Web of Laughs: Steamboat Bill, Jr.

We’re all comedy fans here. We all grew up on comedy. We all have our own personal stories of being a kid, staying up past our bedtimes to watch whichever generation of Saturday Night Live was on at the time. Memories of how you couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday to swap stories at the lunch table about everyone’s favorite sketch that your mother would most certainly not approve of. This is the comedy we all collectively share; the Saturday Night Lives, our millionth re-watch of The Jerk, your favorite uncle showing you Monty Python and the Holy Grail and it changing your world forever. Ever wonder what influenced your influences, though? How did we get to the point in comedy where Jim Carrey can walk into a wall, shake his head back and forth emphatically, and we all laugh hysterically? Comedy had to start somewhere, and its roots are firmly planted in the silent films of the 20th century. Most would consider Charlie Chaplin the pioneer of the silent-era of comedy, but I would argue that you can look to the 1920s and see the most influential man in comedy, especially modern comedy, in Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton

Keaton started making silent, short comedy films in 1917, and it wasn’t until 1923 that he made his first full-length comedy film. He’s usually grouped into the same silent film star category as Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and The Marx Brothers, but Keaton had a different spin on the silent, physical style of comedy that really lends itself to considering him just as relevant in the comedy spectrum today. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen all of his films, since there are well over 100 (who has the time? I still have Friends reruns to watch!), but the one that has always stuck out the most to me is Steamboat Bill, Jr., made in 1928.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., is the story of a down-on-his-luck steamboat operator, aptly named Steamboat Bill, Sr., who receives a telegram letting him know his son, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a kid, has finished school, and is coming to visit him. Steamboat Bill, Sr., is ecstatic and can’t wait to reunite with his son, who he assumes must be as large, manly, and steamboaty as him after all these years. What he gets when his son, as played by Keaton, arrives is a seemingly incompetent, wimpy goof who can’t walk in a straight line without tumbling over, a trait I can painfully identify with. The plot that follows is really the first embarking on what is now a typical father-son comedy journey that can be seen time and time again in comedies since. A father is disappointed because the son is not turning out how he thought he had raised him, until the son does something remarkably surprising to the father, showing the father that his son is just fine the way he is. A great example of a modern comedy that uses this plot so well is Elf. Both films take an over-the-top son and juxtapose them against a buttoned-up father that has a very different lifestyle and uses their relationship to inspire comedic gold.

The most notable influence over modern comedy in general is through Keaton’s comedic performance. As is the case with most of the silent-era comedic actors, Keaton masters the typical slapstick style comedy and runs into walls/trains/doors/desks/small children with ease. One of the key differences between Keaton and his contemporaries, though, is his dead-pan physical delivery. He let his audiences discover that you don’t have to fall into a pie face-first then look up and smile as if you’re asking for a laugh, as several of his peers did, but that you can get tangled up in rope and tumble around without breaking a smile and your audience will never tire of watching it. Keaton’s deadpan style can be seen permeating through the history of comedic culture, I think most notably throughout British comedy, which lends itself to a very Keaton-esque mixture of physicality and dry, deadpan dialogue.

It’s hard to think of a comedy that Keaton’s body of work probably hasn’t influenced in some form. When you have a groundbreaking, new style that’s never been done before, essentially all works after it are going to be derivative. It’s refreshing to go back and watch films such as Steamboat Bill, Jr., and really get a closer look at where your favorite comedies got their inspiration and ideas from.

Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.