A farcical costume is certainly one of the most visual ways to signal the audience that the performance is nonthreatening. It's the first thing we notice—that is, after we note whether the performer's male or female, and that's getting harder to tell every year.

In the Middle Ages, jesters wore floppy, belled caps, scalloped shirt and trousers, large, pointy-toed shoes, and carried a wand or scepter so as to appear silly and nonthreatening. Even today, baggy pants signal a comic character. Only a fool dresses like one.

A scout is a boy who dresses like a schmuck. A scoutmaster is a schmuck who dresses like a boy.

Today, the same harlequin tradition is carried by clowns, just as on stage or street corners, mimes have an established costume of top hat, grease-painted face of stark white with red lips, black leotards and soft black shoes. Their costume is so traditional you can spot them a quarter of a mile off: "Caution—Mimes Ahead!"

The outlandishness of Charlie Chaplin's tramp, who sported a toothbrush moustache, wore a bowler, enormous trousers, gigantic shoes, and always carried a slender walking stick, was "a totemic figure of such deceptive simplicity that it can be imaginatively interpreted by everyone," wrote Luc Sante. Chaplin took several years to develop a character that was hapless, yet graceful; mischievous, yet chivalrous. In many respects, the tramp is a descendent of Peter Pan. He played for tears as well as laughs.

The impact of a large black moustache was a comic symbol in the slapstick films of Ben Blue among others, and the painted moustache was the comic trademark of Groucho Marx.

In contemporary comedy, costumes of some nature are important parts of the performance of such artists as Pee Wee Herman, whose infantile, wacky character is reminiscent of the arrested development of Jerry Lewis. Herman wears his costume on and off the stage. Even in public, he's unmistakable in a shrunken checked suit, white shoes, and starched white shirt topped by a bright red bow tie.

Steve Martin, after being a gag writer for the Smothers Brothers for several seasons, decided to go on stage himself. He played the jerk originally, but he struck out on the adult comedy circuit the first two years. Only after he went from witticisms to put-down humor as a wild and crazy show-off, in a contrasting pure white three-piece suit, white shoes, and arrow through his head, did he find his audience with fifteen to thirty-year-old college kids.

Robin Williams's trademark is a printed Hawaiian shirt. Lily Tomlin always wears black trousers and color-splashed blouses. Her characters— militant feminists looking for intelligent life ("I'm against war, but if it weren't for Army surplus I'd have nothing to wear")—wouldn't permit her to wear dresses or frilly anything.


Hats are effective props (Bob Hope, Pinky Lee, and Red Skelton), as are drinking glass (Joe E. Lewis and Jackie Gleason), food, such as donuts and teacup (Red Skelton), bag of silly magic tricks (Harry Anderson and Howie Mandel), chair (Bill Cosby), a watermelon and a mallet (Gallagher), and a cigar (George Burns and Ernie Kovaks). Today, Groucho Marx's cigar, nose, moustache, and glasses are more often used as the symbol of comedy than the traditional clown mask.

Groucho to TV quiz contestant: "Tell me, Mrs. O'Leary, how many children do you have?"

"I have fourteen, Groucho." "How come so many?" "Well, I love my husband."

"I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."

George Burns comments: "I use my cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a joke, I smoke as long as they laugh. When they stop laughing, I take the cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke." Other effective props include canes, golf clubs, balloons, pipes, and uniforms, such as military and sports gear.


Voice is certainly the most obvious physical instrument for conveying character. In some scripts the words are written on music bars with pitch notes. The right tone can portray people of innocence and ignorance (as used by Gracie Allen and Lou Costello), the angry man (Alan King), the disciplinarian (Bill Cosby), the yuppie sophisticate (Bob Newhart), and most often it is used to set up an ethnic or regional character.

There are five major regional American accents: New York, New England, Southern, Appalachian, and Western. In addition, this country is rich in ethnic voices, such as black, Yiddish, Hispanic, Italian, and Indian.

And finally, there is the personal character voice: the homosexual, the redneck, the gangster, and scores of others. While heavy dialect humor, on the national level, is becoming rare, character humor using regional accents, pauses, and grammatical levels is as popular as ever.

Voice inflection, from malicious cackling to nasal whines, indicates personal characteristics not physically evident: parsimoniousness (Jack Benny), hostility (Richard Pryor), egotism (Johnny Carson and Jack Paar), viciousness (Don Rickles), sadism (David Letterman), and innocence (Jack Lemmon).

With his voice, Bob Hope can become a ladies' man—an inept braggart full of false bravado. Hope bombed in his early years with three other formats, including a slow Jack Benny character, before discovering his "Rapid Fire Hope" dialogue style that challenges the audience to keep up.

Humor helped keep Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Dean Martin popular for many years beyond their peak as vocalists. Shecky Greene is the most famous comedian to use singing in his act, but the day (or night) of satirical composers like Allen Sherman, Abe Burrows, and Tom Lehrer seems to have faded.

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