‘When Comedy Was King’: Silent Comedies and Casual Sexism

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

There are, I’ve learned, many more comedy documentaries than most people assume. They’re labors of love; occasionally, they’re labors of hate. But each is chance to learn about a nook in the comedy world by someone who’s passionate about it. When Comedy Was King is substantially different from the standard talking-head documentary, but it has it’s own charming enthusiasm.

When Comedy Was King was produced in 1959, and looks back at the silent films of the teens and twenties, focusing on big names like Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. In the modern sense, it’s not much of a documentary. Instead, it’s a series of clips strung together, with an overbearing voiceover explaining both the plot and the background context of the films.

Included is the occasional interesting piece of trivia. For instance, Chaplin’s early films at Keystone Studios were almost entirely ad-libbed, and normally done in a single take. In a sense, these films were a forerunner to modern improv, where a vague basic premise works itself out into a story. This adds a hidden cleverness to the gags, watching the actors react fluidly as the story evolves.

All this is well and good, but the real reason to watch When Comedy Was King is for a Roger Sterling-esque voiceover by Dwight Weist. His VO starts out over-selling the glory of silent comedy, but quickly turns into the nostalgic and weirdly sexist ramblings of a grumpy old man.

“In a time when the world’s funny bone was far less touchy than it is now,” he sets up one Chaplin scene. He can’t help but comment that a Fatty Arbuckle scene on the waterfront takes place “before beaches were littered with beer cans.”

And the really good stuff comes when ladies enter the picture. “There are ways to stop even a women from talking,” he says apropos of nothing, an especially confounding remark considering that no one can talk because these are silent films.

“True, we’ve had short skirts since then, but never skirts so delightfully short, nor girls so cute as in the breezy twenties,” he leers during an extended bit about buying ice cream cones. “I’m sorry, what?” I say back to the screen.

He also manages to talk during the interesting set-up bits of the scenes, then goes quiet during the long “chaos ensues” parts. Not to spoil anything, but there’s a lot of people running and falling over, things breaking and cops being annoyed. Several of the clips run on for far too long, losing any element of fun and surprise in the process.

The film is essentially one long nostalgia trip, by a man who thought the world had gone to hell in a hand basket in the late 50s. But his boundless love for that bygone era is a spirited, if bemusing, introduction to this early chapter of comedy history.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? For me, it sparked an interest in silent comedy without actually teaching me all that much. It does, however, show the progress that silent films made over the course of a couple decades, from incredibly broad in the mid teens to a more complex game from Laurel and Hardy in the late 20s.

What does it have to say about comedy? If nothing else, this documentary shows just how hard those earlier comedians worked. Whether it makes you laugh or not, the physical humor is grueling and impressive.

Is it funny? The silent comedy will probably hit with some people more than others. However, the voiceover at one point describes someone as having “the face of a baby dope fiend,” which certainly made me laugh.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No, but it’s on DVD.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She wants a magnet car.

‘When Comedy Was King’: Silent Comedies and Casual […]