On Being a Female Physical Comedian

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Here is a list of my top physical comedy influences, in more or less order of importance:

  • Marcel Marceau
  • Red Skelton
  • Buster Keaton
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Lucille Ball
  • Danny Kaye
  • Abbott and Costello
  • French and Saunders…

As you can see, this list is very male-dominated. I had been doing mime for almost a decade before this fact dawned on me and I realized that, as a result, when choreographing a skit I almost always had a male character in my head. A situation which is problematic for obvious reasons, despite the amazing talent represented on this list. It was the discovery of British comedy duo French and Saunders that led to this epiphany. Just like sometimes taking a bite of something makes you suddenly aware you are hungry, seeing these seriously funny ladies made me suddenly realize I was seriously short of women role-models. I devoured their skit comedy and started to seek out others. It wasn’t easy. Even today, my list of female go-to inspirations is short. Here are my favorites:

Lucille Ball is the only one with wide, inter-generational recognition. Here’s a great example of why I, along with millions, love Lucy.

 

Real-life Lucy is also a marvelous role model. Besides being an incredibly funny woman, she was also a producing powerhouse in an overwhelmingly male-dominated Hollywood. It’s hard now to believe that before her, no one dared show a pregnant woman on TV. She and Desi were an inter-racial couple long before that was acceptable. Thank goodness she had the clout and temperament to get her way. She is definitely a stand out on any list of comedians, gender aside.

French and Saunders are not well known on this side of the pond. You may know Jennifer Saunders from the cult-hit Absolutely Fabulous, which started as a F&S skit. I first saw their Baywatch spoof on BBC America and started hunting down DVDs. They have a very visual approach, with lots of gags around costumes and props, but they also bring a degree of physicality to their work. They don’t shy away from crazy antics or falling down stairs.

 

I owe my discovery of Imogen Coca and Nannette Fabray to my mom, who got me a DVD set of Sid Ceasar’s The Show of Shows for my birthday. These two ladies showed me more than any other how to be a physical comedian while also being classically feminin. I still struggle to make their example an instinctive part of my imagination, but at least I have something to hold on to when I am consciously thinking of making my characters more lady-like without losing the funny.

Nanette Fabray in The Shadow Waltz with Sid Ceasar

 

Imogene Coca and Sid Ceasar, 1812 Overture

Trixie Fraganza has been another revelatory find. From her beginnings as a chorus girl in musical comedies, she became a much-loved feature act on the vaudeville circuit. I discovered her through the Vitaphone Varieties, films made of vaudeville performers when sound was new to cinema. She does a masterful job of using her large frame for full comedic effect.

 

There is also Carol Burnett, who is wonderful at over-the-top character humor, although the stand out physical comedian of her show was Tim Conway. There are other examples such as Paulette Goddard in Chaplin’s Modern Times, or Elsie James in this Buster Keaton skit (a big thanks to Gregory Parks for introducing me to Elsie). But as far as women with an accessible body of work, you really have to dig.

 

I still love all the hilarious guys that have given me inspiration. Without them, I would not be doing physical comedy today. But I owe a huge debt to the women listed here and I am acutely aware that I have an immense responsibility to every girl and woman in my audience to make a complete, unbridled fool of myself.

Do you know of any women out there doing physical comedy? Any others that inspire you? Drop their name and maybe a link in the comments.

 

 

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