Tragedy is a close-up; Comedy, also, sometimes, a close-up?
An interesting post about directing comedy from Cinemoose puts forward this Buster Keaton quote, “Tragedy is a close-up; Comedy, a long shot.” They argue that it still applies to comedy today. Why?
- Long shots put the straight man in the scene, helping to both set-up a bit and also land the jokes with the straight man’s reaction, who subs for the audience.
- Close-ups put you in the mind of the character, creating sympathy which destroys the distance necessary for comedy.
They use the old banana peel analogy, that cutting the viewers witnessing the fall would create laughter but cutting to the man who slipped would put our emotions with him.
I’m not sure this is true any more. Today’s comedy is a little crueler… allowing us to laugh directly in the face of a character’s pain.
Also, long shots aren’t really necessary to get the reactions in any more. Often that same thing is done in other ways - think of the quick pans in “The Office.” The joke is heightened because we get to anticipate what Pam or Jim reaction might be to the sexist/annoying thing that Michael just said.
There’s a trust today that the audience knows that this is a terrible funny thing, so we don’t need a straight man to substitute for us as much anymore. Often in sketches I kind of prefer it if everybody in the sketch buys into the crazy thing going on - it makes the sketch get funnier, rather than relying on a character saying, “What are you people doing?” for the jokes.
One trait of comedy that’s also very true today is mimicry. Not so much parody, but a scene needs to be done in the style of drama to make it funny. Besides the acting being played straight, the directing must be played straight as well. It makes the exaggeration all the stronger. Here’s an example, from Human Giant and their sketch “Sketch Artist.” Rob Huebel never breaks the senior demeanor of a cop haunted by his partner’s death and killer and neither does director Jason Woliner, making the arrival of the killer that much more funny.
After introducing the silly killer, they keep up the dark, straight part of the scene with Huebel bleeding. (Human Giant is possibly the bloodiest sketch comedy show ever filmed I think.)
So what do you think? Does Keaton’s maxim still apply?