“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.” — Charlie Chaplin

“The secret of Mack Sennett’s success was his enthusiasm. He was a great audience and laughed genuinely at what he thought funny. He stood and giggled until his body began to shake. This encouraged me and I began to explain the character: ‘You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette-butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear—but only in extreme anger!’ I carried on this way for ten minutes or more, keeping Sennett in continuous chuckles. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘get on the set and see what you can do there.’”
— Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography

Some years ago, I wrote an essay about Charlie Chaplin and what it means to “be funny,” and also how Chaplin’s example served as inspiration for subsequent generations of comedians/comics/funny people. It’s in the details. The details may be planned, or they may come out of the performer’s tuning-fork sense of what is right. Either way, this kind of attention to detail cannot be taught. For instance, in the famous dinner-roll dance scene above: notice the way he looks all the way to the right. And then, what makes it funnier, is the small eyebrow-raise as he looks down, like, “Yup. Check out that move. I know. It’s awesome.” There’s a mix of pride and faux-humility in that eyebrow raise that gets me every time.

It’s like perfect pitch. Either you have it or you don’t.

Here’s my essay (re-built on my site, since Capital New York and its archives vanished earlier this year):

Why actors still talk about Charlie Chaplin, and what he teaches them about not acting funny

Chaplinesque
By Hart Crane

We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

 
 
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