How Commedia Dell’arte influences modern Comedy

Comedy originated from Greece as with many genres of theatre, though, over the years it has evolved and taken different forms the stock characters, plots, themes& the physical jokes or “lazzi” of commedia dell’ arte are still readily apparent in modern media.

Commedia dell’ arte is a form of theatre that began in central/northern Italy in the late 15th/ early 16th century. It grew in popularity and eventually evolved in todifferent forms of theatre including Opera, Rock Opera (musical theatre), Vaudeville, Circus, Mime, Clowning, Animation and eventually- Sitcom. When you compare modern characters like Mr Burns or Bart Simpson to their commedia counterpart – (Pantalone or 2ndZanni), The lineage is becomes obvious.

Commedia also inspired many of history’s most celebrated writers &forms of theatre (Shakespeare, Moliére, Christopher Lloyd, Steven Levitan, Matt Groening) And even small details of commedia dell’artehave progressed to the modern media such as a prop used by the 2ndZanni/ Servant characters - The slapstick or- “batocchio”

The slapstick is an iconic “trademark” of commedia itis carried as a weapon for self defenceby the servants and used to insight laughter by making the sound of someone being slapped.

This is mirrored in the modern media by Charlie Chaplains walking cane or Bart Simpsons sling-shot.

Example of slapstick in The Simpsons –

Slapstick is a form of comedy used a lot in Modern Western Culture. For example, popular animated series The Simpsons by Matt Greoning uses slapstick constantly through the thirty seasons it has been running to make children laugh. The comedic use of the sound ‘doh!’ has become an iconic part of modern society. Due to a few elements such as the father Homer losing his dignity in these moments or how unexpected the incident is it makes something that seems horrible in real life just hilarious. Though, of course, this is a cartoon. A skilled actor that uses slapstick in a live action series is Rowan Atkinson in his beloved Mr. Bean series. In his skit ‘Judo Class’ Rowan uses many of slapsticks elements including lack of dignity when he pushes the teacher over and the unexpected nature of Mr. Bean suddenly appearing behind the teacher.

Slapstick has its charm in many different comedic media. What slapstick does tend to take dignity from characters that need to be taken down a notch. Most of the time, it tends to happen to happen to characters who deserve it. Making a character that has done nothing good and making them look silly as a result. Sometimes, the shock of seeing the slapstick is what makes an audience laugh. Or there are cases where is just causes pure mayhem which brings delight to an audience. Humans just tend to enjoy watching something so organized and perfect descend into chaos and disarray. It could also be argued that audience members find it funny purely because it isn’t happening to them, this being a breath of relief at that fact. Whatever the reason may be, in live action slapstick it is hard to debate that slapstick takes a large amount of skill which may not be rib tickling but is also impressive to watch.

Slapstick is incredibly popular and has many reasons for its hilarity, though something comedic actors and writers would attribute to Commedia dell’arte is the way the characters move. Commedia dell’arte does not rely on dialogue to tell the story or present the characters. “It’s not every day walk, it’s not every day run, not every day talk, so it is a research, also of the voice ‘Oooh,’ what’s the ‘EEEE!’,” (Accomando, 2014) is a quote from Ivan Rupnik. Ivan Rupnik is trained in the techniques of traditional Commedia dell’arte and spends his time running classes to teach the form. Meyerhold did take this Commedia belief and made it his own in biomechanics. He considered how the body moved, breaking down the movements into six simple steps. Otkaz, posyl, tochka, stoika, tormoz and pauza. None of the steps are more important than the other and none should be omitted to perform the exercises that were created. The simple break down made telling a story through the body easier to understand. The study of biomechanics also bringing to attention, balance, control and expressive ability.

The controlled movements of Commedia and Meyerhold are seen with a lot of comedic modern media. Rowan Atkinson uses the expressive movements for his character, Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean moves with natural movements, however an aspect of it would be changed to make him seem dopier. With a slight flick of his ankle or wrist it would look slightly jerky and out of place. He also tends to hold his hands closer to himself, walking as he swings his elbows out slightly. He has put a lot of thought into what would make the character seem airheaded and not always aware or mentally present. What makes the movements he makes significantly more important is that Mr. Bean rarely speaks. In the skit ‘Judo class’ Mr. Bean literally says one word the whole time, “Bow”.  The rest of the time his nerves and slight fear of the pain that could be inflicted on him is conveyed through the shaking of his hands and the very slow and thought out step that he takes to get closer to the teacher.

Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean –

Something that the Mr. Bean skits and Commedia share is the use of facial expressions. Of course, this is to a certain degree as Commedia dell’arte is performed in masks and so the facial expressions are mainly expressed through the eyes and the mouth. However, the movements need to be big and exaggerated to be seen. Rowan’s character is also filled with large facial expressions to maximise comic relief but also get his point across. With Mr. Bean, his eye brows tend to be raised and his bottom lip sticking out slightly to show a lack of being aware of his surroundings. It makes him seem a little sillier and takes away the idea that he is intelligent. Though when something troubles or confuses him his eyebrows lower to show that something is off. The contrast in the facial expressions displaying that Mr. Bean has started to become slightly more aware of his surroundings and it makes no sense to him.

Something that can show more animated facial expressions is animation itself. A perfect example is going back to The Simpsons and having a look at Homer. J. Simpson’s face when he is in pain. It’s highly exaggerated to be sure the young audience understands.  His mouth tends to open inhumanly wide and his eyes close as he cries out in pain. Another thing to add is that Homer tends to follow the study of biomechanics. In an episode, Homer is struck with a chair in the back by his son Bart. Homer lurches forward before springing back with his hands raised and he screams in pain. Even in Homer’s signature ‘Wahoo’ he is seen curling up before springing out to cheer. His lips extended impractically and his eyes wide to express his celebration before a grin stretches across his face.

The stock characters of Commedia dell’arte can also be seen in modern comedy as, of course, they are funny. The stock characters were created to set a funny scene for the audience to gawk at and so it makes sense that they would still be around to be seen in television and films. A few comparisons that can be drawn into Harlequin and Mr. Bean. As strange as that may seem they are not actually very different. Harlequin was created as a slave to Pantalone, Harlequin is also known to be very stupid but also very witty. “His character is a mixture of ignorance, naivete, wit, stupidity and grace.” (Shane Arts). Which reminds me of Mr. Bean himself, having most of his performances making Mr. Bean a lovable dullard, he also tends to resolve things with his own form of wit. Once again, in Mr. Bean’s ‘Judo class’ he spends the whole time trying to avoid the exercise he is supposed to do by repeatedly making the teacher bow or running away. Though he does end up getting out of it by fooling the teacher into bowing again before he gets behind the teacher and pushes him over. He then rolls the teacher up in the mat and walks away bowing. This presents a scenario where Mr. Bean is stupid, but also uses his own wit to get his own way.

A few stock characters in Commedia Dell’Arte -

Another comparison I can draw is between Matt Groening’s Mr. Burns and Pantalone. There are beliefs that both characters hold making the audience love to hate them. Both are villainous and mean to the people who work for them, believing that all they need in life is money. Mr. Burns and Pantalone are used in the story to be an obstacle for the protagonist or the good guy. Pantalone and Mr. Burns are cheered against and brings the audience delight when the characters seem to get what they deserve. Whether that be in a comedic physical defeat or they are just proven wrong. The characters are both ruthless and hold no love or care for any of the other characters in the performance. “Pantalone operates on the assumption that everything can be bought and sold” (Shane Arts).

The characters, how they hold themselves and even a form of comedy have all evolved from Commedia dell’arte and continues to be used to bring people to laughter. The humour behind the techniques being as effective as they were. Comedic actors and writers would do well to consider the theatrical form to fully understand how certain developments are funny and how it would work. The way a character moves is just as important as what a character says, developing them through the way they hold themselves or the way they react to certain events.


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