Friday, February 18, 2011

Killer Klowns

One of the joys of watching a great comic at work is his mastery of the material he has crafted for himself. Whether one is a performance artist or a stand-up comic, whether one is working with movement or text, a great performer's confidence in his craft allows him to take risks when they are required by unexpected events and/or improvise when an opportunity suddenly presents itself.

Last weekend, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's annual winter event, the opening program was devoted to three Charlie Chaplin shorts. While all three films were accompanied by Donald Sosin, the program offered an unusual opportunity to appreciate Chaplin's athletic strengths (a factor in his work which is often overshadowed by his comedic skills).

In 1916, Chaplin was paid by the Mutual Film Corporation to produce a series of two-reel silent films. The sixth film in the series, The Pawnshop, showed Chaplin executing some breathtakingly precise stunts with ladders (on both the vertical and horizontal planes). In the final film of the series, The Adventurer (1917), Chaplin plays an escaped convict who ends up saving a woman who is drowning (the film gives audiences a hint at Chaplin's excellent swimming and diving skills).

However, it is The Rink (1916) in which Chaplin truly shines as a restaurant waiter who goes roller skating on his lunch break. Chaplin had apparently developed his roller skating skills while in vaudeville and used them to great effect in The Rink. Thankfully, the entire film can be viewed in the following three clips:

While there's no question that watching The Rink on the giant screen in the Castro Theatre with a live piano accompaniment is much more satisfying than seeing the clip on a computer screen, one of YouTube's greatest gifts is the ability to stop the action, "rewind" the film and watch how carefully each comic setup has been executed.

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Perhaps, as a writer, I'm a little more attuned to watching the way a comic sets up a gag. On opening night of his brief run in Neverlution at the Marines Memorial Club, Christopher Titus demonstrated what makes him such a strong stand-up comedian. First and foremost is the fact that he writes his own material.

Although Titus makes numerous references to the fact that he is a product of the State of California's public school system, he's not dumb. His writing is tightly crafted, honed to perfection, and delivered with the musical timing and confidence that comes from thoroughly knowing and owning his material.

Now in his mid-40s, divorced, and the father of two young children, Titus has a lot to say about:
  • The wussification of America since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
  • The fact that America's youth are turning into "Generation Douche."
  • The idiocy of awarding trophies to everyone, even if someone only receives the award for participating in an event rather than excelling at anything.
  • The problems with growing up fat (Titus was a fat brat whose father referred to him as the Hindenburg) and seeing today's youth grow into mini-blimps.
  • The lack of discipline in an age where parents who spoil their children are unable to recognize a five-year-old's skills as a budding terrorist.
  • The potential value to society of extending the window for late-term abortions until someone is 22 years old.
Christopher Titus

More than anything, Christopher Titus (who, as an actor, had a small role in Killer Klowns From Outer Space) has always been a superb storyteller.  Those familiar with his stories about being raised in a horribly dysfunctional family -- three seasons of Titus (the sitcom based on his home life) are available on DVD -- or his stand-up appearances on Comedy Central know the sting of his rapier-sharp wit.

Using his experience during a visit to the DMV as an outline for Neverlution's riffs on where Americans went wrong in the past decade, the comedian delivers nearly two hours of rock-solid, rapidfire material in which no cow is sacred and no spoiled child's behind is left behind. In the following interview, Titus talks about his new show and what's happening in his life. Enjoy!

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