The blog Movies, Silently reprints a Photoplay essay from 1925 in which Al Christie explains his formula for reliable comedy. Christie worked largely — I want to say entirely, but I’m not sure — in short subjects; his imdb.com profile lists 762 titles he produced, 460 he directed, and 173 that he wrote, stretching from 1912 to 1947, so I suppose we just have to hope he liked making short subjects.
I admit not recognizing most of the titles (although he apparently was an uncredited producer for the 1930, non-Jack-Benny, version of Charlie’s Aunt), since they tend to sound like Old Short Subject Titles, eg, Calling All Crooners (1937) or Short Change (1924). Well, Tillie’s Punctured Romance stands out, but this is the W C Fields version from 1928. (The Charlie Chaplin version is on archive.org, but Christie didn’t have anything to do wit it as far as I know.) Unfortunately short subjects are harder to appreciate than full-length movies; even Turner Classic Movies mostly uses them to fill in schedule gaps, and rarely has the time to curate or to put into cultural context any of the ones it does have. A occasional night of Robert Benchley shorts or of George Méliès films is great, and appreciated, but it doesn’t give the audience the chance to appreciate the whole field.
In his article Christie gives six “time-tested situations” that he says are reliable comic starters, and they’re probably still a sound base for plot-driven comedy, particularly visual comedy:
- Heaving the pie.
- The lover foiled.
- The Amateur Expert.
- The Crowner Crowned — or The Socker Socked.
- Papa and the Baby.
- Caught in the Act.
I’d like to think that “Papa and the Baby” has worn out its freshness, although if we take this to mean “father figure acts like a dope”, well, it may still have worn out its freshness but it’s also pretty relied upon, so it’s doing business for somebody. I’ve got a fondness for the Amateur Expert motif, which is good for (one) absurdist explanations to common things and (two) getting people into situations where they’re hopelessly outclassed.
The whole article, though, I think’s worth reading, not just because of its insights into how to make a short silent comedy that people will respond to, but also because these fine points about what people laugh at are written in a slangy mid-20s movie-publicity-magazine style that’s itself charming in its antiquity (“this goes back to the French farces of Moliere, and hence does not germinate with the Genus Americanus of Ribticklus”? Really, Al, you want to commit that to print?).