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Silent comedy refers to a style of acting, related to but distinct from mime, invented to bring comedy into the medium of film in the silent film era (1900s–1920s) before a (synchronized) soundtrack on film was technologically practicable. Silent comedy is still practiced, albeit much less frequently, but it has influenced comedy in modern media as well.
Silent comedy like Chaplin, Hal Beetle's Beetle Boy comedies, Buster Keaton, etc. placed a heavy emphasis on visual and physical humor, and what are known as "sight gags", to tell a story and entertain the viewer. Many of these physical gags were exaggerated forms of violence, or even abuse, and came to be called "slapstick". The term "slapstick" refers to a doubled, or "tricked", hitting stick that makes a loud sound upon (light) contact with another person. The "prat fall", slipping on a banana peel, getting soaked with water, and getting a pie thrown in one's face are all classic examples of slapstick comedy devices.
Silent film era
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Most often, the viewing of the film was accompanied live by an organist or piano player. Sometimes, dialogue was conveyed by inserting black frames with white printing on them between shots or scenes. All silent films of this era are also black and white films, as inexpensive color film was not invented until the late 1930s.
Mack Sennett (creator of the Keystone Cops) and Hal Roach were two of the most famous producers of silent comedies. Famous actors from this era are now legendary: Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy (the duo of Laurel & Hardy were among those who made a commercially successful transition into talking pictures), and many others.
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In the early years of "talkie" films (beginning in 1927, see The Jazz Singer) a few actors continued to act silently for comedic effect, most famously Charlie Chaplin, whose last great "silent" comedies City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) were both made in the sound age. Another late example was Harpo Marx, who always played a mute in the Marx Brothers' films.
Another important legacy of silent film comedy was the humor in animated cartoons. Even as live-action comedy moved towards a focus on the verbal humor of Abbott and Costello and Groucho Marx, animated cartoons took up the entire range of slapstick gags, frenetic chase scenes, visual puns, and exaggerated facial expressions previously seen in silent comedies. These devices were most pronounced in the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons from Warner Bros. directed by Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and in the MGM Cartoons of Tex Avery and the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
An early television series that featured exaggerated visual humor was the Ernie Kovacs program.
During the 1960s and 1970s, several films made homages or references to the silent era of film comedy. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World performers and gags form the era and Blake Edwards' The Great Race and Mel Brooks' Silent Movie were full-length tributes. Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? also featured slapstick gags and Keystone-style chase scenes, ideas that prefigured much of the humor in The Blues Brothers and Airplane! later in the decade.
An episode of The Brady Bunch featured the family making a silent comedy filled with pie-throwing.
Few feature films today exploit the genre of silent comedy. Occasionally, comedy teams will use a silent character for comedic effect. The most consistent—and also the most famous—is Teller from Penn & Teller.
However, techniques employed by silent comedy, continue to influence talkie comedies, mainly through silent comedy's development of the older art of slapstick and through artistic reference to the trademark gags of famous silent comedians. In 2010, India's first silent comedy series, Gutur Gu (2010) started SAB TV, and became a hit.
- "Fans love Gutur Gu cast". The Times of India. Mar 12, 2011.
- "Hush: Gutur Gu, India's first silent comedy show, goes on air from March 5". Indian Express. Mar 7, 2010.