Director, writer, and actor Jacques Tati helped build the world of physical comedy using these tools.
French director Jacques Tati's films demonstrate visual comedy at its best. Known for playing the bumbling, recurring character Monsieur Hulot, he also directed celebrated comedies from the 1940s-'70s, beginning with Jour de fête (The Big Day), which won the 1950 Grand Prize of French Cinema. In his work, we have a whole philosophy of comedy, complete with its own precepts, rules, and quirks. This new video essay by Andrew Saladino for the Royal Ocean Film Society walks us, in a fairly relaxed and clear fashion, through visual comedy, showing the tools that Tati used to make it work so well.
Saladino stresses that props are highly important for Tati's films, both when they are used to create a comic reaction or enhance a comedic scene, but also when they are just being props. A chair by itself is not inherently funny, but when it takes chunks out of customers' clothing at a restaurant, as it does in one of Tati's films, it becomes, as Saladino outs it, a problem to be solved, and therefore much more interesting—and funnier.
In Tati's films, sound is a powerful enhancer of certain gags but also an energizer. In one film, a car has to wait in the road as a dog lies heedlessly sleeping. The car, an old-fashioned locomotive, rocks and shivers and squeaks as Tati honks the horn; the car shows a panic of its own, as seconds pass and the dog still doesn't move. We laugh because the car is eliciting as much sympathy at the predicament as a human might. Why? Because of the bleating squeaks it's making, which read to us as feeble cries for help.
Movement is an important staple of comedy, but it was made all the more significant and meaningful by Tati's observation behind it.
Movement & Observation
Saladino stresses that movement is an important staple of comedy, but also shows that it was made all the more significant and meaningful by Tati's observation behind it. A case in point: a well-loved scene in which he simply watch what people do when they're in a traffic jam. In this context, watching people yawn and pick their noses becomes fascinating, not to mention hilarious.
Building & Using Gags
Other than being crucial for comic films, gags are perfect platforms for visual storytelling. One formula Tati liked to use took three steps: set up a gag with a potentially precarious scenario, cut away from it, and then come back to it; the humor of the gag is thereby increased. For example: a man rides up to a bar on his bicycle, chaining it to a post outside. (Step One.) He goes into the bar, filled with people drinking, dancing and flailing around. (Step Two.) He leaves the bar drunk, hops on his bike, and rides away, only to flip in the air when he finds out he never untied the chain. (Step Three.)
Tati's work is not only a trove of comic moments but a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn about how comedy works. Have your own favorite Tati moments? Share them in the comments.