequences. It may seem odd to say, but birthday clowns glorify violence more than more traditional clowns do, in that the violence more often than not has virtually no effect. Therefore, they are free to gleefully enact it, and with complete disregard to the effects. It's not a great leap to imagine such a clown, then, accidentally committing horrible violence on one of us and doing it smilingly. Whereas, in most other forms, violence is regarded -- if also occasionally valued -- as something consequential. Cut Shylock, and not only will he bleed, he'll probably try to harvest your organs in revenge.
- The not-speaking. Boy, this one bugs people. It seems to make them feel -- now-a-days, anyway -- that the performer is an even more alien, pretentious thing. I can relate to this feeling, especially when the silence is being peddled to me by some well-intentioned, poorly (or not-at-all) trained moron. It's fun to mock a mime. They can't argue back. (I myself am guilty of making a mime joke part of a recent show, Prohibitive Standards, but it was a sure-fire punchline and under such circumstances I have no scruples.) But I have a theory about obnoxious silence. Silent performance irritates us when the performer is still shouting throughout, "Look at me! Look at me!" It's a fine distinction, but someone performing in silence with a more inviting subtext, regardless of how much they may want you to look at them, is really complimentary to an audience. It's fascinating, and feels special. You're included in the silence, and it's nice there.
- The mask. What mask? Oh, there's a mask, dudes. Isn't that the most terrifying aspect of a birthday clown? The grotesquely exaggerated features, done in colorful contours on a death-white face? I admit: I get shivers at the thought. People these days don'ta like-a the mask. What are they hiding? Who are they, really? WHY CAN'T THEY JUST LOOK NORMAL? Well, as Friend Patrick will attest, the traditions of masks are too numerous, wide-spread and intricate to address . . . in any one place, really. As to the horrid birthday-clown make-up, it is derived a great deal from commedia dell'arte, as well as other places. Time was, when anyone was going to tell a story with power, they'd use some kind of disguise. Masks were common-place in parties and festivals and ceremonies. Theatre just used that, and it has changed throughout the years. The birthday clown adopted Pierrot's white face, Dottore or a zanni's bulbous nose (originally red from drink) and merged it with the color scheme of an American circus of the 1800s. The effect is admittedly garish and disturbing. The mask, be it a commedia one, face paint or just a strap-on red nose, used to serve to free the performer to go to greater lengths to entertain his or her audience. The red nose is often referred to as "the mask that reveals," serving as it does to let it all hang out and expose a person in the most entertaining fashion. Birthday clowns, once again, seem to use it simply to advertise.
- The murders. In traditional clowning, the . . .. Wait. WHAT?! Murders? What kind of performance philosophy is this? I write "The murders" because, in researching this topic, I got sucked into a little reading about John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and that man was a scary S.O.B. He was, in addition to being a serial killer, a birthday clown: Pogo the Clown. This is not the fault of clowndom in general of course, any more than George W. Bush is the fault of Texans, or diseased howler monkeys. Still and all, the concept of a criminal clown predates Gacy. This summer, The Dark Knight will relaunch the iconic figure of the Joker, Batman's nemesis, and I suspect that this time his aberrant behavior will not be quite as disarming as Nicholson portrayed it. Terrifying, most likely it will be, even without the unthinkable recent demise of Mr. Ledger. I wish I could say that the figure of a murderous clown doesn't go back very far, but I'm afraid it does. The Punch & Judy puppetry of England has its roots in Italian commedia dell'arte, and the stories of P&J consist mainly of Punch offing a variety of other puppets. This is clearly a subject under its own heading. What more can I say than: Not all clowns are killers, just as not all killers are clowns.
The past week has for me been very clowny. I continue to read my Buster book. I've had two auditions (auditions themselves being very similar to the torment a clown experiences moment-to-moment [at least, my clown does]), and one of them required an original movement piece. To top it all off, I had a conference with the Exploding Yurts -- my little creative-encouragement group with a strange name -- regarding the draft of a screenplay for a clown film I'm writing. (Because struggling to become a renowned theatre actor just isn't frustrating enough.) I don't know why I'm turning to the clown in me so much these days. I suppose it could have something to do with working on that whole "what kind of work is MY kind of work" question I began asking some months back.
And it seems I'm getting an answer. Or three.