physical comedy

What is physical comedy?

By BBC Maestro

Why use your voice when your whole body can be funny? A physical comedian doesn’t just tell a story – they inhabit it, using facial expressions, body language and actions. 

From pulling funny faces, to being tied to a train track, the world of physical comedy is vast and varied, and is something every budding comedian needs a good grounding in. 
 
In this article, we take a look at what physical comedy is and how it’s used across different comedy genres. 

Physical comedy examples

Physical comedy comes in many different guises, all with one thing in common: the humour comes from the body, not the words.

You don’t have to be a professional clown to use physical humour: watch the clips of Jerry Seinfeld performing stand-up, and you’ll see how even a subtle lift of the eyebrows or a different way of walking across the stage enhances the story he’s telling.

Whether you hope to be a stand-up like Billy Conolly or a comedy actor, knowing how to communicate physically, as well as verbally, is essential. 

​How is physical comedy different from slapstick comedy?

Slapstick comedy is a specific type of physical comedy. You could describe it as like physical comedy, but more so. Slapstick takes the physical element of comedy to its extreme, with ridiculous situations, simple humour and usually a hearty dose of violence. Done well, it makes us wince in sympathy as much as it makes us laugh. It might not seem sophisticated, but it’s very, very clever, requiring skill, commitment and sheer bravery from the performer. 
 
As well as slapstick, there are various other types of physical comedy to explore, performed by some astonishing comedians. Under the physical comedy umbrella, you’ll find the following: 

Clowning 

When we think of physical comedy, most of us will immediately imagine a clown. From custard pies to Charlie Chaplin, these knockabout characters are the epitome of physical gags. There may be a lot of pratfalls, mess and fart jokes; however, clowning has a long and noble history. You’ll find references to clown-type figures in Ancient Egypt and among Native American tribes, although the distinctive look and act of today’s western clowns began with Joseph Grimaldi in the 19th century. Clowning traditionally has a darker side, an idea the team behind black comedy Psychoville really got behind when they created Mr Jelly… 

Mime 

Mime is a way of telling a story without using verbal language. Instead, the performer uses gestures to convey meaning, which can vary from knockabout clowning to the elegant and stylised movements of ballet. French mime artist Marcel Marceau remains the best-known mime artist; however, for a more recent example, enjoy David Armand’s version of Eternal Flame on the BBC improv show Fast & Loose

Dance 

Related to mime, dance offers the opportunity for plenty of incongruous humour. Think Robert Webb in a leotard performing the Flashdance routine, or Dawn French dancing alongside Dame Darcy Bussell. If you ever need a bit of a lift, watch Noel Fielding’s deadpan Kate Bush routine

Stunts

Stunts are physical comedy taken to the extreme. Some of the most famous stunts come from the days of the silent movies, when physical actors such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd risked all to perform death-defying and single-take scenes. As well as bravery, the performers needed masterly timing and meticulous preparation. The precision of the falling house stunt in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr is extraordinary. The silent movie stars’ legacy is in safe hands: think of Sascha Baron Cohen’s massive risk-taking role as Kazakhstani journalist Borat. 

Facial comedy 

Facial comedy is perhaps the most nuanced form of physical comedy. In British comedy, Rowan Atkinson is king of the facial expression, from his famous sneers as Blackadder to Mr Bean’s flexible features. Facial expressions can be used to convey to the knowing audience what the character is really thinking. For a masterclass in how the face and the voice can tell different stories at the same time, here’s Dawn French as the Vicar of Dibley having a bad day on local radio. 
 
Great physical comedians like Jackie Chan, Lucille Ball and John Cleese use a blend of these techniques. Physical magicians Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson seem to employ most of them at once.  
 
Physical comedy is about more than the belly laughs, important as those are. A character’s physicality tells us a lot about them without the need for dialogue or backstory: just picture Patsy exiting the taxi in Ab Fab. Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel in Friends has a physical clumsiness at odds with her sophisticated style, adding extra layers to her character. 

Physical comedy in stand-up 

While a stand-up comedian doesn’t have to perform in the same way as say, a film actor or sketch show comedian does, there’s still room for physical performance during their routine. Tommy Cooper has been a huge influence on how to bring physical humour to a stand-up act. Lee Evans, Bill Bailey and Jim Carrey also use their physicality to add an extra dimension to their routines. 
 
And then, of course, there’s Sir Billy Connolly, who doesn’t just tell stories, he lives them. Watch him perform one of his longer routines like the legendary Last Supper, and you’ll see all the nuances he brings to the characters through body language.  

There’s more to great comedy than funny and clever words. Find out more about performing and developing comedy routines from the Maestro himself: check out Sir Billy Connolly’s BBC Maestro comedy course, which covers everything from taking that first step onto the stage to life on the road as a professional stand-up. 

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