Archivo de la categoría: Humor

The dramatic black and white silence

Why Buster Keaton is today’s most influential actor

Buster Keaton was something of an enigma to his own era. The silent-film star launched himself between rooftops, battled storms and sand dunes, boarded moving vehicles – and frequently trailed behind them, perfectly horizontal and as suspended as our disbelief – all in the name of comedy, and all while seeming unfazed. Film historian Peter Kramer, in his essay The Makings of a Comic Star, contends that Keaton’s «deadpan performance was seen as a highly inappropriate response to the task of creating characters which were rounded and believable». His unrelenting imperturbability was misinterpreted as a lack of emotional expression, or perhaps acting skill.

Nowadays we applaud performances that exhibit this level of restraint, wowed by microscopic gestures that hint at subtext, but refuse to spell it out. As Slate’s movie critic and author Dana Stevens points out in Camera Man, a new biography-meets-cultural-history about Buster Keaton and the birth of the 20th Century, «[Keaton] was ahead of his time in many ways». It is exactly this prescience and timelessness that makes Buster Keaton a figure ripe for reference in contemporary performance. His type of minimalism, stoicism and lyricism transcended the 20th Century, and can be seen on-screen now perhaps more than ever.

Stevens cites Keaton’s «self-contained stillness» as his «secret weapon», and we can see its weaponisation in the opening sequence of The Cameraman (1928) in which Buster aspires to be a newsreel cameraman in order to impress a girl. As an excited crowd gathers, yelling and gesticulating, to celebrate and capture the marriage of two famous individuals, Buster is caught in the melee and squashed against the woman who will claim his heart. He is a picture of enraptured calm amid the clamour.

That calmness or stoicism, despite deep inner turmoil, is something that can also be located in Oscar Isaac’s critically-acclaimed performance in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Speaking to Scott Feinberg on the Awards Chatter podcast, Isaac reveals that the starting point for his singer-songwriter character Llewyn in The Coen Brothers’ folk music odyssey was indeed Buster Keaton. «I thought that was a great inspiration for me», says Isaac, who wanted to tap into what he calls a «comedy of resilience» and to adopt a facial expression that «doesn’t really change but has a melancholy to it». And so Isaac subtracted smiling from his arsenal of expressions to birth a character who is frustrated with the world and everyone in it.

But stillness isn’t blankness. As both Keaton and Isaac convey, a limited palette can still paint many colours. There is one scene in Inside Llewyn Davis during which Isaac’s sardonic melancholia feels particularly Keatonesque – although the entire sequence where he carries a cat onto the subway, his face glazed in faint irritation, before having to lurch after said feline on a crowded carriage, could be a silent comedy – and that’s the car ride with John Goodman’s Roland Turner. Llewyn rides up front with beat poet and valet Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund) and Goodman’s cocky, cane-toting jazz musician reclines in the backseat. Upon snoring himself awake he begins to prod Llewyn with both questions and cane. When he discovers that Llewyn is a Welsh name, and launches into a long and uninteresting story, Isaac’s face remains placid. But there is a perceptible smirk, a lick of the lips and a glance out the window that says: «this guy is unbelievable». Down the road and more deeply exasperated, Llewyn reveals that he’s a solo act «now» because his partner Mike «threw himself off the George Washington Bridge». There is barely a glimmer of grief, just a stony stare into the middle distance as Isaac’s big brown eyes concentrate on the road ahead, but still betray the sadness within.

That stare undeniably shares heritage with Keaton. In the book The Look of Buster Keaton, French film critic Robert Benayoun offers a series of insightful essays alongside strikingly rendered images of Keaton’s face, in which his solemnity is on full display. Benayoun posits that «the aim of every close-up» in a Keaton film was to «confront us with [his] gaze. When Buster stares at some unexpected obstacle, in the offscreen space overhead, his gaze makes that obstacle, surprise or danger, or marvel visible… Keaton was the comedian of deliberate attention, intense and dynamic reflection; we can see him thinking» – just as we can see Llewyn contemplating Mike in that car.

Isaac isn’t alone in exhibiting this trend towards minimalist acting, or what Shonni Enelow, an academic and author called «recessive aesthetics» in a 2016 article for Film Comment. Compared to Method performances, which functioned within a framework of «tension and release» and generated performances that were «feverish, agitated [and] on the edge of eruption», a remote performance is marked by tiny expressions, contained intensity and «a refusal of big reactions or loud moments». Enelow points to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Rooney Mara in Carol and Michael B Jordan in Fruitvale Station, and offers up a reading of their «emotional withdrawal in these performances as a response to a violent or chaotic environment».

Keaton might have done it for laughs more than integrity, but he too saw the value in responding to unpredictable and dangerous events with a stoic shrug or exhalation. This minimalism is also surely part of the reason he’s endured. Critic and film historian Imogen Sara Smith points out that «the coolness and subtlety of his style [is] very cinematic in terms of recognising that the camera can pick up very, very small effects». That contemporary acting has become much more internalised and naturalised could be «the reason why he translates more [than other stars of his era] in terms of style of performance», posits Smith.

This recessive melancholy is equally visible in Awkwafina’s performance in Lulu Wang’s 2019 tragicomedy The Farewell. As The New Yorker observed, «[Awkwafina] gives a master class in hangdoggery«, as Chinese-born, US-raised Billi, who returns to Changchun after discovering that her grandma Nai-Nai has weeks to live. After Billi’s family decide not to tell Nai-Nai she’s dying, she is forced into a mode of repression. The contrivance of that composure can be seen in the fact that prior to and upon learning of Nai-Nai’s fate she is humorous, sassy and indignant. The shock of this news is etched all over her face, which doesn’t go unnoticed by her mother: «Look at you, you can’t hide your emotions». For the sake of her grandma, she learns how. As such, it differs from Keaton and Isaac’s mode of performance which is grounded in immutability.

However, Billi’s alienation in a culture that is both hers and not hers chimes with the way Keaton is often seen to be performing social conventions. Billi’s Uncle Haibin explains, «We’re not telling Nai-Nai because it’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her», and he chastises Billi and her father’s westernised desire to tell the truth. Billi finds herself having to adapt to eastern values, no matter how uncomfortable they make her. Likewise, Keaton frequently played into the «innocent abroad» archetype; naive in the ways of life and love. In Sherlock Jr (1924) he studies a manual How To Be a Detective, shadows a man and in doing so replicates his walk, and finally, when he gets a moment alone with his love interest in the projection room of a cinema, must look towards the actors on screen to figure out how to kiss her. There is an awareness of performance in Keaton’s persona and Sherlock Jr is just one instance where you see him modifying it according to what might be expected of him.

Similarly, Awkwafina moves between performance styles according to what is required of Billi, and there are moments of emotional release where she pivots into Method acting, as when Billi admits to her mother that as a child she was often «confused and scared because [her parents] never told [her] what was going on». But then she recedes and gives herself over to «hangdoggery». Keaton too gave a masterclass in that.

A less disputed element of Keaton’s performance style was his sheer athleticism or what Stevens describes as his «signature kineticism». Which brings me on to Adam Driver. I could point to his thoughtful repose in Paterson, his slapstick humour in Marriage Story or his deadpan delivery in The Dead Don’t Die as indicative of a Keaton-ness. However it was in last year’s macabre rock opera Annette, directed by Leos Carax, that Driver demonstrated a «full-bodied enthusiasm and physicality», as Little White Lies’ Hannah Strong put it, that more forcefully summoned the spirit of Keaton.

That skittish, unpredictable physicality is first apparent in Driver’s Henry McHenry, an aggressively macho comedian with a reputation for «mildly offensive» jokes, when he stalks on to stage (having just eaten a banana) to rapturous applause. Before long he has burst into song and is leaping and frolicking about with what IndieWire called «balletic precision», in a manner that resembles both Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang (1986) and Keaton in Grand Slam Opera (a low-budget short he co-wrote and starred in for Educational Pictures in 1936). 

Lucidity and precision

«The other thing that’s really distinctive about [Keaton],» explains Smith, «is this lucidity and precision». Although he was not a formally trained dancer, his acrobatics are full of the kind of rigour, lyricism and rhythm that any dancer would kill for. «Every little movement that he makes with his face or his body is very clear, but in a way that doesn’t feel mechanical,» continues Smith. «He had incredible control over everything he did.» It is unsurprising then, that there are several actor-dancers (including Lavant) who also simulate Keaton with their level of control.

The first person who comes to mind is Miranda July, who The New Yorker once described as having «the steely fragility of Buster Keaton», and who performs an abstract dance sequence in her 2011 sophomore feature The Future. The performance – made up of precise and sometimes melancholic bodily contortions  – shares a lineage with the American dance company Pilobolus (I cannot claim to be the first to notice this) who take their name from a fungus that «propels itself with extraordinary strength, speed and accuracy».

The second person is Ariane Labed, a Greek-French actress for whom dance is a recurring feature: she was cast as a synchronised swimmer in the 2020 TV series Trigonometry, had the best moves in The Lobster’s silent disco, and schools us in the art of synchronised gesture during Attenberg’s semi-dance sequences. The director of the latter film, Athina Rachel Tsangari, unsurprisingly singled Keaton out, in an interview with Culture Whisper, as an inspiring «composer of human movement».

In Annette, there is a pivotal scene onboard a ship in which the narrative reaches an emotional crescendo. There is a storm brewing, and a drunken Henry (Driver) attempts to waltz with his wife Ann (played by Marion Cotillard) across the stern. Driver’s body now mirrors Keaton’s in its perpetual motion. Despite their difference in stature they are both industrious and powerful, and more than just the specificity of their movement, its effect is such that you are never quite sure what will happen next, or what they’re capable of. Moreover, they exert their physicality in a way that displays a tendency towards possessiveness and machismo. In The Cameraman (1928), Keaton kicks another man into a swimming pool for talking to his date. This anticipates a scene in which Henry wrestles a man known only as The Accompanist into his pool, having had suspicions that he posed a threat to the titular baby Annette.

The other aspect of physicality that Keaton and Driver share is their sex appeal. Returning to the words of Benayoun, he observes a sense of «the sublime in Keaton… He’s glamorous. He’s gorgeous. [He has a] sculptural sexiness». Not to gush too freely, but Driver is another such sublime specimen; a figure of extreme masculinity and muscularity. And what could be more glamorous than Henry McHenry riding his motorcycle, before kissing Ann with his helmet still on? Keaton and Driver have a commanding presence in common, and when they are on screen, you simply cannot take your eyes off them.

Keaton’s performance style is known for its deadpan execution. No matter the ridiculousness of the gag – he liked a banana skin as much as any comedian – his face remains a picture of steadfast seriousness. As Smith points out, it is this contrast between his «deadpan serenity [and] his body constantly [being] subjected to all these indignities [that is] the essence of him as a performer».

Filmmaker and comedian Richard Ayoade frequently channels Keatons deadpan-ness, and often cites him as a point of reference when working with actors. In a 2014 interview, Ayoade reveals that he had Jesse Eisenberg watch Buster Keaton’s films before starring in his sophomore feature The Double, feeling that they could demonstrate a «sense of someone acknowledging that everything bad that happens to them shouldn’t come as a surprise».

Deadpan delivery and that lack of surprise are also notable in Donald Glover’s acting. In Atlanta, the Emmy-winning comedy TV series about two cousins trying to work their way up in Georgia’s music industry, Glover (who created and co-writes the show) stars as Earn Marks, an aspiring talent manager who approaches life with a stone-cold sobriety. «Van’s dating other people, she’s going to kick me out of the house [and] I’m also broke,» sighs Earn in the pilot episode, as he explains his current situation with his baby’s mother to a colleague, with a subdued weariness.

​Earn’s expressionlessness doesn’t mean that he’s devoid of emotion; when he hears his cousin Paper Boi’s new track on the radio – having got it into the hands of a producer – he breaks out into a genuine smile. Rather, it serves to underscore the absurdity of modern existence. He is no longer outraged or surprised when setbacks come his way. In the pilot, the biggest reaction he can muster when a white acquaintance drops «the n word» twice in conversation is mild offence. No matter what happens, be it a man on a bus feeding Earn a nutella sandwich or a pet alligator strolling out of his Uncle Willy’s house, there is a level of apathy to Earn’s deadpan response because on some level, he’s seen it all before. And like Keaton, he’s just trying to survive.

Keaton’s films have likewise been considered a response to the absurdity of modern existence. His characters endlessly invite and contend with calamity, existing in a world where structures – both mechanical and architectural – are in a constant state of precarity, and where the elements themselves (he is perpetually battling wind and rain) have turned against him. In the 1920 two-reel comedy One Week, Keaton and his new wife attempt to build a DIY house. They fail miserably. As Dana Stevens notes in Camera Man, «the resulting structure makes the cabinet of Dr Caligari look Grecian in its symmetry». After a freight train crashes through the building, they stick a «For Sale» sign in the rubble, and head for new pastures. You could just as easily see Keaton describing this character as homeless but «not real homeless» as when Earn defends his peripatetic living situation.

That said, there are of course other authors of this deadpan mode of expression who may well have influenced performers such as Glover. As Tina Post – an assistant professor at the University of Chicago specialising in racial performativity and deadpan aesthetics – asserts «the term [deadpan] precedes Buster Keaton or is coterminous with his rise». Post also points out that «the way that Keaton couples a blank expression with a bodily endurability is very much in line with American constructions of blackness.» Post is quick to point out that expanding the definition or lineage of deadpan isn’t a condemnation of Keaton himself, but rather a consideration of «the ways performatives move through American culture». Much as in the way the 20th Century’s benighted use of blackface has evolved to allow for its memorable subversion, or rather inversion, in the Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta.

This chimes with the way Keaton himself has migrated through screen culture, ever accessible and influential, with aspects of his performance style being adopted, reacted to and modified in order to suit a range of bodies, genres and purposes. There is still no-one quite like Keaton: the tension and contradiction in his comedy is as unique now as it was in the 1920s. However, it feels safe to say that the restraint as well as the commitment present in these acclaimed, 21st-Century performances owe a debt to a filmmaker and performer who figured out not just how to take a camera apart and put it back together again, but what it was capable of capturing and expressing.


What Made Buster Keaton’s Comedy So Modern?

Critics like to create causes. If a pair of new Grover Cleveland biographies appears, we say that, with the prospect of a President returning to win a second term after having been defeated at the end of his first, who else would interest us more than the only President who has? In reality, the biographers started their work back when, and now is when the biographies just happen to be ready. And so it is with the appearance of two significant new books about the silent-film comedian Buster Keaton. We start to search for his contemporary relevance—the influence of silent-comedy short subjects on TikTok?—when the reason is that two good writers began writing on the subject a while ago, and now their books are here.

The truth is that Keaton’s prominence has receded, probably irretrievably, from where it stood half a century ago—a time when, if you were passionate about movies, you wore either the white rose of Keaton or the red rose of Chaplin and quarrelled fiercely with anyone on the other side. In Bertolucci’s wonderful movie about the Paris revolt of May, 1968, “The Dreamers,” two student radicals, French and American, nearly come to blows over the relative merits of Charlie and Buster: “Keaton is a real filmmaker. Chaplin, all he cares about is his own performance, his own ego!” “That’s bullshit!” “That’s not bullshit!” Meanwhile, Janis Joplin growls on the stereo behind them.

In a weird way, the terms of the quarrel derived from the German Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Lessing’s search for the “essence” of each art form: poetry does time, sculpture does space, and so on. To the Keaton lovers, Chaplin was staginess, and therefore sentimentality, while Keaton was cinema—he moved like the moving pictures. Chaplin’s set pieces could easily fit onto a music-hall stage: the dance of the dinner rolls in “The Gold Rush” and the boxing match in “City Lights” were both born there imaginatively, and could have been transposed there. But Keaton’s set pieces could be made only with a camera. When he employs a vast and empty Yankee Stadium as a background for the private pantomime of a ballgame, in “The Cameraman,” or when he plays every part in a vaudeville theatre (including the testy society wives, the orchestra members, and the stagehands), in “The Play House,” these things could not even be imagined without the movies to imagine them in. The Keaton who created the shipboard bits in “The Navigator” or the dream scene in “Sherlock Jr.” was a true filmmaker rather than a film-taker, a molder of moving sequences rather than someone who pointed the camera at a stage set. (One could make similar claims for the superior cinematic instincts of Harold Lloyd, who tended to get dragged into these arguments in much the same way that the Kinks get dragged into arguments about the Beatles and the Stones—though Lloyd, like Ray Davies, was such a specialized taste that he could only extend, not end, an argument over the virtues of the other two.)

Take the long sequence toward the end of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (1928), in which Keaton, playing an effete, Boston-educated heir who rejoins his father, a short-tempered Southern steamboat captain, gets caught in a cyclone that pulverizes a small town. The episode is breathtaking in its audacity and poetry, an unexampled work of pure special-effects ballet. The houses explode, in a thousand shards of wood, as Keaton wanders among them. The moment when the façade of a house falls on Keaton, who is saved by a well-placed attic window, has been “memed” as the very image of a narrow escape. But it is merely an incident in a longer sequence that begins when the roof and walls of a hospital building are whisked away like a magician’s napkin; then a much bigger house falls on Keaton, who, accepting it neutrally, grabs a tree trunk and holds tight as it flies across town and into the river. Nothing like it had ever been seen in a theatre, or even imagined in a book, so specific are its syntax and realization to moving pictures.

How are we to share these glories in 2022? Fortunately, Cohen Films has produced mint-quality restorations of all the great movies, and Peter Bogdanovich’s last work, the 2018 documentary “The Great Buster,” is a terrific anthology of highlights. Even more fortunately, those two new books, each excellent in its way, are weirdly complementary in their completeness. James Curtis’s “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” (Knopf) is an immense year-by-year, sometimes week-by-week, account of Keaton as an artist and a man. Every detail of his life and work is here, starting with his birth, in 1895, as Curtis painstakingly clarifies which of two potential midwives attended to the matter. (Mrs. Theresa Ullrich rather than Mrs. Barbara Haen, for the record.) His perpetually touring and performing parents, Joe and Myra, had been on the road when it happened, in the one-horse town of Piqua, Kansas. Curtis takes us through the progress of the brutal comedy act that Joe Keaton raised his son to star in; things were so hard at the turn of the century that at one point Harry Houdini, with whom the three Keatons shared a show, had to pretend to be the kind of psychic he despised in order to draw the rubes into the theatre. We even hear about gags that Buster Keaton helped invent for Abbott and Costello in his later, seemingly fallow, years.

Dana Stevens, in “Camera Man” (Atria), takes an original and, in a way, more distanced approach to Keaton. In place of a standard social history of silent comedy, much less a standard biography, Stevens offers a series of pas de deux between Keaton and other personages of his time, who shared one or another of his preoccupations or projects. It’s a new kind of history, making more of overlapping horizontal “frames” than of direct chronological history, and Stevens does it extraordinarily well.

Some of these pairings, to be sure, are more graceful than others. The comedienne Mabel Normand appears for the somewhat remote reason that Chaplin refused, early in his career, to be directed by her, a fact that’s taken as an index of the misogyny that reigned in the world of silent comedy. (The truth is that Chaplin, a once-in-a-century talent, routinely bullied anyone who tried to tell him what to do.) On the other hand, a chapter on Robert Sherwood and Keaton is genuinely illuminating. Sherwood, now forgotten despite four Pulitzers and an Oscar, was one of those writers whose lives reveal more about their time than do the lives of those writers gifted enough to exist outside their time. The author of well-made, well-meaning plays advancing progressive causes—he ended up as one of F.D.R.’s chief speechwriters—he championed Keaton, notably in the pages of Life, with acute discernment, a reminder that the categories of popular culture and serious art were remarkably permeable in the twenties. Just as Hart Crane was writing poetry about Chaplin when Chaplin was still only very partly formed, Sherwood recognized Keaton’s greatness almost before it seemed completely manifest. Writing about Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton in the early twenties, he maintained that their efforts “approximate art more closely than anything else that the movies have offered.” Sherwood even wrote a feature for Keaton, which, like James Agee’s attempt at writing a movie for Chaplin, proved unmakeable. Sherwood’s script got Keaton marooned high up in a skyscraper but couldn’t find a way of getting him down. When Keaton and Sherwood saw each other in later years, Sherwood promised to get him down, but never did.

Keaton seems to have been one of those comic geniuses who, when not working, never felt entirely alive. He fulfilled the Flaubertian idea of the artist as someone whose whole existence is poured into his art: the word “dull” crops up often as people remember him. Curtis is particularly good on the early years. Joseph Frank Keaton spent his youth in his parents’ knockabout vaudeville act; by the time he was eight, it basically consisted of his father, Joe, picking him up and throwing him against the set wall. Joe would announce, “It just breaks a father’s heart to be rough,” and he’d hurl Buster—already called this because of his stoicism—across the stage. “Once, during a matinee performance,” Curtis recounts, “he innocently slammed the boy into scenery that had a brick wall directly behind it.” That “innocently” is doing a lot of work, but all this brutality certainly conveyed a basic tenet of comedy: treating raw physical acts, like a kick in the pants, in a cerebral way is funny. “I wait five seconds—count up to ten slow—grab the seat of my pants, holler bloody murder, and the audience is rolling in the aisles,” Keaton later recalled. “It was The Slow Thinker. Audiences love The Slow Thinker.”

A quick mind impersonating the Slow Thinker: that was key to his comic invention. The slowness was a sign of a cautious, calculating inner life. Detachment in the face of disorder remained his touchstone. Of course, stoicism is one of the easier virtues to aspire to when your father has actually put a handle on your pants in order to ease the act of throwing you across a vaudeville proscenium, and it’s easy to see the brutality as the wound that drew the bow of art. But in this case the wound was the art; Keaton minded less the rough play than his increasingly drunken father’s refusal to let him out of the act long enough to go to school. He seems to have had exactly one day of public education.

In New York, the Keatons found themselves at war with city reformers who were evidently more passionate about keeping children off the vaudeville stage than about keeping them out of the sweatshop; arrests and court appearances ensued. After that, the family largely avoided New York, often retreating to the backwoods resort town of Muskegon, Michigan, the nearest thing young Buster ever had to a home. It was only when Joe started drinking too hard and got sloppy onstage that, in 1917, the fastidious Buster left him and went out on his own. It was the abuse of the art form that seemed to offend him.

In those days, young comedians were being swept off the stage and into the movies more or less the same way that garage bands were swept out of high-school gyms and into recording studios in the nineteen-sixties. Keaton fell in with Joseph Schenck, then a novice movie producer, who paired him with Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle in the equivalent of the John Belushi–Dan Aykroyd teaming, a “natural” comedian with a technical one. The partnership was an immediate success, starting with the two-reel short “The Butcher Boy” (1917), and was only briefly interrupted when Keaton was drafted and spent part of 1918 in France, having a good time serving in the Great War.

Keaton often credited Arbuckle with showing him how movies worked. But Schenck’s role was just as important. Anita Loos recalled him as someone who brings “forth the aroma of a special sort of smoked sturgeon that came from Barney Greengrass’s delicatessen”; and he and his brother, Nick, who later ran M-G-M, were cynosures among the generation of Russian Jews who dominated Hollywood for the next half century. Joseph Schenck was married to the film star Norma Talmadge; many dry-eyed observers thought that he was the trophy, and that Talmadge married him to keep the producer in her pocket.

Keaton’s early entry into the movies, after his almost complete isolation from a normal childhood, meant that he was really at home only within the world of his own invention. One gets the impression that he mainly lived for the choreography of movie moments, or “gags,” as they were unpretentiously called, though they were rather like Balanchine’s work, with scene and movement and story pressed together in one swoop of action. Keaton was not a reader, unlike Chaplin, who fell on Roget’s Thesaurus with the appetite of his own Tramp eating the shoe. Sex was of absent-minded importance for Keaton; his marriage to Norma Talmadge’s sister Natalie, in 1921, was apparently ceremonial and, after two children were born, celibate, at her mother’s insistence. Nor was he a family man; after they divorced, he hated losing custody of his kids, but it isn’t clear if he saw them much when he had them.

Around 1921, when false charges of rape and murder devastated Arbuckle’s career, Keaton was sympathetic, and then smoothly moved on, making solo movies. “He lives inside the camera,” as Arbuckle observed. Being anti-sentimental to the point of seeming coldhearted was at the core of his art. “In our early successes, we had to get sympathy to make any story stand up,” he said once, in a rare moment of reflection. “But the one thing that I made sure—that I didn’t ask for it. If the audience wanted to feel sorry for me, that was up to them. I didn’t ask for it in action.” Life dished it out, and Keaton’s character just had to take it.

Critics have drawn a connection between the Arbuckle scandal and Keaton’s short comedy “Cops” (1922), made between Arbuckle’s trials, in which Keaton, having been caught accidentally tossing an anarchist bomb, is chased across Los Angeles by hundreds of police officers. This is the kind of conjecture that shows little understanding of the way that artists work, rather like the belief that Picasso’s barbed-wire portraits of Dora Maar, in the nineteen-forties, are protests against the Occupation, rather than a product of his own obsessive imagery. “Cops” is not about false accusation; it’s about the massed comic power of regimented men in motion, uniform action in every sense. Pure artists like Keaton work from their own obsessions, with editorials attached awkwardly afterward.

His first feature, no surprise, was a movie about a movie, an ambitious parody of D. W. Griffith’s legendary epic “Intolerance” (1916), in which Keaton’s sister-in-law Constance Talmadge had appeared. His “Three Ages,” seven years later, stowed together three parallel stories—one Stone Age, one Roman, and one modern—and mocked both Griffith’s cosmic ambitions and his cross-century editing scheme. The caveman comedy is the same as all caveman comedies (Keaton has a calling card inscribed on a stone, etc.), but the Roman sequences are done with even more panache than Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, Part I.” Soon, Keaton was earning a thousand dollars a week, and becoming so rich that he, the boy who never had a home, built his wife a wildly extravagant faux Italian villa.

Dana Stevens takes up the really big question: What made Keaton’s solo work seem so modern? Just as “Cops” can be fairly called Kafkaesque in its juxtaposition of the unfairly pursued hero and the implacable faceless forces of authority, there are moments throughout “Sherlock Jr.” (1924) when Keaton achieves the Surrealist ambition to realize dreams as living action. Sequences like the one in which Keaton seems to step directly into the movie-house screen, and leaps from scene to scene within the projection in perfectly edited non sequiturs, make the Surrealist cinema of Buñuel and Maya Deren seem studied and gelatinous.

Stevens argues that Keaton’s art was informed by the same social revolutions as the European avant-garde: “The pervasive sense of anxiety and dislocation, of the need to reinvent the world from the ground up, that groups like the Surrealists or the Bloomsbury authors sought to express in images and words, the human mop-turned-filmmaker expressed in the comic movement of his body.” But Keaton also looks surreal because the Surrealists were feeding off the same sources as Keaton was, in circus and vaudeville and the music hall and stage magic. The Cubists, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists all had the sense that, as bourgeois pieties had grown increasingly meaningless, the only grammar from which one could construct a credible art was that of farce. So those clowns and comic artists who held down the tradition of burlesque and nonsense comedy were, willy-nilly, the modernist’s dream brothers.

And then, in a modernist way, Keaton’s movies very often are about the movies, which was a natural outgrowth of his single-minded absorption in his chosen medium. In “Sherlock Jr.,” he plays a dreamy projectionist who falls into his own films, and in “The Cameraman” (1928) the joke is that Keaton’s character accidentally makes newsreels filled with camera tricks, double exposures, speeded-up time, and backward movement. Even that great cyclone scene in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is meant not to provide an illusion of reality but to show off the possibilities of artifice.

Keaton’s subject, in a larger sense, is the growth of technology and the American effort to tame it. There is scarcely a classic Keaton film of the twenties that doesn’t involve his facing, with affection or respect more often than terror, one or another modern machine: the movie camera, the submarine, the open roadster. Throughout “The Navigator” (1924), he looks uncannily like Wilbur Wright in the Lartigue portrait. Keaton seems, in the combined integrity and opportunism of his persona, to explain how those alarming machines emerge from an older American culture of tinkerers and bicycle repairmen.

Keaton’s greatest work was made in the five years between “Three Ages” (1923) and “The Cameraman.” “The General” (1926), the first of Keaton’s features to enter the National Film Registry, was—surprisingly, to those who think of it as Keaton’s acknowledged masterpiece—a critical flop. A carefully plotted Civil War tale, more adventure story than comic spoof, it shared the typical fate of such passion projects: at first a baffling failure, for which everyone blames the artist, and which does him or her immense professional damage, it then gets rediscovered when the passion is all that’s evident and the financial perils of the project don’t matter anymore. Nobody questioned Keaton’s decision to make it, since the movies he had made in the same system had all been profitable. But businessmen, understandably, hate trusting artists and waiting for the product, and are always looking for an excuse to impose a discipline the artists lack. It takes only one bomb to bring the accountants down on the head of the comedian. Stevens, comparing the film to Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” writes, “The General was less a cause than a symptom of the end of a certain way of making movies. The independent production model that for ten years had allowed Buster the freedom to make exactly the movies he wanted . . . was collapsing under its own weight.” The thing that baffled its detractors (even Sherwood didn’t like it) and, at first, repelled audiences was the thing that seems to us now daring and audacious: the seamless mixture of Keaton’s comedy with its soberly realistic rendering of the period. No American movie gives such a memorable evocation of the Civil War landscape, all smoky Southern mornings and austere encampments—a real triumph of art, since it was shot in Oregon. Many of the images, like one of a short-barrelled cannon rolling alone on the railroad, put one in mind of Winslow Homer.

Two years later, in a studio sleight of hand so sneaky that Curtis spends a page and a half figuring out what the hell happened, Keaton became the subject of a baseball-style trade, in which Joe Schenck had Keaton transferred from United Artists to his brother Nick, at M-G-M. That gave M-G-M a cleanup-hitter comedian—United Artists already had Chaplin—while making sure that, post-“General,” Keaton would be more closely supervised by M-G-M’s boy genius, Irving Thalberg. Chaplin tried to warn Keaton off M-G-M. “Don’t let them do it to you, Buster,” he said. “It’s not that they haven’t smart showmen there. They have some of the country’s best. But there are too many of them, and they’ll all try to tell you how to make your comedies.” Keaton’s passivity made him reluctant to heed the warning, and off he went, Schenck to Schenck.

The mostly disastrous years that Keaton spent at M-G-M are the real subject of Stevens’s chapter on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thalberg will always have his defenders, but once one gets past the “quality” films he sponsored, it becomes clear what a con artist he was. He sold one observer after another—including Fitzgerald, who took him as the model for his idealized “last tycoon,” Monroe Stahr—on the subtlety of his intellect, while everything he did revealed him to be the most ruthless kind of commercial-minded cynic. Thalberg robbed the Marx Brothers of their anarchy and Keaton of his elegance, turning him, as Stevens complains, into a mere stock rube figure. The Thalberg system tended to work well for an artist just once—as in both the Marxes’ and Keaton’s first films for M-G-M, “A Night at the Opera” and “The Cameraman.” But Thalberg didn’t grasp what had actually worked: the expensive style of the production, pitting the Marxes against the pomposity of opera, and placing Keaton against a full-scale location shoot in New York City. What Thalberg thought worked was schlock imposed on genius: big production numbers for the Marxes and unrequited-love rube comedy for Keaton. In many subsequent movies, at M-G-M and elsewhere, his character was named Elmer (and once even Elmer Gantry), to typify him as a backwoods yokel.

The M-G-M comedies did decently at the box office, but Keaton, an artist injured by the persistent insults to his artistic intelligence, started to drink hard, and soon the drinking drowned out that intelligence. The actress Louise Brooks recalls him driving drunk to the studio, where he silently destroyed a room full of glass bookshelves with a baseball bat. She sensed his message: “I am ruined, I am trapped.” In 1933, he was fired by Louis B. Mayer, essentially for being too smashed, on and off the set, to work. Keaton’s M-G-M experience, despite various efforts by Thalberg and others to keep his career alive as a gag writer, ruined his art. The next decades are truly painful to read about, as Keaton went in and out of hospitals and clinics, falling off the wagon and then sobering up again. His brother-in-law, the cartoonist Walt Kelly, recalls that “nobody really wanted to put him under control because he was a lot of fun.” What we perhaps miss, in accounts of the boozers of yore, is an adequate sense of how much fun they all thought they were having. Drunks of that period could not be shaken from the conviction that they were having a good time until they were hauled off to the hospital.

As Curtis establishes, when Keaton did dry out, by the nineteen-fifties, he had much better later years than the public image suggests. That image persists; a recent, impassioned French documentary titled “Buster Keaton: The Genius Destroyed by Hollywood” maintains that “in just a few years he went from being a worldwide star to a washed-up artist with no future.” Curtis makes it clear that this assertion is wildly exaggerated. Keaton did as well as could have been hoped. But the notion that sound killed off the silent comedians is one of those ideas which, seeming too simple to be true, are simply true. Chaplin endured because he had money and independence, but even he made only two more comedies in the thirties; Harry Langdon was ruined and Harold Lloyd kept his money and withdrew.

Keaton did have to undergo a certain amount of whatever-happened-to humiliation; he is one of Gloria Swanson’s bridge party of silent has-beens in “Sunset Boulevard.” In tribute after tribute, he was condescendingly associated with custard-pie-throwing comedies of a kind he had almost never made. But he was properly valued in France, had successful seasons at the Medrano Circus, and worked ceaselessly as a gag man, even inventing an entire routine for Lucille Ball that became part of the pilot for “I Love Lucy.”

His most famous late appearance was alongside Chaplin in “Limelight” (1952), Chaplin’s last interesting movie, in which they play two down-on-their-luck vaudevillians. Claire Bloom, who played the ingénue, recalls that, in twenty-one days of shooting, Keaton spoke to her exactly once, when showing her a tourist-type photograph of a beautiful Beverly Hills house. He told her that it had once been his home, then fell silent. This seems sad, but Curtis also evokes him watching the camerawork and helping direct Chaplin: “It’s okay, Charlie. You’re right in the center of the shot. Yeah, you’re fine, Charlie. It’s perfect.” Even when he was too frail to run or move much, as in the 1966 film “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” made a year before his death, and directed by his idolater Richard Lester, his face was a beacon not merely of endurance but of a kind of lost American integrity, the integrity of the engineer and the artisan and the old-style vaudeville performer.

Two kinds of American comedy made themselves felt in the first half of the twentieth century: the comedy of invasion and the comedy of resistance. The first was the immigrant comedy of energy, enterprise, mischief, and mayhem. The Marx Brothers are supreme here, but Chaplin, who, although an immigrant of the Cockney rather than the Cossacks-fleeing variety, could play the Jewish arrival brilliantly, and the immigrant-comedy vein runs right up to Phil Silvers’s Sergeant Bilko, swindling the simpleton officers at the Army base. In response comes the comedy of old-American resistance to all that explosive energy, struggling to hold on to order and decency and gallantry. It’s exemplified by W. C. Fields’s efforts to sleep on his sleeping porch in “It’s a Gift,” while the neighborhood around him refuses to quiet down. The division extends even to the written humor of the period, with S. J. Perelman the cynical navigator and commercial participant in the endless ocean of American vulgarity, and James Thurber wistfully watching from Manhattan as the old values of the republic pass away in Columbus.

Keaton is the stoical hero of the comedy of resistance, the uncomplaining man of character who sees the world of order dissolving around him and endures it as best he can. (In “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” it’s the nostalgic world of the river steamboat; in “The General,” it is, for good or ill, the Old South.) Keaton’s characters have character. They never do anything remotely conniving. And the one thing Keaton never does is mug. There are moments in all his best features, in fact, that anticipate the kind of Method acting that didn’t come into fashion for another generation, as when he impassively slips to the ground beside the girl in the beginning of “The Cameraman,” registering the act of falling in love by the tiniest of increments. The best thing in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” might be a bit of acting so subtle that one wonders whether people got it at the time. Under suspicion of sexual instability—“If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!” the title card has the captain saying bluntly to a friend, after watching his son caper with his ukulele—Bill, Jr., is compelled by his father to throw away his Frenchified beret, and try on a sequence of American hats. Keaton doesn’t attempt, as Chaplin might have, to adopt a distinct persona in each hat but actually does what we do in front of a clothing-store mirror: he wears his trying-on face, testing a daring expression, sampling the aesthetic effect of each hat for the sake of his vanity while trying not to offend his father by seeming too much the hat aesthete. Somehow he is both preening and hiding. It’s an amazing moment of pure performance, and every bit as “cinematic”—showing what extreme closeups can do—as the big special-effects sequences.

“Though there is a hurricane eternally raging about him, and though he is often fully caught up in it, Keaton’s constant drift is toward the quiet at the hurricane’s eye,” the critic Walter Kerr observed of Keaton. What remains most in one’s memory after an immersion in Keaton are the quiet, uncanny shots of him in seclusion, his sensitive face registering his own inwardness. In this way, maybe there is some relevance in a Keaton revival today. Critics may invent their causes, but sometimes a good critical book, or two, can create a cause that counts. Chaplin is a theatrical master and needs a theatre to make his mark. His movies play much, much better with an audience present. Keaton can be a solitary entertainment, seen with as much delight on a computer screen as in a movie palace—rather as our taste for the great humanist sacrament of the symphony depends in some part on having open concert halls, while chamber music has whispered right throughout the pandemic. Keaton is the chamber-music master of comedy, with the counterpoint clear and unmuddied by extraneous emotion. It may be that our new claustrophobia is mirrored in his old comedy. The hospital has blown away, and that house has fallen on us all. 


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10 Enduring Facts About Charlie Chaplin

Best known for his tragicomic character «The Little Tramp,» Charlie Chaplin revolutionized cinema, both during the silent era and the talkies. Almost a century later, The Gold RushModern TimesThe Kid, and The Great Dictator are still considered essential cinematic works. His writing, producing, directing, acting, and scoring of his own films received just as much attention as his controversial personal life. The London-born Chaplin had a penchant for marrying teenage women, and ended up fathering 11 children. Though his outspoken political views would eventually force him out of America for good in 1952, Chaplin’s Hollywood legacy still burns brightly. Here are 10 facts about the legendary filmmaker, who was born on this day in 1889.


Mabel Normand was a silent film actress as well as a writer, producer, and director—which was unusual for the mid-1900s. She starred in 12 films with Charlie Chaplin, including 1914’s Mabel’s Strange Predicament, which marked the onscreen debut of Chaplin’s The Tramp character (though Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed first and technically was his first Tramp appearance, it was released two days after Kid Auto Races at Venice, the actual film debut of the character). She also directed Chaplin in 1914’s Caught in a Cabaret and the pair co-directed and starred in Her Friend the Bandit, which was released the same year.


In 1919, Chaplin and fellow filmmakers Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists as a means to finance their own movies so that they could retain creative control. The first film released under the new studio was 1919’s His Majesty, the American, starring Fairbanks. The studio took off and eventually branched out to build a chain of movie theaters. But in 1955, with movie attendance at a new low, Chaplin sold his shares. UA released the first James Bond movie in 1963. Today, MGM is UA’s parent company.


Beginning with 1931’s City Lights, Chaplin composed scores for his films’ soundtracks. His song “Smile,” used in Modern Times, became a classic. In 1954, Nat King Cole’s version—now with lyrics—peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts. Michael Jackson also recorded a cover. Chaplin won his only competitive Oscar in 1973 for composing the theme to his 1952 film Limelight(the film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1972).


There was a reason Chaplin did everything himself: perfectionism. When he worked on his short film The Immigrant, Chaplin shot 40,000 feet of film, which was a lot for a 20-minute short. Chaplin cast actress Virginia Cherrill in City Lights to say just two words, “Flower, sir,” but he forced her to repeat them for 342 takes. “He knew exactly what he wanted and he would have preferred not to have any other actors in his films—he even tried making a film once where he was the only person in it,” Hooman Mehran, author of Chaplin’s Limelight and the Music Hall Traditiontold CNN.


In the 1940s, actress Joan Berry was allegedly having an affair with Chaplin. At one point, he invited Berry to travel from L.A. to New York City. While in New York, she spent time with Chaplin and claimed that the director “made her available to other individuals for immoral purposes.” This violated the Mann Act, in which a person isn’t allowed to cross state lines for depraved behavior.

When, in 1943, Berry gave birth to a daughter, she stated that Chaplin was the father—a charge he adamantly denied. Though blood tests confirmed that Chaplin was not the father, because the tests weren’t admissible in California courts, he had to endure two separate trials. Despite the blood evidence saying otherwise, the jury concluded that Chaplin was the father. Not only was his reputation ruined, but he also had to pay child support. On the bright side, the ruling helped reform state paternity laws.


In 1952, because of his alleged Communist politics, the U.S. denied Chaplin re-entry to the United States after he traveled to London for the premiere of his film Limelight. Incensed, he moved his family to Switzerland and vowed he’d never return to Hollywood. But 20 years later, possibly to make up for his exile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored the 82-year-old Chaplin with an honorary Oscar (his second of three). Chaplin attended the ceremony and received an enthusiastic standing ovation. When he finally spoke, he said, “Thank you for the honor of inviting me here. You’re all wonderful, sweet people.”


In 1981, Russian astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina, who has discovered more than 100 minor planets, named one of them after the legendary director: 3623 Chaplin.


In the 1960s, Chaplin and his family enjoyed spending summers in the village of Waterville, located on the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. In 2011 the town founded the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival, which is held each August. (A bronze statue of him resides in town.) The festival features a short film competition with categories like Chaplins of the Future. Last year the fest tried to break the Guinness World Record of the largest gathering of people dressed as Chaplin.


On April 16, 2016—what would’ve been his 127th birthday—Chaplin’s World, a museum dedicated to the filmmaker’s life and work, opened in his former home in Switzerland. The museum has welcomed around 300,000 visitors in its first year. Visitors can see his home, the Manoir de Ban, at Corsier-sur-Vevey, by Lake Geneva. The estate also houses a studio where his movies are screened, wax figures, recreations of some of his film set pieces, and a restaurant named The Tramp.


Even in death, Chaplin created controversy. Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977 and was interred near his home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. Almost three months after his death, on March 2, 1978, his widow, Oona Chaplin, received a call from the police saying, “somebody dug up the grave and he’s gone,” Eugene Chaplin told The Independent.

The thieves demanded $600,000 to return the body. Oona tapped the phone lines, which led authorities to the two men, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev. They confessed to the crime and showed the police Chaplin’s body, which they buried in a cornfield near his original gravesite. The men went to jail, but not before writing “I’m sorry” letters to Oona, who forgave them.


The Great Dictator: The film that dared to laugh at Hitler


It’s hardly surprising that Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was banned in Germany, and in every country occupied by Germany, in 1940. A film that mocked Adolf Hitler was never going to be the Nazi High Command’s first choice of Friday night entertainment. The more surprising thing, from today’s perspective, is that Chaplin was warned that it might not be shown in Britain or the US, either. Britain’s appeasement policy kept going until March 1939, and the US didn’t enter World War Two until December 1941, a year after The Great Dictator was released, so when Chaplin was scripting and shooting the film – his first proper talkie – colleagues at the studio he co-owned were afraid that no government would let it be seen.

«I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists,» he wrote in his autobiography. «They had been advised… that I would run into censorship trouble. Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. More worrying letters came from the New York office imploring me not to make the film, declaring it would never be shown in England or America.»

But Chaplin wouldn’t be dissuaded. He knew that The Great Dictator was worth making, and, sure enough, it was a box office smash: 1941’s second biggest hit in the US. On the 80th anniversary of the film’s release, Chaplin’s prescience is even more startling. The Great Dictator is a masterpiece that isn’t just a delightful comedy and a grim agitprop drama, but a spookily accurate insight into Hitler’s psychology. «He was a visionary,» said Costa-Gavras, the Greek-French doyen of political cinema, in a making-of documentary. «He saw the future while the leaders of the world couldn’t see it, and remained on Hitler’s side.»

What’s even more remarkable is that Chaplin didn’t just capture Hitler, but every dictator who has followed in his goose steps. «It resonated at the time, and it continues to resonate,» says Simon Louvish, the author of Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. If you want to see a crystalline reflection of the 21st Century’s despots, you’ll find it in a film that came out 80 years ago.

A serious message

By the time Chaplin made The Great Dictator, he had long despised the Nazis, and vice versa. A German propaganda film denounced him as one of «the foreign Jews who come to Germany» – never mind that he wasn’t Jewish – while the US press nicknamed him «The 20th-Century Moses» because he funded the escape of thousands of Jewish refugees. When he started work on the film initially titled «The Dictator», he was «a man on a mission», says Louvish. «Some of his contemporaries, like Laurel and Hardy, just wanted to make funny movies and make money. But Chaplin was very serious about what he wanted to say. The Great Dictator wasn’t just a film. It really was something that was required.»

Still, Chaplin was motivated by more than humanitarianism. He was also fascinated by his uncanny connections to Hitler, who was born in the same week as he was in April 1889. A comic song about the Führer, recorded by Tommy Handley in 1939, was entitled «Who Is That Man…? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)». An editorial in The Spectator magazine, marking the men’s 50th birthdays, explored the theme in more depth: «Providence was in an ironical mood when… it was ordained that Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler should make their entry into the world within four days of each other… The date of their birth and the identical little moustache (grotesque intentionally in Mr Chaplin) they wear might have been fixed by nature to betray the common origin of their genius. For genius each of them undeniably possesses. Each has mirrored the same reality – the predicament of the ‘little man’ in modern society. Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.»

It was Alexander Korda, the Hungarian-born British producer, who suggested that Chaplin should capitalise on the similarity, but it was obvious that an entire film of the former «Little Tramp» as a frothing tyrant would be too much for audiences to take, and so Chaplin opted to play two roles. He would be Adenoid Hynkel, the autocratic ruler of Tomainia, and he would be a humble, amnesiac, unnamed «Jewish Barber». An opening caption announces: «Any Resemblance Between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is Purely Co-Incidental.»

Inevitably, this coincidental resemblance results in the two men being mistaken for one another, but not until the film’s climax. The Barber is hustled onto a stage where his doppelganger was due to make a speech, and Chaplin delivers a sincere five-minute plea for decency and brotherhood that either spoils the film (in the view of the Pulitzer-winning critic Roger Ebert) or elevates it further still: «More than machinery, we need humanity! More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness!» For most of the running time, though, Chaplin cuts between the two characters’ separate storylines, so that we can never forget either the victims of Nazi persecution or the man responsible for it. In the ghetto, the gentle Barber romances a defiant washerwoman, Hannah, who is played by Chaplin’s wife at the time, Paulette Godard. (The scene in which Storm Troopers pelt Hannah with the tomatoes they have just stolen from a grocer’s shop is the most infuriating portrait of cowardly bullying imaginable.) Meanwhile, in his palace, Hynkel – aka the Phooey rather than the Führer – frets about how to outmanoeuvre his Mussolini-like rival, Benzino Napaloni.

Both strands are so bold that they make most big-screen satire seem feeble in comparison. In Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which came out in 1942, the word «Jew» is never spoken. Chaplin isn’t so coy. Central to the ghetto scenes is the fact that «Jew» has been daubed on all of the windows in capital letters. When the Barber tries to wipe off the paint, he is chased by Storm Troopers in sequences that recall Buster Keaton dodging crowds of policemen in Cops. But in this case, one such sequence concludes with the Storm Troopers throwing a noose around the Barber’s neck and hanging him from a lamp post. He is saved at the last second, but still, the speed with which Chaplin flips between slapstick and horror is breathtaking. It’s also worth noting that the Storm Troopers don’t have German accents – or even upper-crust English accents, as so many Nazis would in later Hollywood films. Most of them sound American.

In Hynkel’s palace, the comedy is lighter and more farcical. Chaplin sketches a caricature of European political shenanigans in the zany tradition of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. (Jack Oakie’s Napaloni is the kind of hearty Italian wise guy played by Chico Marx.) The dictator’s crimes aren’t ignored: on a whim, Hynkel orders 3000 protesters to be executed. But Chaplin concentrates on the character’s vanity, stupidity and childishness. In one throwaway visual gag, the towering filing cabinet behind his desk is shown to have no drawers at all, but several concealed mirrors instead. When Napaloni pays a state visit from the neighbouring country of Bacteria, the two men compete to have the higher chair while they are being shaved, and to have the more flattering position when they are being photographed.

The message is that Hynkel is not a brilliant strategist or a mighty leader. He is an overgrown adolescent – as demonstrated in the sublime set piece in which he dances with an inflatable globe, dreaming of being «emperor of the world». He is an insecure buffoon who bluffs, cheats, obsesses over his public image, manhandles his secretaries, revels in the luxury of his extravagant quarters, and reverses his own key policies in order to buy himself more time in power. «To me, the funniest thing in the world is to ridicule impostors,» wrote Chaplin in his autobiography, «and it would be hard to find a bigger impostor than Hitler.»

Hynkel’s anti-Semitic rants (consisting of cod-German punctuated by shouts of «Juden») are terrifying, but there is no conviction behind them, just a desperate need to distract the Tomainians from his economic failures. As his urbane sidekick and Goebbels substitute, Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), says: «Violence against the Jews might take the public’s mind off its stomach.»

The film has been accused of trivialising Nazi atrocities. Chaplin himself said, in his autobiography, «Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.» But he isn’t just making fun of Hitler – as Mel Brooks did in The Producers in 1967 – he is making an astute point about the fragile egos of male world leaders.

Think of today’s dictators and would-be dictators, in any country, and you can spot all the juvenile qualities that Chaplin identified: the fetish for photo opportunities, the lavish lifestyles, the policy flip-flops and the crackpot schemes, the self-aggrandising parades and the chests full of medals: Billy Gilbert’s Herring, ie. Göring, has so many medals pinned to his uniform that Hynkel has to turn him sideways to find room for the latest addition. Hitler was at the peak of his power when The Great Dictator was being made, but Chaplin had already recognised that, as with every subsequent dictator, his villainy was bound up with his immaturity.

According to biographer Jürgen Trimborn, much of the film was inspired by a screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Hitler documentary, Triumph of the Will, at the New York Museum of Modern Art. While other viewers were appalled, Chaplin roared with laughter at the ridiculous spectacle. This attitude sustained him when he was urged to abandon The Great Dictator. «I was determined to go ahead,» he wrote in his autobiography, «for Hitler must be laughed at.»


What Charlie Chaplin Got Right About Satirizing Hitler

The Great Dictator—Charlie Chaplin’s masterful satire of Adolf Hitler—began filming in September 1939, right at the start of World War II. By the time it was released in 1940, the Axis had been formed, and Nazis were already occupying much of France. The threat was not at all abstract: critic Michael Wood notes that the movie premiered that December, in London, amid German air raids. The following December, of 1941, would yield its own devastating threats from the air—this time on American soil, which would clarify for Americans the realness of this war by bringing it home.

It was, in other words, a strange moment to be making a comedy about Adolf Hitler—even a satire holding him to account, and even one in which Chaplin himself, who was at that point one of the most famous movie stars in the world, famous for playing the ambling, lovable Little Tramp, took on the role of Hitler. In 1940, Germany and the US had yet to become enemies; feathers, it was worried, would be ruffled by a movie like this. But Chaplin was already unwittingly bound up in the era’s iconographies of evil. His likeness, the Little Tramp, with that curt mustache and oddly compact face of his, had already become a visual reference for cartoonists lampooning Hitler in the press. And he was already on the Nazis’ radar: the 1934 Nazi volume The Jews Are Looking At You referred to him as «a disgusting Jewish acrobat.» Chaplin wasn’t Jewish. But he was frequently rumored to be. And when he visited Berlin in 1931, he was mobbed by German fans, proving that his popularity could surpass even the growing ideological boundaries of a nascent Nazi Germany—hence their hatred.

Chaplin was aware of all of this—and of the fact that he and Hitler were born only four days apart, in April of 1889, that they had both risen out of poverty, and that they had enough points of biographical comparison, overall, to spook any sane person. Let’s not overstate their similarities: One of these men would go on to make the world laugh, and the other would go on to start a world war and facilitate the Holocaust. Humorously, that split would come to be echoed in The Great Dictator. Chaplin does double duty, playing the movie’s two central roles. One, the character of Adenoid Hynkel, is a Hitler spoof by way of a short-tempered and preposterously powerful personality, a dictator of the fictional country Tomainia. And in the opposing corner, Chaplin offers us a variation on his classic Little Tramp, a Jewish barber who saves a high-ranking officer’s life in World War I and, after a plane accident and years of recovery in the hospital, wakes up to the seeds of World War II being sewn in his country.

The Great Dictator is a classic for a reason. It’s startling in its depictions of violence, which stand out less for their outright brutality than for how memorably they depict the Nazis’ betrayal of everyday humanity. And it’s renowned as well as for its resourceful and original humor, which combines Chaplin at his most incisive and balletic with raucous displays of verbal wit. This was Chaplin’s first sound film; his previous feature, the 1936 masterpiece Modern Times, was by the time of its release considered almost anachronistic for being a silent film in a sound era. Dictator avails itself of this technological progress, making perhaps its most successful bit out of the way Hitler speaks, the melange of rough sounds and brutish insinuations that have long made footage from his rallies as fascinating as they are frightening.

The Great Dictator understands Hitler as a performer, as an orator wielding language like the unifying, galvanizing power that it is. But it also understands him as a psyche. This of course means it’s full of what feel like sophomoric jokes, gags in which Hitler’s insecurities, his thirst for influence, his ideological inconsistencies (an Aryan revolution led by a brunette?) and zealous dependency on loyalty come under fire. It isn’t a psychological portrait, but nor is it so simple as a funhouse treatment of the coming war, all punchline and distortion.

It’s all a bit richer than that, which might be why The Great Dictator is on my mind this week, as we greet the release of Taiki Waititi’sJojo Rabbit, a movie in which Waititi himself plays Adolf Hitler, not quite in the flesh, but rather as imagined by a little Nazi boy who’s fashioned him into an imaginary friend. I’m not crazy about Waititi’s movie, which is less a satire than a vehicle for unchallenged moral goodness in the face of only barely-confronted evil. But it does, like Chaplin’s film, nosedive into the same problems of representation and comedy that have plagued movies since early in Hitler’s reign. Should we satirize genocidal maniacs? Can we laugh at that? And if so, can the line we usually toe between comedic pleasure and moral outrage—a mix that comes easily to comedy, in the best of cases—withstand something so inconceivable a mass atrocity?

That Chaplin’s movie succeeds where Waititi’s fails is a fair enough point, but comparing most comedians’ work to Chaplin’s more often than not results in an unfair fight. What matters are the things we can all still learn from Chaplin’s work, down to the fact that it so completely and unabashedly honors and toys with the public’s sense of who he is. This wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a movie if the Jewish barber hadn’t so readily recalled the Little Tramp. But because of this familiarity, The Great Dictator feels much the way movies like Modern Times did: like a story about the travails of an every-man who’s suddenly, with no preparation, launched headlong into machinery too great, too complex, too utterly beyond him, for it not to result in comic hi-jinks.

That’s the how barber’s first scenes out of the hospital, as beautifully staged and timed by Chaplin, feel: like watching the Little Tramp turn a corner and walk, completely unaware, into a world war. He sees «Jew» written on his barbershop, for example, but because he’s an amnesiac just released from the hospital, he has no idea why it’s there, and starts to wash it away. This is illegal, of course, and when the Nazis try to tell them so, he, thinking they’re run-of-the-mill brutish anti-Semites, douses them with paint and runs away. Much of the humor, at least in the clearly-marked «Ghetto,» where the Barber lives, plays out this way: a terrifying game of comic irony in which what the Barber doesn’t know both empowers and threatens to kill him.

The Hitler scenes, by contrast, are a ballet—at times almost literally—of alliances and petty tasks. The highlight must of course be a scene of Hitler alone, having just renewed his faith in his plan to take over the world, dancing with an inflated globe of the planet, bouncing it off his bum, posing like a pin-up on his desk as the globe floats airlessly skyward. You can’t help but laugh. But that laughter doesn’t mute the brooding danger of it. You see the globe, the ease with which he lifts it up, manipulates it, makes a game of it, and realize that this is precisely what a dictator wants. It’s a guileless and child-like vision, from his perspective, of his own power.

The Great Dictator’s famous climax finds these two men merging, somewhat, into one. It’s a rousing speech ostensibly delivered by the Jewish barber, who (for reasons best left to the movie to explain) has been confused for Hynkel by the Nazis and is called upon to speak to the masses. And then he opens his mouth—and the man that emerges is Chaplin himself, creeping beyond the boundaries of character, satire, or even the artificial construct of a «movie,» as such.

The speech makes a case for humanity in the face of grave evil. «We think too much and feel too little,» Chaplin says. «More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.» You’ll recognize this theme—»more than machinery we need humanity»—throughout Chaplin’s work, and it rings especially true here. Chaplin emerges, fully human, as himself, breaking free of the film’s satirical trappings, to deliver one from the heart.

It’s a scene that plays well on its own, as a standalone speech. For a long while, it was hard to find a version online that hadn’t been modified with dramatic «movie speech» music by way of Hans Zimmer. Youtube comments imply a recent upswing in activity, of people finding the speech anew in the Trump era, and that makes sense. But the scene plays even more strangely, more powerfully, in context, where it’s less easily lent to meme-able political messaging, where it has to brush up against everything else in the movie that’s come before.

It’s startling, frankly. The Great Dictator’s tone to this point never feels so earnest. How could it, what with its balletic Hitler and its foreign dictatorships with names like Bacteria. From the vantage of 1940, Chaplin couldn’t quite see where the war would take us, and it remains the case that some of the film plays oddly—but all the more insightfully for it—today. What’s clear from its final moments, to say nothing of much of the rest, is the power in this tension. Insofar as it can sense but not see the future, you could say that The Great Dictator is a film made in a cloud of relative ignorance. Yet look at how much it says, how far it goes. It makes it hard to make excuses for films made since, which often have the benefit of hindsight yet little of substance to say about what they see in the rear view. We know more, much more, about Hitler today than we did in 1940. Why should we let anyone get away with saying less?


The Final Speech from The Great Dictator

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish…

Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Final speech from The Great Dictator Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. All rights reserved


Los Top One de la T.I.A.

Francisco Ibáñez, maestro del humor

Corrían los primeros días del año 1958 cuando vieron la luz, en las páginas de la revista Pulgarcito, dos estrambóticos personajes: un detective con un atuendo a lo Sherlock Holmes y su ayudante, un hombre larguirucho vestido de negro. Eran la versión primitiva de Mortadelo y Filemón, dos de los más queridos personajes del humor español a lo largo de más de 60 años.

Su creador, Francisco Ibáñez, llevaba ya unos años dedicándose al tebeo; palabra castiza que él afirma preferir en lugar de “cómic” y que remite a la longeva revista española TBO. Nacido el 15 de marzo de 1936 en Barcelona, desde pequeño fue un amante de las historietas y a los once años ya publicó algunas para la revista infantil Chicos. En 1952 empezó a compaginar su trabajo como botones en el Banco Español de Crédito con la publicación de historietas para diversas revistas y suplementos de periódicos barceloneses.

Tal fue su éxito que al cabo de pocos años ya ganaba más con sus publicaciones que con su trabajo en el banco, por lo que se volcó completamente en el dibujo. Aunque en sus primeros tiempos Ibáñez trabajó para diversas revistas, en 1958 empezó a dibujar en exclusiva para la editorial Bruguera, una prolífica relación que duraría casi 30 años y que terminaría en un agrio divorcio cuando en 1985 la casa se quedó con los derechos de publicación de sus personajes.

La gran familia de Ibáñez

Antes de su partida, sin embargo, daría vida en las revistas de esta editorial a sus personajes más famosos: el cegato Rompetechos, el botones Sacarino -inspirado en su propia experiencia en esta profesión y en el cómic belga Spirou-, los “chapuzas” Pepe Gotera y Otilio, los habitantes del loco bloque de pisos situado en el número 13 de la Rue del Percebe y, por supuesto, los que se convirtieron en sus “hijos” más famosos: Mortadelo y Filemón.

Fue en las páginas de la revista Pulgarcito cuando aparecieron por primera vez, aunque por aquel entonces se trataba de historietas cortas y los personajes aún no estaban del todo definidos. Pero a partir de 1969, con la publicación del álbum El sulfato atómico, las historias se hicieron más largas y los protagonistas adquirieron su característico aspecto y personalidad: Mortadelo torpe, despistado y un as de los disfraces; su “jefe” Filemón, más prudente pero víctima de las desgracias ocasionadas por la torpeza del primero; y un estrambótico elenco de secundarios como el Super -superintendente de la T.I.A., una agencia de inteligencia-, que siempre les envía a las misiones más impensables, o el loco profesor Bacterio, cuyos inventos siempre traen problemas.

Mortadelo y Filemón es de lejos la creación más exitosa de Ibáñez, a la que todavía se dedica en la actualidad, tras recuperar sus derechos en 1988 gracias a un acuerdo con Ediciones B, heredera de los títulos de Bruguera. Un éxito que no solo hay que atribuir a su humor y personajes, sino también a la capacidad de su autor por sacar temas de los eventos de la actualidad española y mundial. A lo largo de sus 63 años de vida Mortadelo y Filemón han participado en los mundiales de fútbol, en las Olimpíadas, en la Guerra Fría y en el nacimiento de la Unión Europea, entre otras aventuras; y políticos, artistas, personajes históricos e incluso el propio autor han sido parodiados en sus páginas.

A día de hoy, los torpes agentes secretos de la T.I.A. suman más de 200 aventuras y siguen con la misma vitalidad que en sus inicios, a pesar de todas las desdichas por las que han pasado. Su fama ha tendido a eclipsar al resto de la familia Ibáñez, aunque sus historias han seguido reeditándose a lo largo de los años. Mención especial merece 13, Rue del Percebe por su original concepto, que nos invita a cotillear en la intimidad de los vecinos de un bloque de pisos.

A punto de cumplir 85 años y con más de 100 millones de álbumes vendidos, Francisco Ibáñez se ha convertido en uno de los historietistas españoles más prolíficos y reconocidos. Ha obtenido diversos reconocimientos, como la Medalla de Oro al mérito en las Bellas Artes en 2001, y su nombre ha sido propuesto como candidato al Premio Princesa de Asturias en las categorías de Artes o de Letras. A lo largo de casi 70 años de carrera profesional, ha sido tan prolífico como cualquier escritor y sus historias pueden considerarse a menudo un espejo de las bondades y miserias de la sociedad española: un espejo satírico y con un humor gamberro que no pasa de moda, pues como dice el autor, la vida sin humor “sencillamente no sería vida”.


Ibáñez, el rey del tebeo

El padre de Mortadelo y Filemón ha dibujado unas 50.000 páginas de esta pareja de cómic que ha marcado a varias generaciones de españoles. Su obra es también una especie de crónica de un país teñida de ficción y realidad a partes iguales. Hoy sigue empuñando el rotulador, asegura, porque siente el cariño de la gente. Visitamos en su guarida a un veterano mago del humor.

Francisco Ibáñez lleva 56 de sus 78 años dando vida a Mortadelo y Filemón, de los que calcula que habrá dibujado unas 50.000 páginas. Así que cuando uno pulsa el timbre y espera a que le abran la puerta en este bloque corriente y moliente de un barrio corriente y moliente de Barcelona, no puede pensar en otras cosas que las relacionadas con el estajanovismo, la producción en cadena y las laboriosas hormigas. Lo primero que ve el visitante son unas gafas; detrás de ellas, un señor simpático, socarrón y vehemente, y detrás de él, estanterías reventadas de tebeos. Ah, y la mesa. La mesa de dibujo. La mesa de dibujo inclinada, junto a la ventana, poblada de plumillas, lápices, bolígrafos, trozos de papel y –aunque no se vean– mundos extraños y pobres diablos protagonistas de cosas que somos todos: la emoción, la tristeza, la impotencia, el dolor y el fulgor, gama/disparate.

Por ahí pululan, por este saloncito años setenta donde pasa sus tardes Francisco Ibáñez, los disfraces de Mortadelo y los mamporros de Filemón. Mortadelo, trasunto en viñetas de la vertiente picaresca de la vida, cruce de caminos entre el Quijote, el Lazarillo y el expolicía Torrente. Filemón, retrato matemático, cruel, de cierto españolito de cuando entonces, que sigue siendo el de ahora, animoso, resignado, victimista y con mala uva. Mortadelo y Filemón, agencia de información, paridos por la mano de Ibáñez en 1958 en el número 1.394 de la revista Pulgarcito, historieta hecha leyenda o, como tituló Antoni Guiral de forma certera su fantástico libro sobre la escuela Bruguera (1945-1963), Cuando los cómics se llamaban tebeos.

Francisco Ibáñez sigue ahí, asomado a la mesa, al dulce potro de tortura, dando a la imprenta páginas y más páginas y álbumes y más álbumes, el último de ellos Mortadelo y Filemón contra Jimmy el cachondo, versión papel de la película del mismo título dirigida por Javier Fesser y recientemente estrenada con el éxito de público que se le auguraba (la tercera, tras La gran historia de Mortadelo y Filemón, del propio Fesser, y Mortadelo y Filemón: misión, salvar la tierra, de Miguel Bardem). ¿Por qué seguir después de 56 años?

–¿Es que, si lo dejara, se aburriría?

–Pues… sí, desde luego a este paso parece que voy a acabar yo antes que los personajes, ¿no? No sé, hay momentos que ya… no sé, uno está cansado, y dices, ¿y para qué?, pero claro, entonces vuelves a ver que la cosa le gusta a la gente y entonces sigues.

Se llama la irresistible inercia del éxito popular, o quién sabe, la irresistible inercia a secas.

Bien lo sabe el padre de Mortadelo, y de Pepe Gotera, y del botones Sacarino, y de 13, Rue del Percebe, y sobre todo de Rompetechos –“mi favorito”, deja caer Ibáñez sin vacilar–, exponente supremo del eterno tebeo español, ese fenómeno de masas que balbucea a mediados de los cincuenta en cabeceras como La Risa o Paseo Infantil, que eclosiona y estalla en los primeros sesenta de la mano de los hermanos Francisco y Pantaleón Bruguera (el uno, republicano; el otro, franquista, ambos empresarios de corte paternalista y absolutamente seguros de lo que perseguían: edificar un imperio y aplastar a la competencia en el sector del tebeo) y que desemboca en el mismísimo hoy: Barcelona, 2014, Ibáñez dibujando, a punto de cumplir 79 años, a Jimmy el Cachondo, el profesor Bacterio, el Súper, Ofelia y nuestros inefables agentes secretos de la T.I.A.

En tiempos no ya de perenne metamorfosis sino de progresiva derrota de lo tangencial y lo analógico a manos de lo virtual y lo digital, bien puede decirse que nada o prácticamente nada ha cambiado para Francisco Ibáñez Talavera (Barcelona, 1936). Sus lapiceros, sus hojas de papel, sus tintas, su imaginación… Nada ha sido fácil en una vida dedicada a construir mundos imaginarios a golpe de viñeta: “Ahí sigo, igual que siempre, bueno, igual no, porque con el paso del tiempo… Mira, en la profesión mía, hacer cinco páginas a la semana es lo normal. Hacer 10 es una heroicidad. Hacer 15 ya es increíble. Y yo durante muchos años hice 20 páginas a la semana. De día, de noche, fines de semana, sin vacaciones, nada, nada, a dibujar todo el rato. La verdad es que en aquellos tiempos la editorial Bruguera nos tenía bastante esclavizados. Era sencillo: querían producir y producir, y producir masivamente, y así reventaban el mercado, reventaban la competencia, que no podía seguir aquel ritmo”.

Ha evitado, hasta donde ha sido posible, figurar en primera línea de fuego en la promoción de la película de Javier Fesser, “se lo ha tenido que comer casi todo el Fesser, el pobre”, comenta no sin que una risilla asome en sus ojos de niño grande. Mortadelo y Filemón, agencia de información (a los que en un principio iba a llamar Mister Cloro y Mister Yesca, agencia detectivesca, o Lentejo y Fideíno, detectives finos) son importantes, pero aún lo es más la familia y la salud. Alerta roja. Y así son hoy las mañanas de Ibáñez: “Por la mañana salgo un rato a pasear, por prescripción facultativa más que nada, porque me dijo el médico que estaba jodidillo y que eso de quedarme quieto todo el día en casa que no podía ser. Así que me puse con el deporte. Me apunté a una piscina de esas de barrio y oye, me hacía 40 piscinas, pero era aburridísimo. El caso es que cuando ya me creía un Mark Spitz, un día, en la calle de al lado, vi cómo una chiquita se hacía cuatro largos en el tiempo en que yo me hacía uno. Me desanimé y lo dejé. Y ahora salgo a caminar, tres cuartos de hora más o menos, y bien”.

Sin tontos registros de nostalgia, pero con mucho respeto y mucho cariño hacia una época y los nombres y apellidos que la habitaron (sus compañeros en Bruguera, Escobar, Peñarroya, Cifré, Vázquez, Raf…), aquel antiguo empleado del Banco Español de Crédito reconvertido en dibujante de chistes para gran cabreo y preocupación de su padre recuerda la vida de entonces. “A las ocho o nueve de la mañana ya me llamaban los de la editorial: ‘¡Ibáñez! ¿Cómo van esas páginas?’. Y cuando las tenía acabadas, pues nada, me metía la carpeta debajo del brazo y me acercaba a entregarlas, un poco como la modista que va a entregar el vestido que ha hecho durante la semana; me pagaban el trabajo de la semana anterior y listos. A veces aprovechaba para comer o tomar algo con algún otro compañero del trabajo que estuviera por allí y luego, hala, vuelta a casa, a volver a sentarte en el taburete y a seguir dibujando”.

–Es increíble el ritmo que llevó durante aquellos años sesenta y setenta, y es increíble que siga trabajando con esa intensidad. ¿No se sintió Francisco Ibáñez explotado, algo así como una vaca lechera a la que le exprimen las ubres sin descanso, o como la gallina de los huevos de oro a la que no se deja descansar?

–En Bruguera así fue, claramente, pero nunca me quejé, nunca dije que me estaban explotando, yo seguía allí sencillamente porque quería. Eso sí, Bruguera siempre se negó a que los autores tuviéramos los derechos de nuestros personajes, se negó en redondo. Los dueños pusieron cláusulas en los contratos que decían que aquellos personajes eran “herramientas de trabajo en poder de la editorial, que pagaba por ello a sus autores”. O sea, que nosotros no teníamos derecho absolutamente a nada. Te decían: “Oiga, Ibáñez, aquí se trata de producir, ¿eh?, y si no lo hace usted, pues lo hará otro, ya sabe”.

Era un tiempo en el que centenares de miles de niños españoles acometían, sin saberlo, su primera iniciación a la lectura desde las páginas de aquellas revistillas que costaban cinco pesetas, que se llamaban Tio Vivo, DDT, Pulgarcito o Din Dan, y que alcanzaban tiradas de 350.000 ejemplares… semanales. Luego vendrían Mortadelo Especial, Mortadelo Gigante, Súper Mortadelo…, había que estrujar a la gallina de los huevos de oro. Otros personajes de autores rivales, como Zipi y Zape, Anacleto, agente secreto, Las hermanas Gilda, Carpanta o Sir Tim O’Theo también triunfaban…, pero la comparación con Mortadelo y Filemón era inviable. Una era, definitivamente, ida. “Todo eso acabó, los tebeos han desaparecido. Hubo un tiempo en el que en los quioscos veías decenas de colecciones. En la historieta realista estaban El Capitán Relámpago, El Capitán Tormenta, El Capitán Trueno… ¡Cada fenómeno atmosférico tenía su propio capitán en forma de tebeo! Y en la cosa cómica, el Pulgarcito, el DDT, el Tio Vivo, el Din Dan, había una cantidad tremenda de títulos y personajes. Hoy no hay nada. Ha desaparecido todo. Sólo han quedado las revistas esas, ¿cómo les llaman? Románticas. De autores de tebeos sólo quedamos Jan, que hace el Superlópez, y yo. Pero de mi época, sólo yo, claro, no queda nadie, coño. Me he quedado solo. Es un poco triste”.

–Bueno, yo no diría que es el último superviviente de los tebeos clásicos; usted es más que eso, es el último superviviente de toda una época y de toda una forma de cultura popular. Usted hizo reír al franquismo, al antifranquismo, al tardofranquismo, al posfranquismo, a la Transición, a la democracia…

–¡Je, je, je! Sí, es un poco así, sí. Y la verdad es que guardo buenos recuerdos de aquellos primeros años, a pesar del franquismo; coño, hoy mucha gente dice: “Qué horror, qué mal está todo”. Pero yo les diría: “Joder, pues menos mal que no tuvisteis que vivir el franquismo, que aquello sí que…”. Pero da igual derecha que izquierda, yo he hecho reír igual a todos. Y también les he metido en las historietas, pero con cuidado, ¿eh?, sin intención de molestar.

–Y además, siempre tocando temas de actualidad. En ese sentido, ha sido usted en cierto modo un poco periodista, ¿no?

–Pues sí, pero estoy pensando que voy a dejar este sistema. Es que en un periódico, pum, pasa algo hoy y mañana ya sale publicado. Pero aquí no, a mí hacer un álbum me cuesta dos meses, entre que lo dibujas, lo entintas, lo mandas a imprimir, etcétera. Así que cuando eso sale a la calle, aquel suceso del que he hablado a lo mejor ya no interesa porque mientras tanto han ocurrido 28.000 cosas más. O directamente el personaje en cuestión se ha ido de este mundo. Una vez hice un álbum que, parodiando lo de El señor de los anillos, se tituló El señor de los ladrillos. El protagonista era un señor muy gordo que vivía en Andalucía y que tenía un equipo de fútbol y un caballo que se llamaba Imperioso…, y cuando estaba en las últimas páginas una mañana veo en el periódico que se ha muerto. ¡Hostia, que se ha muerto! Y ya no lo saqué, claro.

A punto de los 79 años –los cumplirá en marzo–, “a lo que uno aspira es a no molestar demasiado a los demás”, sostiene Francisco Ibáñez, que se esfuerza en quitar hierro a la cosa y en no salirse de madre con respecto a la trascendencia a su obra: “El trabajo mío nunca ha sido de crítica social, económica o política; nada de eso, para eso ya están los que hacen los chistes de los periódicos, que por cierto lo hacen magníficamente, aunque poco a poco también esa tradición va desapareciendo. Yo he hecho y hago historietas. Y les gustan. Los chisteros de la prensa hacen a la gente reflexionar sobre la realidad. Yo les hago evadirse de la realidad”.

Mucho más guionista que dibujante según su propia apreciación de sí mismo, hay algo que le llama la atención: la endémica escasez de buenos contadores de historias en un país que, asegura, en teoría está especialmente dotado para ello. “Hoy ya no hay buenos guionistas. Y me choca, coño, vivimos en un país de gente graciosa, tú vas a una reunión y siempre hay el típico tío con una memoria prodigiosa que te cuenta 48 chistes con una gracia que te despatarras de risa, pero yo no sé qué pasa que luego a la gente le das un lápiz y le pones delante de un papel y ¡pssssst! Y es una cosa general, yo creo que en el cine y en la televisión también pasa esto. Y en la literatura. Hay gente con un estilo literario tremendo…, pero un coñazo. Yo creo que Harold Bloom exagera cuando dice que desde Beckett no hay nada nuevo…, pero es verdad que yo ahora mismo no encuentro nada que me interese demasiado”. Y prosigue en su reivindicación a ultranza de los contadores de historias: “Yo nunca he sido un buen dibujante, ¿eh?, a veces me dicen: ‘Mira, Ibáñez, el dibujante’; y no, a lo sumo Ibáñez, el historietista. Hay gente que sí, que hace viñetas que podían colgarse en el Museo del Prado, o en el Louvre, o en la National Gallery, a mí se me cae la baba viendo lo que hacen. No es mi caso. Pero en cambio, a mí se me han dado siempre bien los guiones, contar historias. Y eso es muy dificilillo, ¿eh? Lo más importante en una historieta es el guion, es lo que atrapa al público. Tú puedes dibujar una página bestial, imponente, barroca, magnífica, pero si el guion no engancha, eso no funcionará. Lo que pasa es que después de 60 años… los temas se agotan. Antes cogías un lápiz y un bloc, te inventabas cuatro sketches y cuatro gags, los ligabas y tenías la historia. Ahora te pones delante del papel en blanco y te preguntas: ‘¿Y qué pongo?”.

Cuando toque corneta la evidencia del paso del tiempo y la llegada del descanso, a Ibáñez le quedarán sus criaturas, lo inventado, lo plasmado en papel y lápiz, tantas mañanas, tantas tardes y tantas noches a bordo del tablero de dibujo. Y más cosas, pero sobre todo una: sus lectores, los de antes y los de ahora, los de siempre, incluidos esos padres que compran tebeos a sus nenes para leerlos ellos. Recuerdos, homenajes al público: “Cuando empecé a hacer sesiones de firma de libros casi todos los que venían eran niños; ahora eso ha cambiado mucho, yo me atrevería a decir casi que vienen más adultos que niños, qué curioso, ¿verdad? Vienen médicos, abogados, arquitectos… y me cuentan cómo, algunos días de esos de nubarrones en la cabeza, se meten por la noche en la cama y cogen un albumito de los míos y acaban el día felices. Yo a veces pienso que a Mortadelo y Filemón los deberían vender en las farmacias, en tubitos, como somníferos”.

Se ve caer ya la tarde frente a la ventana de Francisco Ibáñez, por donde muere la Gran Vía y por donde Barcelona enciende sus luces. Debajo de su casa hay un bar de los de siempre y con lo de siempre, Los Porrillos, se llama, que ya es llamarse. Allí se acodará Ibáñez junto a Mortadelo y junto a Filemón Pi, el putilla y el eterno perdedor. A tomar algo y a preguntarse cosas. Cosas como por qué los vejestorios (o jovenzuelos) gerifaltes de la alta cultura nunca pudieron con los tebeos. “Ha habido siempre un desprecio total hacia los tebeos por parte de la alta cultura; yo me acuerdo de una vez que mi editor me hizo ir al Café Gijón a un encuentro de los autores más vendidos. Yo le dije: ‘No me jodas, ¿qué pinto yo en el Gijón, tú sabes qué autores estarán allí?’. Y bueno, bah, al final fui. Y todavía me acuerdo de ver cómo pasó delante de mí aquel autor de teatro, Buero Vallejo, y me miró como diciendo: ‘Pero ¿qué hace este desgraciao aquí?’. ¡Qué caras ponían al verme!”.

Pero oigan: que le quiten lo bailao, que levante el dedo el que haya vendido en este país más libros que Francisco Ibáñez. Que levante el dedo el que haya propiciado más nuevos lectores que él. Que se levante y se reivindique quien crea que ha llegado a más corazones que Mortadelo.


Mortadelo y Filemón, espejo de España

Parte I. Su historia

Es probable que cuando Francisco Ibáñez llegó en 1958 a la Editorial Bruguera con sus ilustraciones bajo el brazo ya no tuviera pelo. El asunto de la calvicie siempre ha estado muy presente en la obra del maestro, tanto en sus personajes como en las recurrentes caricaturas de sí mismo con las que se parodia en algunas de sus historias. De modo que, desde siempre, así lo recuerdan (recordamos) sus seguidores: calvo como una pelota de playa. Contaba solo con 22 años cuando llamó a la puerta de la editorial, pero en el imaginario de sus fans, Ibáñez ya era entonces calvo. Sin duda.

Traía el dibujante un proyecto que consistía en tiras cómicas en blanco y negro de dos detectives bastante torpes. No tenía claro el nombre, así que Ibáñez le comentó al editor que barajaba tres posibilidades: ‘Mr. Cloro y Mr. Yesca, agencia detectivesca’; ‘Ocarino y Pernales, agentes especiales’ y ‘Lentejo y Fideíno, detectives finos’.  Al editor le gustaron las historias en una proporción inversa a los nombres, así que decidió inventar unos nuevos: Mortadelo y Filemón, agencia de información.

Nacían así, sin demasiada fanfarria, dos personajes que ya son historia moderna de España. No es una exageración. O sí, pero no importa.
Las primeras andanzas de Mortadelo y Filemón, agencia de información fueron publicadas en la revista infantil Pulgarcito, de Editorial Bruguera. En concreto –dato para fans-, la primera aventura de la historia de Mortadelo y Filemón se publicó el 20 de enero de 1958, en el número 1.394 de Pulgarcito. Su éxito, desde ese momento, fue progresivo y durante los diez años que duró la publicación, las ventas de la revista no dejaron de aumentar.

En aquella década Mortadelo y Filemón eran dos detectives que se encargaban de casos bastante nimios. Para muchos, en esta primera época, la historieta era una parodia de Sherlock Holmes y el doctor Watson, cuyas aventuras estaban muy de moda por entonces. Mortadelo era el único empleado de la agencia, inocente e ingenuo, y Filemón era el jefe, sin sentido del humor y con fijación en reñir a Mortadelo.

Las historias siempre terminaban con una torpeza de manual de Mortadelo y el enfado de Filemón, que a veces se traducía en una persecución para agredirle. En realidad, Filemón lleva agrediendo a Mortadelo más de cincuenta años y pese a ello este último sigue aceptando este tipo de abusos sin quejarse.

En aquella época Mortadelo vestía traje negro con levita (levita que se mantiene hasta la actualidad), con un bombín en la cabeza y un paraguas del que, originariamente, sacaba los disfraces. Filemón –desde el minuto uno, el jefe– usaba un sombrero de fieltro, chaqueta roja y pipa. Estos portes son una de las primeras muestras de genialidad de Ibáñez, ya que nadie vestía así en la España de 1958. El universo particular y único de Mortadelo y Filemón acababa de nacer y ya era reconocible, sobre todo sus detalles de fondo que siguen vigentes hasta hoy: un perro fumando, una araña mareada o un ratón borracho. Cosas en las que ninguno de los personajes repara nunca, porque forma parte de la normalidad de su mundo.

Mortadelo se disfraza desde la segunda historieta, un recurso que se antojará fundamental en las cientos de historias posteriores de los personajes. Se cuenta –aunque nunca fue confirmado por el autor– que la idea de que Mortadelo se disfrazase fue de Manuel Vázquez Gallego, historietista contemporáneo de Ibáñez y amigo del autor. Los disfraces del personaje se van perfeccionando y ganando en complejidad y llegan a alcanzar su culmen cuando Mortadelo se disfraza de universo en El disfraz, cosa falaz (1995).

En realidad, ¿qué hay después del disfraz de universo? ¿Del disfraz de todo, de toda la materia y no materia? Es más, ¿dónde quedaba el universo real, la realidad material una vez Mortadelo se ha disfrazado de ella? ¿Es un universo-disfraz paralelo o abarca en sí mismo la realidad haciendo que sea una suerte de metadisfraz que contiene todo lo demás? Sea como sea, todo un logro por parte de Mortadelo.

Tres años después de su primera publicación, los personajes pierden los sombreros. El dibujo se estiliza y en 1966 adquieren, prácticamente, su aspecto actual. Filemón (del que se conoce el apellido: Filemón Pi) se despoja de su americana y su nariz disminuye. No así la de Mortadelo, que se mantiene poderosa y actúa como soporte a sus extrañas gafas: unas gafas con unas patillas de unos 15 centímetros hacia afuera, de modo que las lentes quedan notablemente separadas del rostro, algo absurdo, inútil, pero que Mortadelo nunca se detiene a pensar ni se plantea arreglar.

En 1969 el éxito es tan meridiano, que Editorial Bruguera decide crear Gran Pulgarcito, una revista más grande y amplia donde las historias cortas de Mortadelo y Filemón se convierten en aventuras largas. La primera historia extensa es el inolvidable El sulfato atómico.

Cuenta con un dibujo detallado y un trazo cuidado que Ibáñez nunca volvería a usar con tanto esmero (si acaso en Valor y… ¡al toro!, en 1970, pero no al mismo nivel). En esta historia la existencia y realidad de Mortadelo y Filemón cambian: ya no son dos detectives en una agencia cutre, ahora son, por primera vez, agentes especiales de la T.I.A. (Agencia de Investigación Aeroterráquea), al servicio del superintendente Vicente (conocido como el Súper) y con el apoyo logístico del profesor Bacterio, un reputado y desastroso científico que dejó calvo crónico a Mortadelo con un crecepelo infalible.

La aventura narra la misión de los dos agentes en Tirania, una república militarizada que –se supone– está en Centroeuropa y cuyo dictador, el general Bruteztrausen, tiene como ambición nada menos que dominar el mundo. Para lograrlo, el general se sirve del sulfato atómico, un invento del profesor Bacterio que, se suponía, iba a servir para eliminar plagas de las cosechas, pero cuyo efecto verdadero (los inventos del profesor Bacterio siempre producen resultados inversos a los pretendidos) es el de agrandar a los insectos hasta el tamaño de un elefante. El Súper, indignado porque Bacterio se haya dejado robar el potingue, envía a Mortadelo y Filemón a recuperarlo. El final, claro, no se debe contar.

El Sulfato atómico le van a seguir otros clásicos irrenunciables para fans, como Contra el gang del ChicharrónSafari Callejero (ambas también de 1969); la mencionada Valor y… ¡al toro! y E’ (1970) o Chapeau el ‘esmirriau’La caja de los diez cerrojosMagín el mago y ¡A la caza del cuadro! en 1971. Casi todos ellos tienen una estructura similar, con una serie de capítulos cíclicos en los que van resolviendo la misión para al final dar al traste con todo, algo que desencadena la ira del Súper.

Llama la atención la descomunal envergadura de las misiones que les encargan a dos agentes evidentemente torpes (destronar a un dictador, enfrentarse a la mafia italiana, recorrer el mundo en busca de diez llaves escondidas….) y cómo estos se prestan a ejecutarlas sin ningún tipo de garantía para su integridad. Pero en esto ahondaremos enseguida.

El éxito de las aventuras publicadas es tal, que la Editorial Bruguera decide crear en 1970 la revista Mortadelo y en 1971 arranca la colección Olé, tebeos de tapa blanda en el que se editan individualmente cada una de las historietas largas. Los lomos verdes de esta colección y sus portadas ya forman parte de la historia de cualquier treintañero que se precie.

En 1978 hace aparición otro clásico de la Transición: el Súper Humor, tomos de tapa dura en los que se editan dos o tres aventuras largas y que obligaban a pagar el alto peaje de leer a Zipi y Zape si se quería disfrutar de Mortadelo y Filemón.

Cuando arranca la década de los 80, los personajes de Ibáñez saborean la plenitud de su éxito. Incluso trascienden fronteras y se instalan en otros países europeos y latinoamericanos. Mort and Phil en Reino Unido, Paling and Ko en Holanda, Mortadelo e Salaminho en Brasil, Zriki Svargla & Sule Globus en Yugoslavia… y Clever & Smart en Alemania. El país germano fue el más receptivo de todos y el éxito de Mortadelo y Filemón allí fue –y es– casi tan grande como lo ha sido en España. De hecho, Ibáñez publicó en 1981 En Alemania, una aventura dedicada al país en la que los dos agentes recorren la geografía germana en una colección de parodias y estereotipos memorable: en Renania, Ibáñez retrata a los vecinos como unos austeros enfermizos.

El colmo es que Mortadelo y Filemón deben infiltrarse en el club del ahorro donde el tipo que les recibe les dice que solo lee las noches que hay relámpagos y moja el pan en la sombra del huevo frito. “Y solo soy conserje, oiga”. Los miembros del club se leen la mano porque no tienen libros, se sientan en el aire y al preguntarles a Mortadelo y Filemón si quieren tomar algo, se refieren a tomar el aire o tomar la tensión. Por cierto, en este álbum –aquel año– fueron censurados los chistes sobre el Muro de Berlín, al que Mortadelo y Filemón se acercaban por error y eran acribillados a balazos, bombas y granadas al grito de «¡Contraatacan los aliados desembarcados en Normandía!».

La idílica carrera de Ibáñez tropezó en 1985 cuando, tras un enfrentamiento con la Editorial Bruguera, pierde los derechos de sus personajes. El juicio duraría tres años durante los cuales Bruguera encargaría a otros dibujantes seguir realizando aventuras mortadelianas. Así, durante esa época, aparecen historias apócrifas, como A la caza del Chotta o La médium Paquita.

Sin saber exactamente lo que estaba pasando, somos muchos los niños de aquella época a los que algo nos olía mal, muy mal, en aquellas historias de trazo raro y humor desviado. El maestro regresó con sus derechos en 1988 y firmó un nuevo contrato con Ediciones B, del Grupo Zeta, con quien sigue ligado en la actualidad.

En esta nueva etapa Mortadelo y Filemón comienzan a vivir situaciones relacionadas con la actualidad. Sus historias ya no son atemporales y en lugares ficticios: ahora se desarrollan en lugares reales y con personajes que existen de verdad. En este resurgir se publican aventuras como El atasco de influenciasEl nuevo cate o Dinosaurios. Para no pocos lectores, estos títulos suponen los últimos grandes clásicos mortadelianos.

En los 90 el estilo de trazo cambia, desaparecen las revistas y ya no existen historias que no estén pegadas a la actualidad. ¡Llegó el euro!E’ o El carné al punto son la última hornada de historias que perdieron, en opinión de algunos, cierta parte de la esencia que caracterizaba a Mortadelo y Filemón. ¿En qué consiste o consistía esa esencia? Hablemos de ellos. Hablemos del universo paralelo en el que viven Mortadelo y Filemón.

Parte II. Su universo

Lo primero que hay que preguntarse es por qué Mortadelo y Filemón se prestan a llevar la vida que llevan. Dedican su vida a ser agentes encargados de realizar misiones de altísimo riesgo, en la mayoría de ellas se juegan la vida y atraviesan situaciones límite: reciben balazos, granadas, palizas, son atropellados, perseguidos, apresados y torturados. A cambio, reciben un miserable sueldo. Mortadelo y Filemón son pobres. Pobres de solemnidad. Visten siempre igual, compran camisas de quince pesetas y llevan agujeros en los calcetines. No tienen coche. Tampoco tienen casa: viven en una pensión. No siempre comen tres veces al día.

Con todo y con eso, se juegan la vida con encargos inhumanos propios de un boina verde. Por si fuera poco no tienen preparación: no saben pelear, no saben idiomas ni tienen ninguna habilidad especial más allá de la picaresca callejera que enseguida pasaremos a analizar. Y con eso y con todo se les exige lo máximo. Pero se les exige a golpes. Su jefe, el superintendente Vicente, les trata con despotismo. Él es millonario, tiene deportivos de lujo, casa de campo, fuma habanos y colecciona arte moderno. Y los trata a patadas. Les obliga a llevar a cabo sus misiones a la fuerza, apuntándoles con una escopeta o sometiéndoles a torturas (frotar su vientre con un erizo o hacerles ver varias horas seguidas El precio justo).

Mortadelo y Filemón, normalmente, se niegan e incluso huyen a la carrera tras escuchar las órdenes de su superior. Este no les abre un expediente o les echa por el desplante, simplemente encarga que los persigan y los traigan de vuelta. La relación laboral entre Mortadelo y Filemón y el Súper consiste en que este último les obliga a arriesgar su vida a la fuerza, sin recompensa económica y con medios precarios (jamás les proporciona un medio –como mucho les da unas suelas–, siempre tienen que desplazarse como polizones o en autobús de bajísima calidad) y estos terminan siempre aceptando.

Además, si la misión sale mal, el Súper intenta darles una paliza. Todo es esquizofrénico. En ningún momento Mortadelo o Filemón se paran y se plantean lo absurdo de su existencia. No tienen por qué aguantar golpes, miseria y sufrimiento a cambio de nada. Pero lo hacen. Ese es su universo. Su genial, hilarante y tremebundo universo.

La relación entre Mortadelo y Filemón también es asombrosa. Para empezar, se tratan de usted. Llevan décadas trabajando juntos, pero se tratan de usted. Hasta cuando se insultan: «Es usted un pollino» o se amenazan: «Le voy a agujerear el colodrillo». Nunca pierden las formas. En realidad, todo el mundo se trata de usted en el universo mortadeliano. Aunque se eleve la voz y el enfado, el usted se mantiene: «Oiga, eso usted a mí no me lo dice en la calle». Lo del trato de usted es de las pocas cosas que podemos contar de la vida privada de Mortadelo y Filemón.

Aunque en 1998 Ibáñez publicó Su vida privada, un álbum en el que se desvelan algunos detalles desconocidos hasta ese momento, la vida personal de ambos personajes es borrosa, a pesar de conocerlos desde hace más de cincuenta años. Sabemos que la familia de Mortadelo es de pueblo y la de Filemón urbanita. De hecho, en otro giro inexplicable, Filemón tiene relación con la alta sociedad: conoce a condes, duques y burgueses y sabe comportarse en sociedad. Eso, a pesar de que vive de una forma miserable sin que nadie de su entorno le eche un capote.

En 1971 Ibáñez había publicado La historia de Mortadelo y Filemón, pero de nuevo el retrato no es suficiente como para descubrir nada especial. Ese es parte de su encanto: que no está muy claro de dónde salen ni a dónde van estos personajes.

Su lugar de trabajo también es absurdo. ¿Qué es la TIA? ¿Una organización dependiente de qué? Sus agentes son torpes y miserablemente remunerados, pero en cambio la TIA recibe encargos directos del gobierno que les hacen tratar directamente con políticos extranjeros, mercenarios, ejércitos, mafias y supervisar eventos deportivos de primer orden. También les encargan misiones de escolta y hasta de sicarios. Más aún: existen organizaciones enemigas como la ABUELA o la SOBRINA, agencias con sede, perfecta organización y economía que viven –se supone– al margen de la ley. ¿De dónde salen estos entramados? ¿Cómo se financian?

Son respuestas que nunca obtendremos y son preguntas que los personajes jamás se plantean.

La dinámica de sus misiones es reconocible: Mortadelo arguye un plan, Filemón le escucha con emoción, lo ejecutan, fracasa y Filemón sufre terribles accidentes. Acto seguido, Filemón intenta dar una paliza a Mortadelo como represalia. Minutos después, Mortadelo vuelve a proponer otro plan y Filemón lo vuelve a aceptar. Nada ocurre después de las agresiones. Ni del Súper ni entre ellos.

Se dan puñetazos, se arrojan cosas, se tiran por la ventana y se dan todo tipo de golpes espantosos sin que haya absolutamente ningún tipo de rencor, enfado o recordatorio posterior. Golpearse forma parte de su comunicación no verbal normal.

La corrección política no existe: Ibáñez hace chistes con gays, obesas, negros, terroristas árabes, usureros judíos… nadie se libra. Ofelia, la secretaria de la TIA, es una mujer gorda, obsesionada con su imagen, pero esclava de su glotonería y que busca desesperadamente un novio. Un candidato recurrente es Mortadelo, por el que siente un amor-odio polarizado al límite. Mortadelo siempre la humilla. En una ocasión le ofrece un regalo. «Señorita Ofelia, le traigo un pajarito que es su viva imagen». Ofelia desconfía: «Um, ahí llega ese mendrugo calvo», pero enseguida cae rendida. «¿Sí?». «¿Una linda palomita blanca? ¿Un ave del paraíso?», pregunta emocionada. «No, una cotorra mollejuda del Afganistán». Y entonces Ofelia, ofendida, le lanza una plancha.

El universo al que pertenecen Mortadelo y Filemón es la España cañí llevada al extremo. La España todavía vigente de trampas, engaños, ignorancia, golferío y corrupción. Los deportistas españoles siempre ofrecen torrentes de excusas; en las fiestas de alta alcurnia, los invitados de la burguesía devoran caviar a dos manos y rajan sin piedad unos de otros. En El transformador metabólico (1979), la condesa se tropieza accidentalmente y acaba con el plato de caviar en la boca mientras cae con violencia hacia adelante. Dos señores de chaqué que contemplan la escena comentan: «Sí que trae hambre, la andoba».

La calidad de los productos nacionales es nefasta: las camisas son de trapo, el tabaco es Celtas sin filtro, los coches se estropean… Hay robos de gasolina, atracos, mecheros de contrabando de Andorra, inseguridad alarmante en las calles, cacos de manual y quinquis de toda la vida.

Para combatirlos está la policía que, por alguna razón, en la aventuras de Mortadelo y Filemón, van uniformados como bobbys ingleses y son llamados «gendarmes», a pesar de ser españoles. Es un misterio. Su comportamiento, en cambio, tiene poco de británico: la mayoría de policías aceptan sobornos, multan para hacer caja (mientras salivan y su nariz se torna aguileña) y recurren a la violencia a la mínima.

Los políticos, claro, no se libran. Son representados como torpes, vagos y extremadamente corruptos. Siempre llegan tarde a las cumbres mundiales, se quedan dormidos o meten la pata, como cuando el ministro debe anunciar que Barcelona es la sede elegida para los Juegos Olímpicos de 1992, pero se le traspapelan los documentos mientras se le caen las gafas y grita «¡Valdepera!».

En esta España de caricatura también se utiliza lo nacional para parodiar el atraso que vivía (y al fin y al cabo vive) España con respecto a otros países de su entorno. De ahí algunos importantes asuntos políticos que giran en el eje Washington-Berlín-Cuenca o reputados periódicos que lee el Súper como puede ser el Lugo Herald Tribune. Este atraso alcanza su culmen cuando Ibáñez traslada a sus agentes a un pueblo. Los pueblos de la España profunda son un escenario recurrente en las aventuras de Mortadelo y Filemón y en ellos la bruticie se muestra en plenitud. De hecho, el nombre de estas villas ya define a sus vecinos.

En Villacascajo de los Bestiajos, por ejemplo, los vecinos son una suerte de trogloditas que comparten cama con un caballo o agitan la vaca antes de ordeñarla para obtener mantequilla. La mejor caricatura al subdesarrollo rural aparece en Lo que el viento se dejó (1981), donde nada más entrar en el pueblo, Mortadelo y Filemón ven a un vecino haciendo grava a cabezazos contra las rocas.

El lenguaje también es único. Mortadelo, Filemón y todo el elenco de personajes que les rodean usan palabras que muchos de los lectores (muchos de nosotros) no habíamos oído antes ni en realidad hemos vuelto a escuchar. «Andoba, merluzo, rayos y centellas. Sapristi, corcho, sopla». La lista de vocablos que solo se usan en el universo mortadeliano es amplísima y su influencia en toda una generación, innegable.

Lo mismo pasa con los apodos de los villanos, ya sea Mike ‘El Trinchabueyes’ o Johny ‘Aplastayunques’, y los apellidos. Los apellidos mortadelianos son claves en la obra. Todos tienen que ver con la vida del que lo posee, aunque esta se haya definido con posterioridad, Así, el director de una importante compañía de tabacos se apellida Nicotínez, el inspector de Hacienda es Buítrez y dueño de la tienda de cactus se llama Agujeto Pinchúdez. Los agentes también responden a sus características a partir del apellido. El señor Numeríllez es el contable, Remúlez es el agente más fuerte y el agente Carbúrez es el encargado de mecánica. A veces se usa con ironía: Patricio Ardíllez es un agente anciano que no se sostiene en pie sin bastón.

Además de las palabras, las expresiones de Ibáñez vuelven a recurrir a la España profunda. Son constantes y los personajes no dejan de hacer alusiones a ese escenario de la España caricaturizada. A Mortadelo y Filemón les está succionando una turbina mientras tratan de huir y Mortadelo se queja: «¡Rayos! Esto chupa más que Hacienda!». Hay ejemplos a patadas: «Aquí dice que fumar da más disgusto que el RCD Espanyol», «es más débil que la cartera de un pensionista»… Nadie se libra.

Todas estas características van envueltas en un humor propio de Ibáñez y perfectamente identificable: el humor del tremendismo y la exageración. El humor de las caídas y golpes espantosos, de la torre de control diciendo al avión que no se puede aterrizar a ochocientos kilómetros por hora. En síntesis, el humor del llamado ‘fenómeno de la siguiente imagen’. Esto es, el personaje dice algo que prevé o cree que puede ocurrir y la siguiente imagen le muestra en la situación contraria llevada al extremo más bestia. «Saldré a dar una vuelta, que hace sol», dice Filemón sonriente en El huerto siniestro (1988). Y la siguiente viñeta muestra a Filemón bajo una inaudita tormenta de rayos y granizo.

La ‘siguiente imagen’ es un humor creado en España por Ibáñez y que ha influido mucho, muchísimo, en humoristas posteriores de todo ámbito. El señor que sale a la ventana a dar de comer a las palomas «porque es algo que me relaja, la tranquilidad de las palomas, su susurro, y viene muy bien para mi enfermedad grave de corazón». Y acto seguido un buitre loco sobre el que se aferra Filemón cae graznando desesperado sobre su ventana. Ibáñez siempre juega con las palabras y la exageración llevada al límite. Si un personaje busca un rato de silencio, le pasará un avión por encima. Si quiere cazar mariposas, será embestido por un rinoceronte.

Francisco Ibáñez siempre ha repetido que Mortadelo y Filemón no tienen mensaje. Que nada se esconde detrás de sus aventuras y que la intención única de sus historietas es hacer reír y olvidarse de todo lo demás.
La realidad es que, sea la intención del autor o no, las aventuras de Mortadelo y Filemón suponen uno de los retratos más esquizofrénicos e irreverentes que se ha hecho de la España postransición, evidentemente exagerado, pero que encierra una gran dosis de verdad.

Detrás de la caricatura llevada al límite, de las condiciones esclavistas de trabajo, de los políticos torpes y corruptos, los trapicheos de calle y el cutrerío generalizado, detrás de todo eso se encuentra un espejo en el que España refleja sus miserias y que todos reconocemos: reformas laborales, escándalos de corrupción, mafias y delincuentes asentados en España y un muy mejorable funcionamiento de las Administraciones. Una imagen de la que Ibáñez elige reírse. Tal vez sea ese el secreto de Mortadelo y Filemón: una forma de reírnos de nosotros mismos. Algo que, como todos sabemos, es infalible en el humor.


El armario del tiempo

El sulfato atómico

Magín, el mago

El Caso de los Gamberros

El balón catastrófico

Los superhéroes del Profesor Bacterio

El caso de los secuestradores

El caso de los sobornos

Testigo de cargo

Misión de perros

El caso de Billy El Horrendo

Los inventos del profesor Bacterio

El caso de los diamantes

 El caso de la Estatua de la Libertad

Safari callejero

¡Hay un traidor en la T.I.A.!

 La venganza de Ten-Go-Pis

La Brigada Bichera

El ansia del poder

La gallina de los huevos de oro

La elasticina

Casos aéreos

El otro «Yo» del Profesor Bacterio

La máquina de copiar gente

En busca del antídoto


Los cachorros majaretas

La Gran Aventura de Mortadelo y Filemón

Mortadelo y Filemón contra Jimmy el cachondo

Un jeune reporter

Hergé: biographie courte du père de Tintin

Né en 1907 près de Bruxelles, le jeune Georges Remi est un enfant turbulent qui se passionne pour le dessin. Il subit l’occupation allemande de la Première Guerre mondiale. Amateur de scoutisme durant son adolescence, ses premiers dessins sont publiés dans des revues scouts de Belgique. Il prend alors pour pseudonyme Hergé, formé à partir des initiales de son nom et prénom (RG). En 1925, il commence à travailler pour le journal Le Vingtième Siècle. Il se voit confier à partir de 1928 la responsabilité du lancement du Petit Vingtième, un supplément jeunesse comportant des pages de bandes dessinées. Dans cet hebdomadaire, Hergé va créer plusieurs personnages. Le plus célèbre d’entre eux, Tintin, voit le jour en 1929. Les voyages de ce jeune reporter connaissent un succès retentissant en Belgique dès les premières semaines de parution.

En 1932, Hergé épouse sa première femme Germaine Kieckens. Au début de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, la Belgique est annexée par l’Allemagne nazie. Le Vingtième Siècle cesse de paraitre et Hergé est engagé par le journal Le Soir, qui devient sous l’occupation un journal collaborationniste. Après la Libération, Hergé est soupçonné de collaboration et d’antisémitisme, comme beaucoup de personnes ayant travaillé au Soir. Il est pendant un temps interdit de publication. La création des Éditions du Lombard en 1946 permet la diffusion du Journal de Tintin et le retour d’Hergé, nommé directeur artistique du projet. A partir des années 1950, le phénomène Tintin prend une ampleur mondiale. Des adaptations et produits dérivés voient le jour dès 1959. Fatigué par plusieurs épisodes de dépression et des problèmes de santé, Hergé ne peut plus garder la même productivité qu’auparavant. En 1977, il divorce et se remarie avec Fanny Rodwell, aujourd’hui propriétaire d’une partie des droits sur l’œuvre de son mari. Hergé s’éteint en 1983 à l’âge de 75 ans.

Les Aventures de Tintin : l’œuvre majeure d’Hergé

Hergé crée le personnage de Tintin en 1929, alors qu’il cherche de nouvelles idées de personnages à intégrer dans Le Petit Vingtième. L’apparence de Tintin est probablement inspirée du personnage de Totor, dessiné par Hergé entre 1926 et 1930 pour Le Boy-scout belge. Il va faire vivre à ce jeune reporter et son fidèle chien Milou de nombreuses enquêtes à travers le monde. La première se déroule en URSS et est intitulée Tintin au pays des Soviets. L’idée a été soumise à Hergé par le directeur du Vingtième siècle, Norbert Wallez, hostile aux idées communistes et fervent admirateur de Mussolini. Cette bande dessinée hebdomadaire gagne en popularité en Belgique et attire l’attention de la maison d’éditions Casterman. Hergé y signe un contrat en 1934 pour compiler et publier Les Aventures de Tintin en albums. C’est vers cette période que l’auteur commence à effectuer des recherches plus poussées pour ses histoires. Sa rencontre et son amitié avec le sculpteur Zhang Chongren, alors étudiant, a une influence dans sa manière de raconter l’histoire du Lotus bleu. Hergé a collaboré avec d’autres auteurs de bandes dessinées célèbres comme Edgar P . Jacobs et Jacques Martin. Ces derniers l’ont aidé pour la refonte graphique et la colorisation, mais conseillent aussi Hergé sur les histoires de Tintin. La dernière aventure, Tintin et l’Alph-Art, est publiée à titre posthume et demeure inachevée. La série est aujourd’hui vendue à plusieurs centaines de millions d’exemplaires et traduite dans près d’une centaine de langues.

Tintin a été adapté au cinéma à plusieurs reprises. Il a également fait l’objet de plusieurs adaptations en dessins animés. On peut mentionner les histoires originales créées dans les années 60 comme Tintin et le Mystère de la Toison d’Or (1961) et Tintin et les Oranges bleues (1964). Elles sont jouées par de vrais acteurs, avec Jean-Pierre Talbot dans le rôle de Tintin. Un film en images de synthèse réalisé par Steven Spielberg, Les Aventures de Tintin : Le Secret de La Licorne, est sorti en 2011. Une histoire originale en dessin animé intitulée Tintin et le Lac aux requins sort en 1972. Enfin, on dénombre deux séries animées notables qui adaptent les bandes dessinées Tintin. La première, Les Aventures de Tintin, d’après Hergé, commence en 1959 et s’achève en 1964. Elle est produite par les studios Belvision. La plus connue aujourd’hui reste cependant la seconde, Les Aventures de Tintin, commencée en 1991 et plus fidèle aux albums d’Hergé. Elle est le fruit d’une collaboration franco-canadienne, produite par Ellipse et Nelvana.

Les autres séries de bandes dessinées réalisées par Hergé

Même si Hergé est principalement connu pour Les Aventures de Tintin, il est également à l’origine d’autres séries de bandes dessinées. Chronologiquement, Les Aventures de Totor, C. P. des Hannetons sont les premières histoires qu’il publie à partir de 1926. Totor, un scout débrouillard, possède de nombreuses similitudes avec Tintin et semble avoir été une source d’inspiration pour la création de ce dernier. Dès la création du Petit Vingtième, Hergé dessine L’Extraordinaire aventure de Flup, Nénesse, Poussette et Cochonnet (1928-1929), une histoire centrée sur plusieurs enfants et leur cochon gonflable. En 1930, un an après le début de publication de Tintin, Hergé décide de créer une nouvelle bande dessinée, mais avec un format plus court, Quick et Flupke. Centrée sur les farces de deux enfants vivant à Bruxelles dans le quartier des Marolles, la série connaît un certain succès pendant les cinq premières années. Comme les albums de Tintin, elle va subir une colorisation et une refonte graphique, puis être compilée en 12 volumes par Casterman. En 1934 paraît Popol et Virginie au pays des Lapinos. On y suit le voyage de deux oursons en pleine conquête de l’Ouest. Enfin, dans Les Aventures de Jo, Zette et Jocko (1936), deux frère et sœur et leur fidèle chimpanzé Jocko vivent des aventures aux quatre coins du globe. La série compte un total de cinq volumes, encore une fois édités par Casterman.


Hergé à l’ombre de Tintin (vidéo)

Qui sont ceux qui ont inspiré les personnages de Tintin

Avec 230 millions d’albums vendus dans le monde, impossible d’être passé à côté des personnages cultes de George Remi, alias Hergé. 87 ans qu’ils existent et autant de générations qui ont suivis leurs aventures aux quatre coins du monde, du château de Moulinsart au Tibet,en passant par la Lune. Mais les connaît-on vraiment ? Rendu célèbre par sa fameuse ligne claire, son réalisme et son sens de la représentation, celui que beaucoup considèrent comme « le père de la bande dessinée européenne » prenait plaisir à puiser dans son quotidien et dans l’actualité pour inspirer décors, atmosphères et personnages.« Si je vous disais que dans Tintin j’ai mis toute ma vie », on lui répondrait « Et sans doute un peu de celle des autres ». Alors que le Grand Palais rend hommage au dessinateur belge dans une exposition à l’affiche jusqu’au 17 janvier 2017, retour sur ces hommes et femmes, réels ou non, qui ont inspirés ces fameux personnages dont les bulles sont traduites dans plus d’une centaine de langues. Rendons à César, ce qui est à César.

Maria Callas Le fameux rossignol milanais des Aventures de Tintin ne pouvait pas avoir un autre modèle. Librement inspirée par celle que l’on surnommait la Diva, la Castafiore en est sa version cartoonesque. La vraie a boulversée les codes de l’interprétation lyrique par son timbre de voix et l’étendue de son répertoire, devenant ainsi l’une des plus grandes cantatrices du XXème siècle. La fictive est surtout connue pour pourrir la vie de son entourage et plus particulièrement celle du Capitaine Haddock (qu’elle affectionne tout particulièrement) avec son morceau préféré, le seul qu’elle interprète en sept albums de Tintin : L’air des Bijoux, chanté par le personnage de Marguerite dans Faust de Charles Gounod. Si Maria Callas l’a surement interprété au cour de sa carrière, l’Histoire ne dit pas si, comme la Castafiore, elle revint sur scène pour quinze rappels… C’est dans Paris-Match (une de ses sources favorites) que le dessinateur trouvait images et détails sur la vie de la cantatrice la plus célèbre de son époque. Tante NiniePour ce personnage, Hergé se serait également inspirée de sa tante Ninie, qui, lorsqu’il était enfant, avait l’habitude de faire partager à toute la famille la puissance de ses cordes vocales. Traumatisant à vie le petit George Remi et installant à jamais, chez lui, une aversion pour l’opéra.Morceau choisi« Aaaaaaaah ! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir! Est-ce toi Marguerite? Est-ce toi ? Répond moi ! Répond , répond , répond, répooooooond ! »

Capitaine Craddock« Quel est celui de tous mes personnages que je préfère ? Je crois bien que c’est le capitaine Haddock. Il a tellement de défauts que je le reconnais presque comme un ami intime […] », voilà ce qu’en disait Hergé. En effet, coups de gueule, maladresse et tempérament de feu sont l’apanage du Capitaine Haddock, sans doute le plus proche ami de Tintin après Milou. Quant aux origines de celui que ses intimes appellent Archibald, il faut aller les chercher dans un obscure film franco-allemand de Hanns Schwartz et Max de Vaucorbeil, Le Capitaine Craddock, avec l’acteur Jean Murat dans le rôle éponyme. Grand fan, Hergé fait même chanter une chanson de ce film à son personnage dans Le Crabe aux pinces d’or : Les Gars de la marine.À poisson fumé Mais d’après la première femme du dessinateur le nom de « Haddock » viendrait simplement d’un « triste poisson anglais ». Le mot français d’origine anglaise désigne également de l’églefin fumé. Sympa.Morceau choisi« Au large, flibustier ! Hors de ma vue, gibier de potence ! Sapajou ! Marchand de tapis ! Paranoïaque ! Moule à gaufres ! Cannibale ! Ornithorynque ! Boit-sans-soif ! Bachi-bouzouk ! Anthropophage ! Cercopithèque ! Schizophrène ! Heu… Jocrisse ! Pirate ! Ectoplasme ! Coloquinte ! Rapace ! Trompe-la-mort ! Ostrogoth! Vandale ! »

Hergé Tintin, 16 ans pour toujours, un chien pour seul famille, reporter que personne n’a jamais vu rédiger un seul article, houpette légendaire et coeur pur, n’a au premier abord que très peu si ce n’est aucune ressemblance avec son créateur. Et pourtant : « Plus ou moins volontairement, je me suis » mis » dans mes héros, dans Tintin surtout, qui m’offre une image parfaite, trop parfaite de ce que je voudrais être […] Tintin c’est moi… Ce sont mes yeux, mes sens, mes poumons, mes tripes ! Je crois que je suis seul à pouvoir l’animer, dans le sens de donner une âme ».L’explication d’Hergé se suffit à elle même.Morceau choisi« Une boîte à conserve + un noyé + cinq fausses pièces + Karaboudjan + un Japonais + une lettre + un enlèvement = un fameux casse-tête chinois… »

Augsute Piccard Dur de la feuille, pour ne pas dire complètement sourd, un peu timbré, portant la moustache, la barbichette, les lunettes rondes et parfois le chapeau melon, ce cher Tryphon doit son physique quelque peu ingrat au physicien suisse Auguste Piccard. Si le premier est pratiquement nain, le second était plutôt élancé. Hergé expliquait cette différence par le fait qu’il avait besoin de faire rentrer Tournesol dans les cases, faisant ainsi de lui un « mini-piccard ». Tout deux partagent une passion commune : l’exploration de la verticalité par des moyens hydrostatiques (pour les non-initiés, grâce à des fusées ou sous-marins). Vaste programme… Yves RocardLes scientifiques qui utilisent un pendule (ce petit poids pendu à un fil que le professeur Tournesol trimballe partout avec lui) ne sont pas si répandus. Concrètement il n’y en a que deux de notoires : Tryphon et le professeur Yves Rocard (1903-1992) du Collège de France, connu pour ses travaux sur la radiesthésie et donc lui aussi totalement fana de pendules.Morceau choisi « C’est inouï ! C’est prodigieux ! C’est incroyable ! Dire que dans quelques minutes, ou bien nous marcherons sur le sol de la Lune, ou bien nous serons tous morts ! C’est merveilleux ! »

Zhang ChongrenAmi de Tintin, Tchang Tchang-Jen a bien existé. Un beau jour de mai 1934, on présente à Hergé un jeune homme brun, fluet, aux traits asiatiques. Il s’appelle Zhang Chongren et a quitté sa Chine natale pour étudier les beaux-arts dans la capitale belge. Pendant plus d’un an, tous les dimanches, Zhang servira de coach à Hergé pour dessiner Le Lotus Bleu. De ce travail commun est né une amitié profonde qui a souvent alimenté les fantasmes d’une relation amoureuse… Le Tchang de papier semble être le premier vrai ami de Tintin, qu’il rencontre durant son voyage en Chine dans Le Lotus Bleu. En le quittant pour l’Europe, le petit reporter belge verse quelques-unes des très rares larmes de sa carrière. Heureusement, ils se recroiseront dans Tintin au Tibet et les Bijoux de la Castafiore.Morceau choisi« Il y a un arc-en-ciel dans mon coeur, Vénérable ! Je pleure le départ de Tintin et je ris de retrouver un papa et une maman ! »

Présents dans pratiquement tous les tomes des Aventures de Tintin (20 albums sur 24), les Dupondt sont en général synonymes de catastrophes en tout genre. Sosies parfaits, les deux policiers ne se distinguent qu’à leur moustache. Dupont la taille droite et Dupond la taille recourbée vers l’extérieur. Facile. Les exégètes de Tintin ont toujours cité le père et l’oncle d’Hergé pour percer le mystère de Dupont et Dupond. Alexis et Léon Rémi qui étaient de véritables jumeaux – contrairement aux deux agents de la police judiciaire qui ne seraient que de simples sosies – s’habillaient à l’identique : canotier, canne et chemise blanche. Sans oublier la belle moustache bien fournie. En créant les Dupondt, Hergé a expliqué vouloir montrer cette catégorie de gens qui « parce que le devoir est censé le leur imposer, arrêtent sans dilemme de conscience particulier un ami et font passer leur conscience professionnelle avant leur humanité ». À chacun de faire ses propres suppositions…Morceau choisi Dupond : « Et hop ! Encore un mirage ! » Dupont: « Tu crois ? Ça n’en a pas l’air. À ta place je ferais une petit virage et… » Dupond: « Moi, faire un virage pour un stupide rimage ? Euh…Un rivage pour un mirage…Non, un mirage pour un virage…euh…Enfin, jamais de la vie : je continue tout droit. »


Les Aventures de Tintin

Tintin au pays des Soviets (1930)

Tintin au Congo (1931)

Tintin en Amérique (1932)

Les Cigares Du Pharaon (1934)

Le Lotus bleu (1936)

 L’Oreille cassée (1937)

L’île Noire (1938)

Le sceptre d’Ottokar (1939)

Le Crabe aux Pinces D’Or (1941)

L’étoile mystérieuse (1942)

Le Secret De La Licorne (1943)

Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge (1944)

Les Sept Boules De Cristal (1948)

Le Temple Du Soleil (1949)

Au pays de l’or noir (1950)

Objectif Lune (1953)

Les Aventures de Tintin (1954)

L’ Affaire Tournesol (1956)

Coke en stock (1958)

Tintin Au Tibet (1960)

Les Bijoux De La Castafiore (1963)

Vol 714 pour Sydney (1968)

Tintin et les Picaros (1976)

Meeting an Indian Actor at a Hollywood Party

Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers, original name Richard Henry Sellers, (born September 8, 1925, Southsea, England—died July 24, 1980, London), versatile English comic actor whose astonishing range of characters earned him international stardom at a time when rigid typecasting was usual.

Sellers was a descendant of legendary Portuguese-Jewish prizefighter Daniel Mendoza and the son of British vaudeville performers. After winning a talent contest, he planned to become a professional drummer, and as such he was hired to perform in Ralph Reader’s “gang shows”—concert units that toured British army bases during World War II. He developed his mimicry skills while serving in the Royal Air Force and ultimately abandoned the drums in favour of comedy, performing celebrity impressions during a six-week run at London’s Windmill Theatre. In 1951 he teamed with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe to create The Goon Show, a radio comedy sketch series. Emerging as the star of the series with his repertoire of eccentric characters, Sellers also dominated the Goons’ film projects, including the short subject Let’s Go Crazy (1951) and the feature-length Down Among the Z Men (1952).

On his own, he played a handful of supporting film roles before his breakthrough appearance as a doltish crook in The Ladykillers (1955). Following the advice of that film’s star, Alec Guinness, Sellers strove to avoid playing the same character twice. He especially enjoyed disappearing into characters much older than himself (The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957; The Battle of the Sexes, 1959) and playing multiple roles (The Mouse That Roared, 1959). He did some of his best work for the Boulting Brothers in the late 1950s and early ’60s, notably his characterization of obstreperous union shop steward Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack (1959); it was also during this period that he made his feature directorial debut with Mr. Topaze (1961). Many British observers of the period dismissed Sellers as a glorified radio mimic, while Americans lauded him as a genius. One such American was director Stanley Kubrick, who cast Sellers as the treacherous Clare Quilty in Lolita (1962) and in three superbly defined roles in the brilliant “doomsday comedy” Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Sellers was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for the latter film.

The role that earned him superstar status was the magnificently inept Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964), both directed by Blake Edwards. The success of these projects was marred by Sellers’s near-fatal heart attack in 1964. Upon his recovery, the quality of his films became wildly erratic, his mercurial offscreen temperament reflected by the unevenness of his cinematic output. Movies from this period included What’s New, Pussycat? (1965), Casino Royale (1967), I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968), and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970). He would not truly hit his stride again until the mid-1970s, when he repeated the role of Inspector Clouseau in three profitable Pink Panther sequels.

In 1979 Sellers delivered what many consider his finest performance, as the simpleminded gardener Chance in Being There. This Oscar-nominated triumph was followed by one of his worst films, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). Suffering a series of heart attacks, he died at age 54. His final “performance” in Trail of the Pink Panther (released posthumously in 1982) was a hodgepodge of outtakes from earlier films.


10 Things You Might Not Know About Peter Sellers

We all know and love Peter Sellers for his iconic role as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. On what would have been Sellers’ 93rd birthday, here are 10 surprising facts about the actor.


At age 16, Sellers toured the U.K. with several jazz combos. Later, when gigs were harder to find, he branched out, printing up business cards that hinted at his future as a man of a thousand voices. They said: Peter Sellers, Drums and Impressions.


Before he made it in the movies, Peter Sellers recorded two solo comedy albums for EMI Parlophone that were produced by George Martin, who would go on to work with The Beatles.


In 1960, Sellers recorded an album with Italian actress/sex goddess Sophia Loren, entitled Peter & Sophia. It yielded a novelty hit, “Goodness Gracious Me,” that went to number four on the U.K. pop charts.


During the filming of John Huston’s Beat The Devil (1953), lead actor Humphrey Bogart was in a serious car accident and had several teeth knocked out. When he was unable to provide some of his dialogue, Sellers was hired to dub his voice. It remains undetected in the movie to this day.


In addition to being good friends with both George Harrison and Ringo Starr, in 1965 Sellers made the pop charts again with a comic version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” recited as if he were Shakespeare’s Richard III. Further, during the making of The Beatles’ White Album, Ringo gave Peter a tape of rough mixes. Auctioned off after Sellers’ death, it became the source of one of the most sought-after Beatles bootlegs ever—usually called “The Peter Sellers Sessions.”


After a long day of grappling with a troublesome scene in one of the Pink Panther movies, Sellers phoned director Blake Edwards in the middle of the night. “I just talked to God!” the actor exclaimed. “And he told me how to do the scene.” The next day, on set, Edwards let Sellers demonstrate the divine intervention, and it was a disaster. Edwards said, “The next time you talk to God, tell him to stay out of show business!”


When Mel Brooks had difficulty finding a distributor for his first film, Sellers stepped in. He urged top producers to watch the movie, and took out full page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “This is one of the greatest comedies that’s been made recently.” His championing of The Producers gave it the industry buzz that turned it into a hit. Ironically, the year before, Brooks had pitched Sellers on playing a lead role, but Sellers was supposedly too busy at the time shopping at Bloomingdale’s to really listen.


Green gave Sellers “strange vibrations” and disturbed him. He never wore it, and refused to act with anyone wearing green. Purple was even worse. During the making of After The Fox, director Vittorio De Sica flew into a rage one day when a script girl showed up in a purple outfit. “It’s the color of death!” De Sica told Sellers, and Sellers was haunted by this for the rest of his life.

In later years, Sellers’ aversion to purple produced such volcanic tantrums that publicists would scour his proposed hotel rooms in search of the color, and if they found it, change the room.


For his Oscar-nominated role as Chance The Gardener in Being There, Sellers based the tone and cadence of the character’s speaking voice on one of his comic idols: Stan Laurel.


In 1980, Peter Sellers died from a massive heart attack. But it wasn’t his first—it was his fifteenth. He’d had one in 1977. And in 1964, during the filming of Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid, Sellers suffered a series of 13 heart attacks over a period of a few days. At one point he was pronounced dead for a minute and a half.


10 Hilarious Peter Sellers Films That Had Audiences In Stitches

British cinema can sometimes be a bit niche in terms of its humor but someone as naturally talented as Peter Sellers was able to transcend cultural barriers and connect with audiences from all over. Most people recognize him as Inspector Jacque Clouseau but the man had a long, varied career, playing all types of characters over his decades-long career.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Stanley Kubrick is renowned as one of the most prestigious American filmmakers of all time, and Dr. Strangelove stands as a seminal work of his. A big part of the film’s success, however, has to do with the performances of Peter Sellers. The man effortlessly depicted three distinct characters: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, United States President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove himself.

Sellers’ comedic genius emanates from each and every frame, even ad-libbing most of his lines, something notoriously difficult to do. Audiences and critics alike were blown away by Sellers and Dr. Strangelove remains one of his most beloved movies.

Being There (1979)

Known for his darkly comedic ruminations on life in the United States post-World War II, Hal Ashby directed Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner in 1979’s Being There, an introspective piece of satire. After his employer passes away, Gardiner is forced to move out of his estate and encounters the outside world for the first time. Viewers then see everything from his naive perspective.

A chance encounter with a wealthy business mogul changes the course of Chance’s life forever, even leading him to cross paths with the President of the United States. Being There is remembered fondly by viewers as a return to form for Sellers and even garnered him numerous awards recognition.

The Pink Panther (1963)

Inspector Jacques Clouseau is arguably the role for which Peter Sellers is most famous. His first appearance is in The Pink Panther, a film that, while not exactly displaying him front and center, acted as a vehicle for his comic prowess.

Most audiences remember this first Pink Panther as an ensemble piece but, from the beginning, it was clear that one particular character was stealing the show. The fact that Sellers was able to turn in an incredibly memorable performance despite the lackluster script and outshine his costars is a testament to his abilities as a comedic actor.

The Ladykillers (1955)

Before the 2004 Coen brothers remake, The Ladykillers was a 1955 black comedy crime caper. This was Sellers’ first real starring role in a major motion picture and set the stage for his future career.

In a cast full of eccentric oddball characters, including the likes of icons such as Sir Alec Guinness, Sellers played a more strait-laced character, yet still managed to hold his own and deliver a stellar performance. The Ladykillers is now fondly remembered as being a quintessential example of British comedy.

I’m All Right Jack (1959)

Peter Sellers once again shows his knack for satire in I’m All Right Jack, a razor sharp critique of the industrial boom in England during the 1950s. In it, he plays union leader Fred Kite, a complex character who is neither inherently good nor bad. Audiences and critics at the time were drawn to the sociopolitical commentary that hit a little bit too close to home.

Similar to his role in The Ladykillers, Sellers plays Fred Kite with sensitivity and subtlety, and his performance earned him his first of many BAFTA nominations (and first win) for Best Actor.

The Naked Truth (1957)

Released in the United States as Your Past Is Showing, The Naked Truth, as it was originally titled, features Peter Sellers in another early role; his character is a television show host named Sonny MacGregor who, along with three other individuals, decides to exact revenge on a blackmailer.

Sellers oozes talent and charisma, and his natural comedic chops shine through. The Naked Truth is unfortunately not very widely known outside of England but fans of Sellers and black comedies, in general, would be wise to put this one on their must-watch list.

After the F0x (1966)

This Italian-American crime comedy film is notable among Peter Sellers’ filmography for being one of his most divisive. After the Fox is an English-language Italian film, and the different cultural influences sometimes make it come off as disjointed.

With that being said, with the passage of time, many viewers have come to deeply appreciate it for its hilarious, self-reflexive parodies of avant-garde and pretentious European filmmakers. Sellers is particularly amusing as master of disguise Aldo Vanucci, a conman who pretends to be an Italian Neo-realist director in order to obtain highly coveted gold.

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

Some diehard Peter Sellers fans turn their head at The Return of the Pink Panther, claiming it does not live up to previous installments. However, most audiences still loved this follow-up in which Peter Sellers reprised his famous role as Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

The English actor decided to go over-the-top in his portrayal of the French police detective, playing him as inept and foolish. The pure, unadulterated slapstick comedy is what makes The Return of the Pink Panther so memorable and beloved for so many filmgoers.

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

Before he charmed audiences as Inspector Jacques Clouseau and Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers made waves playing multiple roles in the British satire The Mouse That Roared, based on the 1955 novel of the same name. Just like he would go on to do in Dr. Strangelove, Sellers depicted three distinct characters in this film: Duchess Gloriana XII, Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy, and Tully Bascombe.

The World of Henry Orient (1964)

Based on the novel of the same by Nora Johnson, The World of Henry Orient was a bit of a departure for Peter Sellers in terms of his acting. In it, he portrays an acclaimed concert pianist, having an extramarital affair and is constantly followed by two adolescents girls at the same time.

Hilarity and chaos ensue but this time around, Sellers turns in a much more subdued performance and plays off his fellow actors. The World of Henry Orient is now regarded as a comedy classic in Sellers’ filmography and was a hit with viewers and critics alike.


The Ladykillers (1955)

The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn (1956)

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

Tom Thumb (1958)

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

I’m All Right Jack (1959)

The Battle of the Sexes (1960)

The Millionairess (1960)

Mr. Topaze (1961)

Only Two Can Play (1962)

The Road to Hong Kong (1962)

Lolita (1962)

The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963)

The Pink Panther (1963)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The World of Henry Orient (1964)

A Shot in the Dark (1964)

What’s New Pussycat (1965)

Caccia alla volpe (1966)

The Wrong Box (1966)

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (1968)

The Party (1968)

The Magic Christian (1969)

Hoffman (1970)

The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973)

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)

Murder by Death (1976)

Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)

Being There (1979)

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

Tom & Huck

How Mark Twain’s Childhood Influenced His Literary Works

Hannibal, Missouri made Mark Twain, and, in turn, Twain made Hannibal famous. Few American authors are as closely intertwined — and influenced — by their hometowns as Twain. The childhood years spent in this Missouri town gave birth to some of the most famous characters in American literature, an emotional and memory-filled well that Twain would return to again and again.

Twain came from humble origins

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, two weeks after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to the Earth. He was the sixth of seven children born to John and Jane Clemens. He was a sickly youth, whose parents feared he might not survive, and the family was beset by the tragic early deaths of three of Twain’s siblings.

When Twain was 4 years old, his family moved to the Mississippi River port town of Hannibal, where John worked as a lawyer, storekeeper and judge. John also dabbled in land speculation, leaving the family’s finances often precarious. His son, who would become one of the wealthiest authors in America, would follow in his father’s financially-shaky footsteps as an adult and was prone to speculation and ill-advised investments that would repeatedly threaten his financial security.

Jane was a loving mother, and Twain would later note that he inherited his love of storytelling from her. His father couldn’t have been more different, and Twain later claimed that he had never seen the dour and serious John smile.

His years in Hannibal would be the most formative of his life

Hannibal would be immortalized as the town of “St. Petersburg” in Twain’s works. He would write of lazy days spent in the company of a group of loyal friends. They played games and spent hours and days exploring the surrounding area, including a cave just outside of town that was a favorite of Clemens’ real gang of friends, which would play a key role in Tom Sawyer as the cave where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher nearly died.

Thatcher was based on Twain’s real-life childhood crush, Laura Hawkins. Like Twain, Hawkins had moved to Hannibal as a child, and her family lived on the same street as the Clemens family. She and Twain were schoolmates and sweethearts, and idealized versions of Laura made their way into several other Twain books, including The Gilded Age. Later in life, Twain and Hawkins rekindled their friendship, with Twain visiting with her in Hannibal and Hawkins traveling east to Twain’s Connecticut home just two years before his death.

Sawyer’s half-brother Sid was based on Twain’s younger brother Henry. The two were quite close, and when Twain began training as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, he encouraged Henry to join him. Tragically, Henry was killed in a steamboat explosion at the age of just 20. Twain never forgave himself, and Henry’s death haunted him for the rest of his life.

Twain said he based the character of Sawyer on himself and two childhood friends, John B. Briggs and William Bowen. But many believe that he nicked the character’s name from a hard-drinking, Brooklyn-born fireman named Tom Sawyer who Twain had befriended in the 1860s. Like Twain, Sawyer had worked on riverboats in his youth, and the pair bonded over a series of drinking benders and gambling adventures in San Francisco, Nevada and elsewhere.

Another childhood friend was the inspiration for Huck Finn

Although Twain initially claimed to have invented the character entirely, he later admitted that Finn was based on Tom Blankenship. The son of the town drunkard, Blankenship was nonetheless idolized by the boys of Hannibal, who relished his sense of freedom and easy ways.

As Twain later wrote in his autobiography, “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person — boy or man — in the community, and by consequence, he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.”

The character of Finn, first introduced in “Tom Sawyer” before getting his own book in 1884, was Twain’s most indelible creation — and his most controversial. While enormously influential and still popular more than a century after it was published, the book is also one of the most frequently banned in America, criticized for its use of coarse language, ethnic slurs and its depiction of the runaway enslaved person, Jim, which many consider racist.

The novel shows Twain dealing with the impact of American slavery

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was one of the first American novels to be written entirely using an English vernacular language and dialect, as Twain recalled both the sights and sounds of his youth. It was also Twain’s attempt to reconcile both the darkness and light of his Hannibal years, which were filled with happy childhood memories as well as darker ones, reflecting the realities of the often capriciously violent world of a riverboat town and the lasting effects of racism and slavery.

Twain later admitted he had grown up unquestioningly accepting slavery, before becoming an avowed advocate for Black rights later in life. Missouri was a slave state, and both Twain’s father and several Clemens family members owned enslaved people. As a young boy, Twain spent summers on his uncle’s farm, listening to stories told by its enslaved workers, including an old man named “Uncle Daniel.” Twain also drew on similar stories he heard from formerly enslaved people who worked for his sister-in-law in upstate New York after the Civil War to create his portrait of Jim, and a long-ago story of the Tom Blankenship’s brother’s secret assistance to a runaway enslaved person would inspire Finn’s relationship with Jim.

Twain’s childhood ended early

When young Twain was just 11, his father died, pushing the family to the brink of economic collapse. Twain was forced to leave school and worked a series of jobs before becoming a printer’s apprentice, where he put his burgeoning love of words into tactical practice by setting type. After stints working for his brother’s newspaper and other publishers in the Midwest and East, Twain fulfilled another childhood love fueled by his Hannibal days by becoming a Mississippi River boat pilot. This brief, though happy, phase of his early 20s was also where he acquired the pen name that millions would soon know him by: “Mark Twain,” a term used by captains to mark a water depth of two fathoms, indicating safe passage for their ships.

Although Twain would only work on the Mississippi for a few years before the start of the Civil War, that period, like those in Hannibal before them, left a lasting impression. Twenty years after his riverboat career ended, Twain took a nostalgic journey along the river to New Orleans, inspiring much of his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi. And as he made his way back up along the river, he made a return visit home to Hannibal, back to where it all began. 


Mark Twain: His Life and His Humor

Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens Nov. 30, 1835 in the small town of Florida, MO, and raised in Hannibal, became one of the greatest American authors of all time. Known for his sharp wit and pithy commentary on society, politics, and the human condition, his many essays and novels, including the American classic,The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are a testament to his intelligence and insight. Using humor and satire to soften the edges of his keen observations and critiques, he revealed in his writing some of the injustices and absurdities of society and human existence, his own included. He was a humorist, writer, publisher, entrepreneur, lecturer, iconic celebrity (who always wore white at his lectures), political satirist, and social progressive.

He died on April 21, 1910 when Halley’s Comet was again visible in the night sky, as lore would have it, just as it had been when he was born 75 years earlier. Wryly and presciently, Twain had said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: «Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”  Twain died of a heart attack one day after the Comet appeared its brightest in 1910.

A complex, idiosyncratic person, he never liked to be introduced by someone else when lecturing, preferring instead to introduce himself as he did when beginning the following lecture, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands” in 1866:

“Ladies and gentlemen: The next lecture in this course will be delivered this evening, by Samuel L. Clemens, a gentleman whose high character and unimpeachable integrity are only equalled by his comeliness of person and grace of manner. And I am the man! I was obliged to excuse the chairman from introducing me, because he never compliments anybody and I knew I could do it just as well.”

Twain was  a complicated mixture of southern boy and western ruffian striving to fit into elite Yankee culture. He wrote in his speech, Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims,1881:

“I am a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. In me, you have Missouri morals, Connecticut culture; this, gentlemen, is the combination which makes the perfect man.”

Growing up in Hannibal, Missouri had a lasting influence on Twain, and working as a steamboat captain for several years before the Civil War was one of his greatest pleasures. While riding the steamboat he would observe the many passengers, learning much about their character and affect. His time working as a miner and a journalist in Nevada and California during the 1860s introduced him to the rough and tumble ways of the west, which is where, Feb. 3, 1863, he first used the pen name, Mark Twain, when writing one of his humorous essays for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in Nevada.

Mark Twain was a riverboat term that means two fathoms, the point at which it is safe for the boat to navigate the waters. It seems that when Samuel Clemens adopted this pen name he also adopted another persona – a persona that represented the outspoken commoner, poking fun at the aristocrats in power, while Samuel Clemens, himself, strove to be one of them.

Twain got his first big break as a writer in 1865 with an article about life in a mining camp, called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, also called The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was very favorably received and printed in newspapers and magazines all over the country. From there he received other jobs, sent to Hawaii, and then to Europe and the Holy Land as a travel writer. Out of these travels he wrote the book, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869, which became a bestseller. His books and essays were generally so well-regarded that he started lecturing and promoting them, becoming popular both as a writer and a speaker.

When he married Olivia Langdon in 1870, he married into a wealthy family from Elmira, New York and moved east to Buffalo, NY and then to Hartford, CT where he collaborated with the Hartford Courant Publisher to co-write The Gilded Age, a satirical novel about greed and corruption among the wealthy after the Civil War. Ironically, this was also the society to which he aspired and gained entry. But Twain had his share of losses, too – loss of fortune investing in failed inventions (and failing to invest in successful ones such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone), and the deaths of people he loved, such as his younger brother in a riverboat accident, for which he felt responsible, and several of his children and his beloved wife.

Although Twain survived, thrived, and made a living out of humor, his humor was borne out of sorrow, a complicated view of life, an understanding of life’s contradictions, cruelties, and absurdities.  As he once said, “There is no laughter in heaven.” 


Mark Twain’s style of humor was wry, pointed, memorable, and delivered in a slow drawl. Twain’s humor carried on the tradition of humor of the Southwest, consisting of tall tales, myths, and frontier sketches, informed by his experiences growing up in Hannibal, MO, as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, and as a gold miner and journalist in Nevada and California.

In 1863 Mark Twain attended in Nevada the lecture of Artemus Ward (pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne,1834-1867), one of America’s best-known humorists of the 19th century. They became friends, and Twain learned much from him about how to make people laugh. Twain believed that how a story was told was what made it funny  – repetition, pauses, and an air of naivety.

In his essay How to Tell a Story Twain says, “There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one.” He describes what makes a story funny, and what distinguishes the American story from that of the English or French; namely that the American story is humorous, the English is comic, and the French is witty.

He explains how they differ:

“The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter. The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. The humorous story is strictly a work of art, — high and delicate art, — and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story —- understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print — was created in America, and has remained at home.”

Other important characteristics of a good humorous story, according to Twain, include the following:

  • A humorous story is told gravely, as though there is nothing funny about it.
  • The story is told wanderingly and the point is “slurred.”
  • A “studied remark” is made as if without even knowing it, “as if one were thinking aloud.”
  • The pause: “The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length–no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.”

Twain believed in telling a story in an understated way, almost as if he was letting his audience in on a secret. He cites a story, The Wounded Soldier, as an example and to explain the difference in the different manners of storytelling, explaining that:

“The American would conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…. the American tells it in a ‘rambling and disjointed’ fashion and pretends that he does not know that it is funny at all,” whereas “The European ‘tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through.” ….”All of which,” Mark Twain sadly comments, “is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.”

Twain’s folksy, irreverent, understated style of humor, use of vernacular language, and seemingly forgetful rambling prose and strategic pauses drew his audience in, making them seem smarter than he. His intelligent satirical wit, impeccable timing, and ability to subtly poke fun at both himself and the elite made him accessible to a wide audience, and made him one of the most successful comedians of his time and one that has had a lasting influence on future comics and humorists.

Humor was absolutely essential to Mark Twain, helping him navigate life just as he learned to navigate the Mississippi when a young man, reading the depths and nuances of the human condition like he learned to see the subtleties and complexities of the river beneath its surface. He learned to create humor out of confusion and absurdity, bringing laughter into the lives of others as well. He once said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

eBook of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Mark Twain

Mr. Samuel Clemens has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction. The town where Tom Sawyer was born and brought up is some such idle shabby Mississippi River town as Mr. Clemens has so well described in his piloting reminiscences, but Tom belongs to the better sort of people in it, and has been bred to fear God and dread the Sunday-school according to the strictest rite of the faiths that have characterized all the respectability of the West. His subjection in these respects does not so deeply affect his inherent tendencies but that he makes himself a beloved burden to the poor, tender-hearted old aunt who brings him up with his orphan brother and sister, and struggles vainly with his manifold sins, actual and imaginary.

The limitations of his transgressions are nicely and artistically traced. He is mischievous, but not vicious; he is ready for almost any depredation that involves the danger and honor of adventure, but profanity he knows may provoke a thunderbolt upon the heart of the blasphemer, and he almost never swears; he resorts to any strategem to keep out of school, but he is not a downright liar, except upon terms of after shame and remorse that make his falsehood bitter to him. He is cruel, as all children are, but chiefly because he is ignorant; he is not mean, but there are very definite bounds to his generosity; and his courage is the Indian sort, full of prudence and mindful of retreat as one of the conditions of prolonged hostilities. In a word, he is a boy, and merely and exactly an ordinary boy on the moral side. What makes him delightful to the reader is that on the imaginative side he is very much more, and though every boy has wild and fantastic dreams, this boy cannot rest till he has somehow realized them. Till he has actually run off with two other boys in the character of a buccaneer and lived for a week on an island in the Mississippi, he has lived in vain; and this passage is but the prelude to more thrilling adventures, in which he finds hidden treasures, traces the bandits to their cave, and is himself lost in its recesses. The local material and the incidents with which his career is worked up are excellent, and throughout there is scrupulous regard for the boy’s point of view in reference to his surroundings and himself, which shows how rapidly Mr. Clemens has grown as an artist. We do not remember anything in which this propriety is violated, and its preservation adds immensely to the grown-up reader’s satisfaction in the amusing and exciting story. There is a boy’s love-affair, but it is never treated otherwise than as a boy’s love-affair. When the half-breed has murdered the young doctor, Tom and his friend, Huckleberry Finn, are really in their boyish terror and superstition, going to let the poor old town-drunkard be hanged for the crime, till the terror of that becomes unendurable. The story is a wonderful study of the boy-mind, which inhabits a world quite distinct from that in which he is bodily present with his elders, and in this lies its great charm and its universality, for boy-nature, however human nature varies, is the same everywhere.

The tale is very dramatically wrought, and the subordinate characters are treated with the same graphic force that sets Tom alive before us. The worthless vagabond, Huck Finn, is entirely delightful throughout, and in his promised reform his identity is respected: he will lead a decent life in order that he may one day be thought worthy to become a member of that gang of robbers which Tom is to organize. Tom’s aunt is excellent, with her kind heart’s sorrow and secret pride in Tom; and so is his sister Mary, one of those good girls who are born to usefulness and charity and forbearance and unvarying rectitude. Many village people and local notables are introduced in well-conceived character; the whole little town lives in the reader’s sense, with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the wilder West which has passed away. The picture will be instructive to those who have fancied the whole Southwest a sort of vast Pike County, and have not conceived of a sober and serious and orderly contrast to the sort of life that has come to represent the Southwest in literature.


10 Facts About The Adventures of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

eBook of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

On its surface, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history.

1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad.

2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain’s childhood friend.

Twain once said that Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.» However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain indicated it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi and to recharge in Germany. In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal, Missouri. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn.

“I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days,” Twain wrote in August 1883. “I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884 in the UK, and 1885 in the U.S.

4. Like Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s view on slavery changed.

Huck, who grows up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s enslaver a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, «All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, but his uncle owned 20 enslaved people. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.” At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘s Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be the character of Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her ‘tribute’ before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, «I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas.»

6. Many consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the first true «American» novel.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn ,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.» While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet LetterHuckleberry Finn was notable because it was considered the first major novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or «it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote.

7. Many people consider the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a bit of a cop-out.

A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured. To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many critics, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is frequently banned.

Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books. The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist. In 2011, Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University, published a version of the book that replaced that offending word with slave. Around the same time appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with hipster. The book’s description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

9. Twain had some thoughts about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘s censorship.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as a librarian wrote to Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said ‘sweat’ when he should have said ‘perspiration.'» Here’s Twain’s reply :

DEAR SIR: I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so. Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck’s character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship? Sincerely yours, S. L. Clemens

10. A penis drawing almost ruined The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain, who ran his own publishing firm, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants.

According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.


Fiesta de disfraces, un relato de Woody Allen (con vídeo subtitulado).

En este vídeo os traigo la lectura del relato titulado Fiesta de disfraces, del guionista y director de cine Woody Allen. Hay quien dice que la verdad no siempre se oculta tras una máscara. También hay quien asegura que una mentira se convierte en verdad a base de repetirla. Y muchos creen que los locos nunca mienten.

Fiesta de disfraces, un relato de Woody Allen

Les voy a contar una historia que les parecerá increíble. Una vez cacé un alce. Me fui de cacería a los bosques de Nueva York y cacé un alce.

Así que lo aseguré sobre el parachoques de mi automóvil y emprendí el regreso a casa por la carretera oeste. Pero lo que yo no sabía era que la bala no le había penetrado en la cabeza; sólo le había rozado el cráneo y lo había dejado inconsciente.

Justo cuando estaba cruzando el túnel el alce se despertó. Así que estaba conduciendo con un alce vivo en el parachoques, y el alce hizo señal de girar. Y en el estado de Nueva York hay una ley que prohíbe llevar un alce vivo en el parachoques los martes, jueves y sábados. Me entró un miedo tremendo…

De pronto recordé que unos amigos celebraban una fiesta de disfraces. Iré allí, me dije. Llevaré el alce y me desprenderé de él en la fiesta. Ya no sería responsabilidad mía. Así que me dirigí a la casa de la fiesta y llamé a la puerta. El alce estaba tranquilo a mi lado. Cuando el anfitrión abrió, lo saludé: “Hola, ya conoces a los Solomon”. Entramos. El alce se incorporó a la fiesta. Le fue muy bien. Ligó y todo. Otro tipo se pasó hora y media tratando de venderle un seguro.

Dieron las doce de la noche y empezaron a repartir los premios a los mejores disfraces. El primer premio fue para los Berkowitz, un matrimonio disfrazado de alce. El alce quedó segundo. ¡Eso le sentó fatal! El alce y los Berkowitz cruzaron sus astas en la sala de estar y quedaron todos inconscientes. Yo me dije: Ésta es la mía. Me llevé al alce, lo até sobre el parachoques y salí rápidamente hacia el bosque. Pero… me había llevado a los Berkowitz. Así que estaba conduciendo con una pareja de judíos en el parachoques. Y en el estado de Nueva York hay una ley que los martes, los jueves y muy especialmente los sábados…

A la mañana siguiente, los Berkowitz despertaron en medio del bosque disfrazados de alce. Al señor Berkowitz lo cazaron, lo disecaron y lo colocaron como trofeo en el Jockey club de Nueva York. Pero les salió el tiro por la culata, porque es un club en donde no se admiten judíos.

Regreso solo a casa. Son las dos de la madrugada y la oscuridad es total. En la mitad del vestíbulo de mi edificio me encuentro con un hombre de Neanderthal. Con el arco superciliar y los nudillos velludos. Creo que aprendió a andar erguido aquella misma mañana. Había acudido a mi domicilio en busca del secreto del fuego. Un morador de los árboles a las dos de la mañana en mi vestíbulo.

Me quité el reloj y lo hice pendular ante sus ojos: los objetos brillantes los apaciguan. Se lo comió. Se me acercó y comenzó un zapateado sobre mi tráquea. Rápidamente, recurrí a un viejo truco de los indios navajos que consiste en suplicar y chillar.


¡Vaya!, un cuento de Kjell Askildsen (con vídeo subtitulado).

En este vídeo os traigo la lectura del relato titulado ¡Vaya!, del escritor Kjell Askildsen. Poner un pie en la calle puede suponer el desencadenamiento de los acontecimientos más inesperados.

¡Vaya!, un cuento de Kjell Askildsen

Un día de verano que no llovió me entraron ganas de moverme, o al menos, de dar una vuelta por la manzana. La idea me animó, de repente me di cuenta de que hacía mucho tiempo que no me sentía de tan buen humor. Hacía tanto calor que creí poder ponerme los calzoncillos cortos, pero al ir a por ellos, me acordé de que los había tirado el año anterior en un ataque de melancolía. No obstante, la idea de los calzoncillos cortos se hizo tan imperiosa que corté las perneras de los calzoncillos largos que llevaba puestos. Nunca se es tan viejo como para perder la esperanza.

Era extraño salir después de tanto tiempo, aunque todo me resultaba familiar, claro está. Escribiré sobre esto, pensé, y de repente en medio de la acera note una erección, pero no importaba, porque los bolsillos de los pantalones eran amplios y profundos.

Al llegar a la primera esquina –tardé mucho, porque aunque el espíritu iba muy dispuesto, las piernas no acompañaban– descubrí que al fin y al cabo no me apetecía dar una vuelta por la manzana. Ya que era verano quería ver algo verde, aunque sólo fuera un árbol, así que seguí recto. Hacía calor, tanto calor como cuando era niño, y me alegré de llevar los calzoncillos cortos. Y con la erección bajo un hábil control, me sentía bien. Puede que suene exagerado, pero así era.

Cuando ya casi había dejado atrás tres casas, oí a alguien gritar mi nombre. Aunque sonaba a voz de viejo, no me volví, pues hay muchos que se llaman Thomas. Pero al tercer grito miré hacia donde sonaba la voz, era un día tan poco corriente… Todo podía suceder. Y allí estaba, en la acera de enfrente, el viejo profesor Storm, del instituto. “Félix”, grité, pero estaba tan poco acostumbrado a usar la voz que no me salió gran cosa. Nos separaba un denso tráfico, y ni él ni yo nos atrevíamos a cruzar la calle, habría sido estúpido perder la vida de pura alegría, cuando me había aguantado sin ella durante tanto tiempo. Así que lo único que pude hacer fue gritar su nombre una vez más y saludarle con el bastón. Sentí una gran decepción, pero al menos era un consuelo saber que me había visto y llamado por mi nombre. “Adiós, Félix”, grité, y me dispuse a seguir mi camino.

Pero cuando llegué al siguiente cruce allí estaba él, justo delante de mí, de modo que me había puesto triste sin motivo alguno. “Thomas, viejo amigo –dijo–, ¿dónde diablos has estado?”. No quería decírselo, así que no le contesté, pero dije:

“El mundo es grande, Félix”. “Y todos están muertos o casi muertos”. “Sí, sí, la vida exige lo suyo”. “Bien dicho, Thomas, bien dicho”. A mí no me pareció bien dicho en absoluto, y casi para hacerme merecedor de sus elogios dije: “Mientras tengamos sombra, hay vida”. “Pues sí, sí, la maldad no tiene fin”. En ese momento empecé a preguntarme si no estaba chocheando, y decidí ponerlo a prueba. “El problema no es la maldad –dije–, sino la insensatez, por ejemplo, la de esos jóvenes montados en motos enormes”. Me miró un buen rato y dijo:

“Creo que ahora no entiendo muy bien lo que quieres decir”. Como yo no quería conseguir una victoria a costa suya, me limité a decir, como por casualidad: “Pues eso, ¿qué es en realidad la maldad?”. Huelga decir que no supo contestar, no era teólogo, y yo me apresuré a añadir: “Pero no hablemos de eso. ¿Cómo estás?”. Era evidente que lo había puesto de mal humor, porque primero miró detenidamente el reloj y luego dijo: “Cada vez que me encuentro con alguien, me siento más solo que antes”. No era precisamente una frase agradable, pero hice como si nada. “Pues sí –dije–, así es”. Me di cuenta de que si no me daba prisa en despedirme, él lo haría primero, pero no me di la suficiente prisa, de modo que se me adelantó. “Tengo que irme, Thomas, he dejado las patatas en el fuego”. “Ah, sí, las patatas”, contesté. Entonces le di la mano y dije: “Bueno, por si no volvemos a encontrarnos”. Dejé las palabras suspendidas en el aire, porque era una de esas frases que quedan mejor inacabadas. “Sí”,, dijo, y me estrechó la mano. “Adiós, Félix”. “Adiós, Thomas”.

Di media vuelta y regresé a casa. No había visto nada verde, pero, ¡vaya!, ¡cuántos acontecimientos para un solo día!


Cruces, un cuento de George Saunders (con vídeo subtitulado).

En este vídeo os traigo la lectura del breve relato titulado Cruces, del escritor George Saunders. El ingenio de las personas no tiene límites. En este relato las cruces se convierten en soportes publicitarios.

Cruces, un cuento de George Saunders

Todos los años, después de la cena de Acción de Gracias, mi padre sacaba el disfraz de Santa Claus y lo arrastraba hasta una suerte de cruz metálica que había levantado en el jardín. Nosotros formábamos una piña detrás de él y le seguíamos hasta que colocaba allí el disfraz. Durante la semana previa a la Super Bowl, la cruz lucía un jersey y el casco de Rod, y si este quería coger el casco, primero tenía que pedirle permiso a mi padre. El cuatro de julio, la cruz se convertía en el Tío Sam; el Día de los Veteranos, era un soldado; y en Halloween, un fantasma. Aquella cruz era la única concesión de mi padre a las fiestas. Por lo demás, no nos permitía sacar de la caja más de un lápiz de cera a la vez; una Nochebuena le gritó a Kimmie por desperdiciar un trozo de manzana; cada vez que nos poníamos kétchup, lo teníamos a él encima diciendo «Vale, vale, ya basta»; y en las fiestas de cumpleaños había magdalenas en lugar de helado. La primera vez que llevé allí a una cita, la chica me preguntó: «¿Qué es lo que pasa con tu padre y ese poste?», y lo único que pude hacer fue quedarme sentado pestañeando tontamente.

Con el tiempo, Kimmie, Rod y yo nos marchamos, nos casamos, tuvimos hijos y vimos florecer también en nosotros una semilla de mezquindad. Mientras tanto, mi padre empezó a vestir la cruz de forma cada vez más compleja y siguiendo una lógica apenas perceptible. El Día de la Marmota le puso una especie de abrigo de piel y colocó un foco para asegurar la sombra. Después de un terremoto que sacudió Chile, la tumbó y pintó una grieta en el suelo con un aerosol. Cuando mi madre murió, disfrazó a la cruz de Muerte y colgó del travesaño fotos de ella cuando era un bebé. Siempre que pasábamos por allí, encontrábamos amuletos extraños de su juventud dispuestos en torno a la base del poste: medallas del ejército, entradas de teatro, sudaderas viejas o tubos de maquillaje de mi madre.

Un otoño pintó la cruz de amarillo, la cubrió de algodón para proporcionarle abrigo ese invierno y le aseguró descendencia cruzando seis palos de madera y clavándolos a martillazos en diversos puntos del jardín. Tendió cuerdas entre la cruz grande y las tres pequeñas y pegó en ellas, utilizando cinta adhesiva, fichas de archivo en las que pedía disculpas, admitía errores y rogaba comprensión, todo con una caligrafía frenética. Colgó de la cruz metálica un rótulo en el que había escrito AMOR, hizo otro en el que escribió ¿ME PERDONAS?, y murió en el vestíbulo con la radio encendida. Poco después le vendimos la casa a una pareja joven que arrancó todo aquello y lo dejó en la calle el día de recogida de basura.


What are you laughing about?

A big mystery: Why do we laugh?

Laughter is part of the universal human vocabulary. All members of the human species understand it. Unlike English or French or Swahili, we don’t have to learn to speak it. We’re born with the capacity to laugh.

One of the remarkable things about laughter is that it occurs unconsciously. You don’t decide to do it. While we can consciously inhibit it, we don’t consciously produce laughter. That’s why it’s very hard to laugh on command or to fake laughter. (Don’t take my word for it: Ask a friend to laugh on the spot.)

Laughter provides powerful, uncensored insights into our unconscious. It simply bubbles up from within us in certain situations.

Very little is known about the specific brain mechanisms responsible for laughter. But we do know that laughter is triggered by many sensations and thoughts, and that it activates many parts of the body.

When we laugh, we alter our facial expressions and make sounds. During exuberant laughter, the muscles of the arms, legs and trunk are involved. Laughter also requires modification in our pattern of breathing.

We also know that laughter is a message that we send to other people. We know this because we rarely laugh when we are alone (we laugh to ourselves even less than we talk to ourselves).

Laughter is social and contagious. We laugh at the sound of laughter itself. That’s why the Tickle Me Elmo doll is such a success — it makes us laugh and smile.

The first laughter appears at about 3.5 to 4 months of age, long before we’re able to speak. Laughter, like crying, is a way for a preverbal infant to interact with the mother and other caregivers.

Contrary to folk wisdom, most laughter is not about humor; it is about relationships between people. To find out when and why people laugh, I and several undergraduate research assistants went to local malls and city sidewalks and recorded what happened just before people laughed. Over a 10-year period, we studied over 2,000 cases of naturally occurring laughter.

We found that most laughter does not follow jokes. People laugh after a variety of statements such as “Hey John, where ya been?” “Here comes Mary,” “How did you do on the test?” and “Do you have a rubber band?”. These certainly aren’t jokes.


Why Do We Laugh?

Laughter clearly serves a social function. It is a way for us to signal to another person that we wish to connect with them. In fact, in a study of thousands of examples of laughter, the speakers in a conversation were found to be 46 percent more likely to laugh than the listeners.

We’re also 30 times more likely to laugh in a group. Young children between the ages of 2.5 and 4 were found to be eight times more likely to laugh at a cartoon when they watched it with another child even though they were just as likely to report that the cartoon was funny whether alone or not. 

Evolutionarily speaking, this signal of connection likely played an important role in survival. Upon meeting a stranger, we want to know: What are your intentions with me? And who else are you aligned with?

In a study that spanned 24 different societies and included 966 participants, scientists played short sound bites of pairs of people laughing together. In some cases, the pair were close friends, in others, the pair were strangers. 

Participants in the study were asked to listen to the simultaneous laughter and determine the level of friendship shared by the laughers. Using only the sound of the laughter as cues, they could reliably tell the difference between people who had just met and those who were long-time friends. These results suggest not only the link between true laughter and friendship but also that we aren’t fooling anyone when we pretend to laugh at another person’s joke. 

Another theory, which takes the person-to-person connection provided by laughter a step further, is that laughter may be a replacement for the act of grooming each other. Grooming another is a behavior seen in primates. To groom someone else is a generous, one-sided act. Because it requires trust and investment of time, it bonds the groomer and groomee as friends.

As our communities got larger, we couldn’t all go around grooming each other to establish bonds. So, this is no longer our preferred method of exhibiting an offer of friendship. (And that’s probably a good thing.) But laughter, like the commitment offered through grooming, is also hard to fake, at least not without being obvious. And, unlike grooming, it can be done in a larger group and gives a more immediate impression. When we genuinely laugh, we signal that we are comfortable and feel like we belong. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are also a multitude of physical health benefits to laughter. Laughter can increase your oxygen intake, which can in turn stimulate your heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughing further releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals our bodies produce to make us feel happy and even relieve pain or stress. The act of increasing and then decreasing our heart rate and blood pressure through laughter is also ultimately calming and tension-relieving. Laughter can even boost our immune system response through the release of stress-and illness-reducing neuropeptides.

So laughter signals cooperation, a key aspect of human survival, and promotes a healthier body to boot. That’s the best excuse I’ve heard to make sure to take the time to enjoy a few laughs over dinner and drinks with friends.


Why Do People Laugh?

I was sitting in my kitchen one day and made an attempt at being funny, but nobody laughed. My kids began to laugh when I bemoaned that nothing I say is funny. Perhaps ever since we began to emerge from our ancestral lineage, humor has been part of who we are as human beings.

I believe we are always doing the best we can. I call this our I-M. «This is who I am and I Matter.» Our I-M is always adapting to four domains: our home domain, our social domain, our biological domain (brain and body), and our IC domain (how I see myself and how I think other people see me). Using the I-M lens there is no pathology. There is only our I-M—doing the best we can at this moment in time—while adapting to a shift in any of the domains to another I-M.

Humor serves remarkable survival purposes, spanning over all four domains of our I-M. In the biological domain, humor and laughing relieve stress. In the home domain, humor and laughter create an environment of trust, a no-judgement zone. In the social domain, humor binds communities together with shared values. And in the IC domain, well, it feels great to be able to share a laugh.

When is the last time you laughed? What about the last time you chuckled or laughed so hard you cried? I had a laugh-so-hard-you-cry moment recently. I was playing a board game when one of the players asked if his girlfriend had been to a local hospital. He explained that they use a certain kind of soap in the bathrooms: “So I can tell when someone has gone to the bathroom at the hospital.”

Without taking a beat another person responded: “Strange brag but okay.” The tone of the response, the cadence of the words, the soft and slight resignation resonated in such a way that I started laughing, and the thought of it makes me smile even as I write this now. It was not funny for everyone, at least not as funny. But for me, this brief interaction captured one of the reasons people laugh: incongruity.

Our brains are designed to compare bits of information. We are always comparing things. From a survival perspective, an ancestor that notices a new rustling in a bush that a moment before was still and then ran away or prepared for a fight survived more than an ancestor that didn’t notice the difference and was then eaten by a tiger. Both did the best they could in their I-M, but one was less successful.

Incongruity can be funny. The experience of an unexpected twist in a story or when something happens in real life can make us laugh just because it was unexpected and posed no danger. Like this dark humor joke: a woman is digging a hole in her backyard when she unexpectedly uncovers a treasure chest full of gold and jewels, runs to tell her husband, and then remembers why she was digging the hole. Is this funny to you or not?

Our sense of humor is influenced by our home and social domains. Things in my family may not seem funny to someone from another family. Perhaps an ancestor that could share a joke with another created more social bonding and with greater bonding came greater protection. Group humor extends to larger and larger groups, encompassing cultures and points in history. Humor can be transient. Jokes from my parent’s generation may seem politically incorrect today. Humor shifts from era to era.

Sometimes we laugh because we feel joy when superior to someone else. Some humor is mean and derisive, laughter at a person or group’s expense. Superiority humor can be traced back to the ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato, but it probably has its roots long before the written word. Perhaps this was also adaptive at some time in our history and we see examples of this still in our world every day. Sometimes we laugh at another person’s misfortune: «schadenfreude

Superiority humor may actually mask deep insecurity. Insecurity is founded on an IC Domain that worried other people will see one as less-than, with less value and at greater risk of being kicked out of their protective group. While also an I-M, we don’t have to like it but try to understand it.

And then there is that nervous kind of laughter we all have when faced with a difficult or awkward situation. This laughter is the result of feeling relief, perhaps when danger has passed. From an IC domain, we all fear that we will be seen as less valuable, increasing the biological domain stress response from being rejected and kicked out of our protective group. In relief, we may giggle and feel less stressed out.

Laughter is the enactment of humor, turning a perception into an action. Laughter has all sorts of healing properties. Is that why humor evolved? Did early humans survive better than their counterparts if they could laugh when faced with adversity?

How can you use humor today to make a small change in any of your four domains? What kind of influence do you want to be on the I-M of those in your home or social domains?

I laugh every day. I find the humor around me and am grateful for that ability. What sort of things make you laugh? What do you find funny? In my family, it is often irony, something I got from both my parents. And while my home domain was not always funny growing up, my folks could find humor even in the midst of their divorce. As my mom once said, she was a «divorcée but always wanted to be a widow.»


The evolutionary origins of laughter are rooted more in survival than enjoyment

Laughter plays a crucial role in every culture across the world. But it’s not clear why laughter exists. While it is evidently an inherently social phenomenon – people are up to 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than when alone – laughter’s function as a form of communication remains mysterious.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and involving a large group of researchers led by Gregory Bryant from UCLA, suggests that laughter may indicate to listeners the friendship status of those laughing. The researchers asked listeners to judge the friendship status of pairs of strangers and friends based on short snippets of their simultaneous laughter. Drawn from 24 different societies, they found that listeners were able to reliably distinguish friends from strangers, based on specific acoustic characteristics of the laughter.

Laughter’s evolutionary past

Spontaneous laughter, which is unintentionally triggered by conversation or events, emerges in the first few months of life, even in children who are deaf or blind. Laughter not only transcends human cultural boundaries, but species boundaries, too: it is present in a similar form in other great apes. In fact, the evolutionary origins of human laughter can be traced back to between 10 and 16m years ago.

While laughter has been linked to higher pain tolerance and the signalling of social status, its principal function appears to be creating and deepening social bonds. As our ancestors began to live in larger and more complex social structures, the quality of relationships became crucial to survival. The process of evolution would have favoured the development of cognitive strategies that helped form and sustain these cooperative alliances.

Laughter probably evolved from laboured breathing during play such as tickling, which encourage cooperative and competitive behaviour in young mammals. This expression of the shared arousal experienced through play may have been effective in strengthening positive bonds, and laughter has indeed been shown to prolong the length of play behaviours in both children and chimpanzees, and to directly elicit both conscious and unconscious positive emotional responses in human listeners.

Laughter as a social tool

The emergence of laughter and other primal vocalisations was at first intimately tied to how we felt: we only laughed when aroused in a positive way, just as we cried only when distressed, or roared only when angry. The key development came with the ability to vocalise voluntarily, without necessarily experiencing some underlying pain, rage, or positive emotion. This increased vocal control, made possible as our brains grew more complex, was ultimately vital in the development of language. But it also allowed us to consciously mimic laughter (and other vocalisations), providing a deceptive tool to artificially quicken and expand social bonds – and so increase survival odds.

The idea that this volitional laughter also has an evolutionary origin is reinforced by the presence of similar behaviour in adult chimpanzees, who produce laugh imitations in response to the spontaneous laughter of others. The fake laughter of both chimpanzees and humans develops during childhood, is acoustically distinct from its spontaneous counterpart, and serves the same social bonding function.

Today, both spontaneous and volitional laughter are prevalent in almost every aspect of human life, whether sharing a joke with a mate or during polite chitchat with a colleague. However, they’re not equivalent in the ear of beholder. Spontaneous laughter is characterised by higher pitch (indicative of genuine arousal), shorter duration and shorter laugh bursts compared to volitional laughter. Researchers recently demonstrated that human listeners can distinguish between these two laugh types. Fascinatingly, they also showed that if you slow down and adjust the pitch of volitional laughter (to make it less recognisable as human) listeners can distinguish it from animal vocalisations, whereas they cannot do the same for spontaneous laughter, whose acoustic structure is far more similar to nonhuman primate equivalents.

Friend or stranger?

It’s this audible difference that is demonstrated in the paper by Bryant and his colleagues. Friends are more likely to produce spontaneous laughs, while strangers who lack an established emotional connection are more likely to produce volitional laughter.

The fact that we can accurately perceive these distinctions means that laughter is to some extent an honest signal. In the neverending evolutionary arms race, adaptive strategies for deception tend to co-evolve with strategies to detect that deception. The acoustic characteristics of authentic laughter are therefore useful cues to the bonds between and status of members of a group. This is something that may have aided decision-making in our evolutionary past.

However, the study found that judgement accuracy was on average only 11% higher than chance. Perhaps this is partially because some strangers may have produced spontaneous laughs and some friends volitional laughs, but it’s clear that imitating authentic emotional laughter is a valuable deceptive tool for social lubrication. One need only witness the contagious effects of canned laughter to see how true this is.

In the complex reality of modern human social interaction, laughs are often aromatic blends of the full-bodied spontaneous and dark but smooth volitional types, further blurring the boundaries. Regardless, the goal is the same and we will most likely find ourselves becoming fonder of those we share the odd chuckle with.

John Cleese once said: “Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter.” He might just have hit the nail on the head – even when we’re faking it.


The benefits of laughter

It’s true: laughter is strong medicine. It draws people together in ways that trigger healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humor lightens your burdens, inspires hope, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you release anger and forgive sooner.

With so much power to heal and renew, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, enhancing your relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional health. Best of all, this priceless medicine is fun, free, and easy to use.

As children, we used to laugh hundreds of times a day, but as adults, life tends to be more serious and laughter more infrequent. But by seeking out more opportunities for humor and laughter, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and even add years to your life.

Laughter is good for your health

Laughter relaxes the whole body. A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.

Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.

Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.

Laughter protects the heart. Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.

Laughter burns calories. Okay, so it’s no replacement for going to the gym, but one study found that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can burn approximately 40 calories—which could be enough to lose three or four pounds over the course of a year.

Laughter lightens anger’s heavy load. Nothing diffuses anger and conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and enable you to move on from confrontations without holding onto bitterness or resentment.

Laughter may even help you to live longer. A study in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humor outlived those who don’t laugh as much. The difference was particularly notable for those battling cancer.

Laughter helps you stay mentally healthy

Laughter makes you feel good. And this positive feeling remains with you even after the laughter subsides. Humor helps you keep a positive, optimistic outlook through difficult situations, disappointments, and loss.

More than just a respite from sadness and pain, laughter gives you the courage and strength to find new sources of meaning and hope. Even in the most difficult of times, a laugh–or even simply a smile–can go a long way toward making you feel better. And laughter really is contagious—just hearing laughter primes your brain and readies you to smile and join in the fun.

Laughter stops distressing emotions. You can’t feel anxious, angry, or sad when you’re laughing.

Laughter helps you relax and recharge. It reduces stress and increases energy, enabling you to stay focused and accomplish more.

Laughter shifts perspective, allowing you to see situations in a more realistic, less threatening light. A humorous perspective creates psychological distance, which can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and diffuse conflict.

Laughter draws you closer to others, which can have a profound effect on all aspects of your mental and emotional health.

Laughter brings people together and strengthens relationships

There’s a good reason why TV sitcoms use laugh tracks: laughter is contagious. You’re many times more likely to laugh around other people than when you’re alone. And the more laughter you bring into your own life, the happier you and those around you will feel.

Sharing humor is half the fun—in fact, most laughter doesn’t come from hearing jokes, but rather simply from spending time with friends and family. And it’s this social aspect that plays such an important role in the health benefits of laughter. You can’t enjoy a laugh with other people unless you take the time to really engage with them. When you care about someone enough to switch off your phone and really connect face to face, you’re engaging in a process that rebalances the nervous system and puts the brakes on defensive stress responses like “fight or flight.” And if you share a laugh as well, you’ll both feel happier, more positive, and more relaxed—even if you’re unable to alter a stressful situation.

Shared laughter is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships fresh and exciting. All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter also adds joy, vitality, and resilience. And humor is a powerful and effective way to heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts. Laughter unites people during difficult times.

Humor and playful communication strengthen our relationships by triggering positive feelings and fostering emotional connection. When we laugh with one another, a positive bond is created. This bond acts as a strong buffer against stress, disagreements, and disappointment. Humor and laughter in relationships allows you to:

Be more spontaneous. Humor gets you out of your head and away from your troubles.

Let go of defensiveness. Laughter helps you forget resentments, judgments, criticisms, and doubts.

Release inhibitions. Your fear of holding back is pushed aside.

Express your true feelings. Deeply felt emotions are allowed to rise to the surface.

Laughter is an especially powerful tool for managing conflict and reducing tension when emotions are running high. Whether with romantic partners, friends and family, or co-workers, you can learn to use humor to smooth over disagreements, lower everyone’s stress level, and communicate in a way that builds up your relationships rather than breaking them down.

How to bring more laughter into your life

Laughter is your birthright, a natural part of life that is innate and inborn. Infants begin smiling during the first weeks of life and laugh out loud within months of being born. Even if you did not grow up in a household where laughter was a common sound, you can learn to laugh at any stage of life.

Begin by setting aside special times to seek out humor and laughter, as you might with exercising, and build from there. Eventually, you’ll want to incorporate humor and laughter into the fabric of your life, finding it naturally in everything.

Here are some ways to start:

Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter, and like laughter, it’s contagious. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling. Instead of looking down at your phone, look up and smile at people you pass in the street, the person serving you a morning coffee, or the co-workers you share an elevator with. Notice the effect on others.

Count your blessings. Literally make a list. The simple act of considering the positive aspects of your life will distance you from negative thoughts that block humor and laughter. When you’re in a state of sadness, you have further to travel to reach humor and laughter.

When you hear laughter, move toward it. Sometimes humor and laughter are private, a shared joke among a small group, but usually not. More often, people are very happy to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again and feed off the humor you find in it. When you hear laughter, seek it out and ask, “What’s funny?”

Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily–both at themselves and at life’s absurdities–and who routinely find the humor in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious. Even if you don’t consider yourself a lighthearted, humorous person, you can still seek out people who like to laugh and make others laugh. Every comedian appreciates an audience.

Bring humor into conversations. Ask people, “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?”

So, what if you really can’t “find the funny?” Believe it or not, it’s possible to laugh without experiencing a funny event—and simulated laughter can be just as beneficial as the real thing. It can even make exercise more fun and productive. A Georgia State University study found that incorporating bouts of simulated laughter into an exercise program helped improve older adults’ mental health as well as their aerobic endurance. Plus, hearing others laugh, even for no apparent reason, can often trigger genuine laughter.

To add simulated laughter into your own life, search for laugh yoga or laugh therapy groups. Or you can start simply by laughing at other people’s jokes, even if you don’t find them funny. Both you and the other person will feel good, it will draw you closer together, and who knows, it may even lead to some spontaneous laughter.

Tips for developing your sense of humor

An essential ingredient for developing your sense of humor is to learn not to take yourself too seriously and laugh at your own mistakes and foibles. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we all do foolish things from time to time. Instead of feeling embarrassed or defensive, embrace your imperfections. While some events in life are clearly sad and not opportunities for laughter, most don’t carry an overwhelming sense of either sadness or delight. They fall into the gray zone of ordinary life—giving you the choice to laugh or not. So, choose to laugh whenever you can.

Laugh at yourself. Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take yourself less seriously is to talk about times when you took yourself too seriously.

Attempt to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them. Look for the humor in a bad situation, and uncover the irony and absurdity of life. When something negative happens, try to make it a humorous anecdote that will make others laugh.

Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up. Keep a toy on your desk or in your car. Put up a funny poster in your office. Choose a computer screensaver that makes you laugh. Frame photos of you and your family or friends having fun.

Remember funny things that happen. If something amusing happens or you hear a joke or funny story you really like, write it down or tell it to someone to help you remember it.

Don’t dwell on the negative. Try to avoid negative people and don’t dwell on news stories, entertainment, or conversations that make you sad or unhappy. Many things in life are beyond your control—particularly the behavior of other people. While you might view carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders as admirable, in the long run it’s unrealistic and unhealthy.

Find your inner child. Pay attention to children and try to emulate them—after all, they are the experts on playing, taking life lightly, and laughing at ordinary things.

Deal with stress. Stress can be a major impediment to humor and laughter, so it’s important to keep your stress levels in check. One great technique to relieve stress in the moment is to draw upon a favorite memory that always makes you smile—something your kids did, for example, or something funny a friend told you.

Don’t go a day without laughing. Think of it like exercise or breakfast and make a conscious effort to find something each day that makes you laugh. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes and do something that amuses you. The more you get used to laughing each day, the less effort you’ll have to make.

Using humor to overcome challenges and enhance your life

The ability to laugh, play, and have fun not only makes life more enjoyable but also helps you solve problems, connect with others, and think more creatively. People who incorporate humor and play into their daily lives find that it renews them and all of their relationships.

Life brings challenges that can either get the best of you or become playthings for your imagination. When you “become the problem” and take yourself too seriously, it can be hard to think outside the box and find new solutions. But when you play with the problem, you can often transform it into an opportunity for creative learning.

Playing with problems seems to come naturally to children. When they are confused or afraid, they make their problems into a game, giving them a sense of control and an opportunity to experiment with new solutions. Interacting with others in playful ways helps you retain this creative ability.

As laughter, humor, and play become integrated into your life, your creativity will flourish and new opportunities for laughing with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and loved ones will occur to you daily. Laughter takes you to a higher place where you can view the world from a more relaxed, positive, and joyful perspective.