Buster Keaton – The Art of the Gag


Hi my name is Tony
and this is Every Frame a Painting. There are some filmmakers
who are so influential that no matter where you look,
you see traces of them everywhere. I see this filmmaker’s framing
in the works of Wes Anderson. His acrobatics and stunts
in Jackie Chan. And his deadpan posture
in Bill Murray. He, of course, is Buster Keaton,
one of the three great silent comedians “He was, as we’re now
beginning to realize… …the greatest of all the clowns
in the history of the cinema.” And nearly a hundred years later I think he still has plenty
to teach us about visual comedy. So today, let’s take a look at
how the master builds a gag. Ready? Let’s go. The first thing you need to know
about visual comedy is that you have to
tell your story through action. Keaton was a visual storyteller
and he never liked it when other directors told their story
through the title cards. -“The average picture used
240 titles… “…that was about the average.” -“240 was the average?”
-“Yes. And the most I ever used was 56” He avoided title cards by focusing on
gesture and pantomime. In this shot, you never find out
what these two are talking about. Everything you need to know is conveyed
through the table & their body language “But what you had to say… “You had to communicate
to the audience in only one way…” -“Through action”
-“Right. We eliminated subtitles…” “…just as fast as we could
if we could possibly tell it in action” Keaton believed that each gesture
you did should be unique. Never do the same thing twice. Every single fall… is an opportunity… for creativity. But once you know the action
we come to the second problem: Where do you put the camera? Visual gags generally work best
from one particular angle. And if you change the angle… then you’re changing the gag
and it might not work as well. Finding the right angle
is a matter of trial and error. So let’s take a look at two possible
camera placements for the same joke. Here’s the first one. And here’s the second. You’ll notice in first angle,
the car takes up most of the frame and we don’t get a clear look at Buster
until he turns around. But in the second angle,
the car’s placed in the background and we always have
a clear view of his face. This split second, where he doesn’t know
what’s happening but we do… …that’s much better from over here. And in the first angle,
the framing splits our attention. Our eyes want to look at his face
and the sign at the same time. But after reframing the scene… Our eyes naturally look at him… then the sign then back to him.
Much better. Now we come to the third question… What are the rules of
this particular world? Buster’s world is flat
and governed by one law. If the camera can’t see it,
then the characters can’t see it either. In Buster’s world, the characters are
limited by the sides of the frame and by what’s visible to us,
the audience. And this allows him to do jokes
that make sense visually but not logically. A lot of his gags are about
human movement in the flat world. He can go to the right… to the left… up… down… away from the lens… or towards it. Look familiar? -“She’s been murdered.
And you think I did it.” -“Hey!” Like Wes Anderson,
Buster Keaton found humor in geometry. He often placed the camera further back
so you could see the shape of a joke. There are circles… triangles… parallel lines… and of course, the shape
of the frame itself: the rectangle. I think staging like this is great
because it encourages the audience to look around the frame
and see the humor for themselves. In this shot, think about
where your eyes are looking. Now where’s he? Some of these gags
have their roots in vaudeville and are designed
to play like magic tricks. And like all great magic tricks part of the fun is
trying to guess how it was done. Keaton had a name for gags like these.
He called them “impossible gags.” They’re some of his
most inventive and surreal jokes. But as a storyteller,
he found them tricky because they broke
the rules of his world. -“We had to stop doing impossible gags,
what we call cartoon gags.” -“We lost all of that when
we started making feature pictures.” -“They had to be believable
or your story wouldn’t hold up.” So instead, he focused on
what he called the natural gag. The joke that emerges organically
from the character and the situation. Consider what he does with this door. Keaton claimed that for visual comedy… you had to keep yourself
open to improvisation. -“How much of it was planned and
how much came out in the actual doing?” -“How much was improvised, you know?” -“Well as a rule, about 50 percent…” -“…you have in your mind
before you start the picture…” -“…and the rest you develop
as you’re making it.” Sometimes he would
find a joke he liked so much that he would do a callback to it later. But other times, jokes that he’d planned
beforehand wouldn’t work on the day. So he would just get rid of them… -“…because they don’t stand up
and they don’t work well.” -“And then the accidental ones come.” He was supposed to make this jump. But since he missed… He decided to keep the mistake
and build on it. -“So you seldom got a scene like that
good the second time.” -“You generally got em that first one.” -“Maybe that’s one of the reasons…” -“…there was so much laughter
in the house the other night.” -“I mean, the younger people
and I had this feeling…” -“…that what we were seeing
was happening now.” -“That it had happened only once…” -“…It was not something that was
pre-done and done and done.” And that brings us to the last thing
about Buster Keaton and his most famous rule. Never fake a gag. For Keaton, there was only
one way to convince the audience… …that what they were seeing was real. He had to actually do it… …without cutting. He was so strict about this
that he once said… “Either we get this in one shot… …or we throw out the gag.” And it’s why he remains vital
nearly 100 years later. Not just for his skill
but for his integrity. That’s really him. And no advancement in technology
can mimic this. Even now, we’re amazed
when filmmakers actually do it for real. But I think he did it better
95 years ago. So no matter how many times… you’ve seen someone else
pay homage to him… Nothing beats the real thing.

100 thoughts on “Buster Keaton – The Art of the Gag

  1. What is the name of that film in 1:40, please? I love Buster Keaton's work!

  2. So they really dropped a steam train off a collapsing bridge with him on it?

  3. Watching the mill wheel bit and the swings and jumps…his cardio and upper body strength had to be phenomenal!
    Some of the gags were a ninja warrior course

  4. I think it's beautiful that generation after generation after generation can get these these gags and laugh and smile. It's like Keaton was spitting in the eye of God and all authorities everytime he made us laugh.

    That is power. That is spiritual. That is comedy.

  5. at 3:27 I finally see where Tom Green got the inspiration for “daddy would you like some sausage?”

  6. Amazing. This guy lived by principles and rules. His comedy is far better than Charlie Chaplin. The world should know more about Keaton.

  7. When he tried to jump to the other building and missed! The FIRST and ORIGINAL stunt man!

  8. Keaton and Harold Lloyd are always 2nd to Chaplin and they were far superior, in my opinion!

  9. he acts 100 times more than Charlie Chaplin, but the difference is, he looks like robot and Charlie looks like a human in every aspect of life.

  10. I’m I the only that thinks hanging the salt and pepper shakers above the table is a great idea 😂

  11. Comedian. Stuntman. Director. Visionary. Producer. Screen writer. Dude was an absolute mad lad – but a genius one.

    And Devo was the cherry on top.

  12. Buster K.
    Had the biggest man set GOD every gave to a human man.
    When he is sitting on the side rods of the steam locomotive
    ( THE GENERAL ) and it starts moving , if any of his close , suit jacket , pants leg , you name it , gets cought on anything , drive wheels , brake rigging , anything , he'd be pulled backwards and ground up with only one out come !!!!
    Old steam engine crews feared a thing called "" swiping the clock "" that's when those rods came apart and swiped out the cab !!!
    And this man sits on that side rod while moving !!!!!
    And the list goes on for a mile long.!!!!!

  13. He was an abslute genius……….saw The General last week. A masterpiece.

  14. Some of the best movies were in black and white.. Some of the early color were good too. What few movies I have seen in the last 45 years just don't do anything for me. Buster set the bar and it stayed for a long time… To bad it is forgotten by those who should know him.

  15. If you guys like him so much (who doesn't??!!), you should watch The Railrodder.

    And right after that, watch the documentary (sadly in B/W) on the making of the Railrodder. There is a gag that is incredible especially for Buster being so old during that time. Sadly, this was going to be his last movie as he died the following year.

    Here is The Railrodder https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYmcN12M97o
    ..and the making of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HOWv7Ce69E

  16. I thought I knew the man assumed he was another forgettable actor from the silent era, I was wrong, he was innovative, daring and brilliant to say the least

  17. You see, war, worldwar, was always funny, now the scientists of "funny" science, will ckeanse away the catastrophes and the earthquakes by shooting and "cleansing away" this whole planet earth into hell, out of orbit, as the selfflying warbomb, this planet already has become.

  18. I discovered Buster as a child due to a 30 minute television show in which he stared in the 1950's Later I would attend screenings of his films by organist Gaylord Carter. Still a fan.

  19. His movies were great . The movies were not only comedy movies the movies were art
    He had romace in every movies

  20. It's amazing how much the original masters still influence us to this day, when we often don't even know it!

  21. Ol' Stone Face. No one was ever better. Nor, will anyone ever be. Harold Lloyd deserves honorable mention, though….

  22. This is such a great video! Buster Keaton is my favourite actor, hands down.

  23. The spare tyre gag was far better the first way with the car in the foreground. What they should have done is the car pulling away leaving Buster behind from the first shot and then use the reverse shot as the close up.

  24. He does not need subtitles or dialogue, he just do what he does: action.
    He speaks with the audience through action and it's worth more than a thousand words

  25. Fantastic to watch these again . . . better than so much that came after it, thank you

  26. The sound track you used around about 5:50– Was in fantastic fox directed by Wes Anderson. I think.

  27. Buster's work was and is some of the funniest physical comedy ever filmed. I've been a fan since childhood and still enjoy watching his gags.

  28. Os filmes do Buster Keaton eram muito bom. Abraço! Rio de Janeiro Brazil

  29. You put your fingers to the back of your throat till you go…

    EEEEEEUUUUUUGGGGGHHHH!

  30. He was not only a genius, but his athleticism was unbelievable… and countless scenes where he risks his life and yet retains that stoic, deadpanned expression. There will never be another like him. May God bless and keep this man.

  31. As a kid growing up in Canada they use to show shorts from the National Film Board. One of those shorts was The Railrodder with Buster Keaton, the guy was pure genius!

  32. Una maravilla este video donde en pocos minutos se deconstruye tan bien el arte visual de mi admirado Buster un saludo desde Buenos Aires Argentina

  33. Never pass up an opportunity to see a Buster Keaton movie in a theater. Unlike a lot of movies today, everyone laughs at the same point. It's a different, wonderful experience.

  34. Pirates of the Caribbean used the water wheel gag. The first time I saw Buster was on TV while flipp'n channels one weekend in the 90s, and I was blown away!! I was laughing like mad but also being amazed by his acrobatics and stunts and I yelled out, "Why have I never seen these before?!!!" I thought I'd seen nearly everything before, at least, everything worth seeing. I had watched Chaplin as a kid as he was on sometimes in between saturday morning cartoons, but I never found him funny at all, his gags were like kindergarten gags — stuff we kids did ourselves at the age of 5, so they just were not funny to anyone over the age of perhaps 4. Buster, on the other hand, wow, just comedy gold and I can see why Jackie Chan always mentions that Buster and Bruce Lee were his two major influences — he literally combined Buster and Bruce to make Jackie — that's some genius right there too. In fact, the very first Jackie Chan movie I watched, he fell from a building and down down down through window awnings just at Buster did at 6:48

  35. Jackie Chan is often quoted as saying Buster Keaton was his biggest influence, and watching his work you can definitely tell. This is also why Jackie is so recklessly dedicated to doing everything humanly possible for real.

  36. He was also called “the Great Stone Face” because he never seemed to change his expression.

  37. Restoration of Keaton's work is ongoing and if you need more to get interested in his legacy, I highly recommend this documentary by P.Bogdanović: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8758548/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1

  38. Слушайте но это так смешно честно!Всё сделано реалистично и актёр просто класс!

  39. That I didnt know, it was real. I kept think with the roof like that doesnt really look fake but it had to be… my god that man is a genius.

  40. Es simplemente " el genio de la comicidad", y fue tanto que, aún al día de hoy cautiva al espectador que tiene la fortuna de ver su obra.

  41. Можно подумать Джекки Чан ориентировался на эту картину, когда придумывал свою, бред полнейший

  42. I was a Buster Keaton fan for a long time, but after watching this vid, I came to love him even more

  43. I love this Montage of Buster Keaton skits. It amazes me how many of these movies I've seen.

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