Is this the End? Physical Comedy, Style, and the Body


In a review of This is the End (2013), written and directed (in part) by the often-schlemiel-playing-comedian Seth Rogen, Richard Brody of The New Yorker makes a compelling argument as to the place of physical comedy in this film.  Before addressing the film, he looks into the history and fate of physical comedy, today.

Brody begins by making reference to an article by Max Winter entitled Slapstick Last: Why a Modern Day Harold Lloyd is Unthinkable.  The first words of Winter’s article say it all: “there are no great physical comedians any more.”  However, he makes a distinction: he points out that while physical comedy may be lacking, “physical presence” on stage (with comedians like Louis CK) is not.  Now, today, more people put out something of a “verbal” or cerebral comedy.

The subject of the article, the master of physical comedy, is Harold Lloyd.  He is deemed that king of silent-film slapstick.  His work, unlike the comedians today, says Winter, appeals directly to our bodies and skips over this or that cultural code or popular reference.  Out laughter at his work, says Winter, is “more pure” (that is, bodily) that our laughter today:

The kind of laughing you do during this film, and in fact the laughing you do during most comic films of the silent era, is more pure and often more whole-hearted than the kind of laughing you might do during contemporary comedies. This is because there’s nothing between you and the laugh. Lloyd does a physical stunt, a prank, or a funny face, and you laugh at it: it’s that simple. The humor here is free of pop culture references, or irony, or any of the other triggers we have come to accept as “funny.” It’s almost as if you’re laughing with another part of your brain.

Lloyd’s physical comedy uses the whole body, not just the head or face.  His slapstick relied on bodily gesture:

From his neck up, Lloyd could be a modern comic, with an ever-changing set of expressions that could be seen on TV or in a film today; from his neck down, he belongs to an earlier era, when people waved their legs around, made silly gestures, punched each other in the forehead, and swung their arms wide when they walked. His facial expressions transform this story from a rags-to-riches tale cum love story cum fable of the foibles of industry into a travelogue of a journey through a psychological minefield. In one scene, he’s nervous about knocking on a general manager’s office door; the way he expresses his agitation, with his arched cheekbones, his twitching mouth, and his jumping eyebrows, shows every stage of his thought process, from start to finish. Here, as elsewhere, he caps off his facial gyrations with slapstick: marching up to the door, starting to knock, stopping, starting, stopping, and so on.

Winter’s articulation of how the comedy of the lower body (in one of Lloyd’s scenes) contrasts with the comedy of the upper body (namely his face) brings out a comic/horrific tension that so much of today’s comic does by more intellectual and less physical means.

His swinging legs and arms seem to be telling you to laugh, while his face reminds you just enough of what your own expression might be in such a situation to make you… well… scared. 

Commenting on Winter’s article and physical comedy, Brody argues that today a return to physical comedy would be impossible since today’s American audiences are, in contrast to audiences of the earlier 20th century, morally appalled by the presence of physical danger in comedy.  In his words, “physical comedy…has been moralized out of existence”:

Here goes: a new Harold Lloyd is unthinkable because physical comedy depends on the proximity and possibility of death, which no longer seems acceptable to viewers who are completely aware of the prevalence of stunt doubles and digital effects, and who are repelled by the idea that a performer would actually face death for what is, after all, only a movie. In other words, physical comedy—the kind that made silent comedies famous—has been moralized out of existence.

Brody cites Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis to point out the proximity of their comedy to physical suffering and possible damage.  Lewis, says Brody, built his career as a comedian on his falls, trips, and physical acrobatics.

In contrast to them, Brody lists the great “anti-physical” comedians; namely, “Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Woody Allen.”  He calls the “great comic cowards” who did all they could to avoid physical comedy.  They are rooted in “stand up” comedy rather than “fall down”(slapstick) comedy.   Nonetheless, Brody adds, with a bit of astonishment, that today, in films like This is the End, physical comedy seems to be making a comeback.

The film, argues Brody, may be filled with lots of slapstick and fall down comedy, but “it’s almost completely unfunny.”  And the physical comedy we see, apparently, is not even done by them.  It is done by stunt doubles.

This isn’t funny because Hollywood has made changes that apparently reflect an audience’s changed “endurance” of suffering:

The world has changed; just as classic-era Hollywood, with its unchallenged prejudices on matters of ethnicity and gender, reflected the dominant presumptions and exclusions of the time, so the endurance of suffering during a rough-and-tumble period when many more Americans did physically hard and dangerous work found its reflection in a comedy of danger.

And This is the End, for Brody is a “superb example of how comedy and comic violence have become subordinated to a conspicuous ethical order.”

What I like most about Winter and Brody’s reflections is the fact that they both point out how the meaning of the body in comedy has altered considerably.  Brody suggests that it has, in fact, been censored for “moral” reasons.  Nonetheless, he doesn’t think a return to physical comedy is possible or necessary.   Winter suggests that we pay more attention to what happened in early physical comedy; namely, a laughter that was “more pure” because it appealed directly to the body.  This, I would argue, could form the basis of a more nuanced ethical argument on behalf of physical comedy that could challenge the new attitude toward physical comedy that Brody makes reference.

To this end, I’d like to end this blog entry with a suggestion.  Roland Barthes’ reading of style in his book Writing Degree Zero suggests that we think of style (and here I would suggest comic style) in terms of the body.  For Barthes, the “imagery, delivery, and vocabulary” of style “spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the reflexes of his art.”   For this reason, style has something “crude” about it since it is the “product of thrust, not an intention”; its “frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical.”  Moreover, style is a challenge to society: “indifferent to society and transparent to it, a closed personal process, it is in no way the product of choice or of a reflection…it is the decorative voice of hidden, secret flesh.”

Style is a “germinative phenomenon, the transmutation of a humour” and has a “carnal structure.”

All of these reflections on style bring us back to a reflection of the body.  Based on them, one can argue that what appeals most to people who have enjoyed physical comedy in the past was its style. The style of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd is not simply rooted in their routines; it actually gives us a deeper sense of their “hidden, secret flesh.”  Barthes sees the mystery of the body – in all its opacity – in style and I suggest we see such style in bodily comedy.

It may be the case that Jerry Lewis’ style of physical comedy has been, to some extent, displaced by Woody Allen’s style of comedy; but, still, it is not entirely cerebral.  This is not the “end” of physical comedy so much as one kind of “physicality.”

We still see a body on stage “standing up” (rather than “falling down”) before us.  We see this, as Winter notes, in Louis CK’s bearish body pacing the stage and, I would add, in his comic style and delivery. The comic body remains.

To be sure, in the film, This is the End (2013), Seth Rogen’s physical gestures and styles convey his comical, bodily way of being.  The question we need to ask is what kind of bodily secrets Rogen conveys as opposed to what kind of secrets Sasha Baron Cohen or Charlie Chaplin.  How do we contrast their styles if, as Barthes says, they come from an opaque place? Are we given, so to speak, “flashes” of (bodily) wisdom when we watch their differing comic styles? Can we use Barthes, so to speak, to better understand how we bear witness to the mystery of physical comedy?  Is there an ethical relation to the body that Barthes was trying to uncover by way of his reading of style?  And would it be worth our while to pursue what Winters alludes to when he says that the laughter of physical comedy was “more pure?”  Was Barthes also seeking for this “purity,” which touched on the origins of not just comedy in particular but also style in general?