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Visual Comedy: A Lecture by Rowan Atkinson M.Sc. (Oxon.)

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"Visual Comedy: A Lecture by Rowan Atkinson M.Sc. (Oxon.)" is the first episode of the BBC television documentary series Funny Business, about the craft of comedy. This episode was directed by David Hinton. The writers were Rowan Atkinson, Robin Driscoll, and David Hinton. The show featured appearances by many comedians, including Rowan Atkinson who made an appearance both as the presenter/narrator and as an aspiring comedy actor named 'Kevin Bartholomew'. Atkinson demonstrated many of the principles of comedy (slapstick, mime, etc.) in a manner which was instantly identifiable to anyone familiar with his Mr. Bean character.

In this episode,[1] Atkinson claims that the three principal mechanics behind visual comedy are for an object or person to

  1. behave in an unexpected way
  2. be in an unexpected place
  3. be of the wrong size

In a central part of the documentary, Atkinson emphasizes the need to deliver the comedy with a carefully crafted attitude or persona. The character behind the comedy is at least as important as the techniques used. He claims that even though Charlie Chaplin is considered to be one of the greatest comedians of all time, Chaplin does not make us laugh anymore today, because we can not identify with Chaplin's "attitude."

Subsections of the episode[edit]

This 50-minute episode shows the mechanics at work in chapters that define visual comedy. Each section illustrates examples of mostly early visual comedy and references to the comedians, actors, and directors that defined these movements. The post-era visual comedy that is referenced is that of slapstick comedian Leslie Nielsen.

Slapstick and Violence[edit]

  • Laughing at others' pain and humiliation[1]
  • Early American violence and Mack Sennett's contribution of the Keystone Cops[1]
  • "The more real it is, the funnier it is"[1]
  • Pain in comedy is conveyed by[1]
    • Over-exaggeration
    • Under-exaggeration

Magic and Surrealism[edit]

  • The similarities between comedians and magicians[1]
    • Sudden appearances or disappearances
  • Georges Méliès: "the first person to make surreal jokes using film magic"[1]
  • Exaggerated movement speeds (speeding things up)[1]
  • Comedy is rooted in fear[1]
  • Haunted house movies use the principles of appearances/disappearances[1]

Imitation and Parody[edit]

  • Parody is exaggerated imitation (imitation that implies ridicule)[1]
  • Satire: parodying a person who represents "power" or "authority"[1]
  • Parodies of pop culture use three kinds of comedy[1]
  1. Imitating the mannerisms of a well-known character[1]
  2. Jokes about the physical mechanics of the parody[1]
  3. Imitation of the visual style of the original[1]

Mime and Body Language[edit]

  • The comedy of personality (as opposed to comedy about gags) is about doing something normal in a funny way (expressed through body language)[1]
  • Jacques Tati: made post-silent era films without dialogue[1]

Jokes and Attitude[edit]

  1. The Dim Attitude: stupidity and a lack of awareness (that's less than the audience)[1]
  2. The Aggressive Attitude: Apathy toward others[1]
  3. The Crude Attitude: vulgarity[1]
  4. Charlie Chaplin: he was the master of visual comedy[1]

The Character of the Physical Comedian[edit]

  • The comedian must be an "alien" to familiarities, customs, and traditions[1]
  • The comedian must have "innocence" as though they were "born yesterday"[1]
  • Harry Langdon: "an adult with the emotional and intellectual equivalent of an infant"[1]
  • Childishness comes out in the comedian's "battle" with objects (giving the objects a "life" of their own)[1]
  • The comedian must be clumsy by making mistakes and having accidents with objects[1]
  • The comedian will keep attempting something "long after a normal person would've given up"[1]
  • The comedian doesn't understand or just disregards "morality," "legality," or traditional conventions[1]
Three Different Approaches from the Comedian's Manual of Sexual Relationships[edit]
  1. The Romantic Approach: "his emotional age zooms up from childhood to early adolescence"[1]
  2. The Direct Approach: "ignores all codes of proper behavior and acts on his desires"[1]
  3. The Startled Virgin: a role reversal "with the woman as the sexual aggressor" and the male as a "bewildered child"[1]

The Final Point[edit]

"The physical comedian is indestructible...whatever the odds against him, the comedian always survives to walk away at the end of the story."

— Rowan Atkinson[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 Hinton, David (Director) Atkinson, Rowan (Narrator, Actor) (1992). Funny Business: Laughing Matters: Visual Comedy: A Lecture by Rowan Atkinson M.Sc. (Oxon.) (VHS)|format= requires |url= (help) (TV Series). U.K.: Cosmos Home Entertainment.

External links[edit]


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