Sunday, July 20, 2008

Clowning Around

There's an old saying among actors that "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Despite what seems like effortless delivery, many comic moments are far less spontaneous than one might imagine. Years, ago, when I interviewed Carol Channing during one of her extended tours in Hello, Dolly! she told me that what she really loved about long runs was the challenge of re-creating a moment for maximum effect. Having worked closely with a master like Gower Champion, she was acutely sensitive to the fact that if her arm was moved slightly out of position -- or if her voice was not in the proper register -- a joke or gag could miss its mark. Watch Channing in one of her greatest comic creations and you'll see a master artist at work:

While there are lots of ways to generate laughs. most comedy depends on something being out of balance with its expected truth. Inverting the norm, playing against type and resurrecting classic sight gags can go a long way toward making an audience laugh. But the foundation underpinning the laugh usually requires a gimmick, good timing, and stellar execution.

Acting out one's fantasies is always a good way to get a laugh in this town (whether or not it's an intentional one). Two films on the final day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival used this device to great effect. Starring the delightful Colleen Moore (one of America's biggest silent screen stars during the 1920s), Her Wild Oat (1927) embraced the gimmick of a confident, independent girl who fantasizes about living the lifestyle of the idle rich. In a Cinderella-like dream-come-true scenario, Moore's Mary Lou Smith is an orphan "whose father left her a lunch wagon, a dog, and a lot of ambition." Moore ends up masquerading as a European Countess after a gossip columnist friend names her after the soup of the day on a restaurant menu.

The print screened at this year's festival (which had been found two years ago in Prague and lovingly restored) features a wealth of sight gags neatly set up by director Marshall Neilan. Gerald C. Duffy's script contains some very funny jokes. Moore's obvious charisma is nicely matched by Larry Kent as society playboy Philip Latour, and Gwen Lee as a blowsy cabaret girl. Michael Mortilla accompanied the screening on the piano to grand effect.

While Moore drew comic gold from trying to pass as a member of high society, Marion Davies drew laughs aplenty as Patricia Harrington (an attractive young woman who can't seem to escape her older sister's shadow in order to attract a man's attention) in The Patsy (1928). When your mother is being portrayed by a comic genius like Marie Dressler, you have to have some pretty strong acting chops to hold your own on the screen.

Apparently, Davies and Dressler got along just fine, even sparking off each other's pranks. Given half a chance, Davies proved to be quite an athletic showoff (at one point she did a neat acrobatic tumble across a bed). But it was her gift for impersonations that won her notoriety (in addition to being William Randolph Hearst's mistress). At one point she offers flashes of her gift for mimicry. A momentary slowing of her walk and baring of her front teeth offers a quick jab at Mae West (who, in 1927, had spent 10 highly publicized days in jail on Roosevelt Island after being convicted on obscenity and morals charges for having written, directed, produced and starred in a new play named Sex).

But it is during one stunning part of The Patsy that Davies really gets to strut her stuff. Having barged into the home of one of her sister's boyfriends (who is found lying on a couch in a drunken stupor), Davies goes all out trying to get his attention. Noticing the framed portraits of various silent stars on the wall, she uses anything she can get her hands on to impersonate Mae Murray and Pola Negri. But it is when she does her famed impression of Lillian Gish that Davies is at her best. Those four minutes of classic pantomime brought down the house. If you want to see why, just watch this clip from YouTube and see for yourself!

One of the best events for witnessing gay men's fantasies as they struggle to come to life is the annual beauty pageant sponsored by San Francisco's Gay Asian & Pacific Alliance. This year's GAPA Runway Platinum celebrated 20 years of fun and fantasy as various contestants, under the watchful eye of "hostess with the moistess" Tita Aida, vied for the titles of Mr. and Miss GAPA.

Among this years entrants were Whitney Queers ("My hobbies are showering and vomiting. I like to be clean and skinny."), Lusty Lam ("My dream is to become a doctor. If that doesn't work out, then my dream is to be in low-budget porn.") and Chenalyn Chenes ("My hobbies are flossing, looking at the clock, writing my name in bathroom stalls.").

While Runway usually turns into a five-hour affair filled with hilarious camp and tacky bitchiness, every now and then a star is born. Last year, Doncha Vishyuwuzme showed great potential (as you can see from the following YouTube videos).

Doncha returned this year to a crowd of adoring fans and brought down the house. It's hard to describe the insanity of her performances onstage. Just take note that she is in total control, has a character as carefully thought out as Harold Lloyd's "Glasses" man, and is a top-class physical clown (how many drag queens do you know who can do a cartwheel without spilling their drink?).

This year's top honors went to Mister "Saketumi" as Mr. GAPA and Ethnie Cali as Ms. GAPA. Other audience favorites included the hilarious Beyonsoy, Maddox, and newcomers Boy Toyo and Hillary Osama McCain-Obama (H.O.M.O for short), who showed new ways to use Barack Obama as a captive audience and stage prop.

Rest assured, a good time was had by all.

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