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Humor in Geometry: The Genius of Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton was one of the founding fathers of visual comedy. It’s nearly 100 years after he first appeared onscreen, and there is still so much we can learn from him.

In this video essay by Tony Zhou, through his channel Every Frame a Painting, he explores the artistry and thought behind Keaton’s gags.

A good example that Buster Keaton’s style is alive and living on can be found in the framing of Wes Anderson films, and his deadpan posture in Bill Murray.

Bill Murray's deadpan posture, does it look familiar? (Image via Screenshot YouTube)

Bill Murray’s deadpan posture. Does it look familiar? (Image: Every Frame a Painting via Screenshot/YouTube)

As a rule, good visual comedy is told through action, and Keaton would use gesture and pantomime. He preferred to use as few title cards as possible throughout his work, as he believed strongly in telling the story through action. He thought each action should be unique and only used once, and every single fall was an opportunity for creativity.

To find the right camera angle was key to the gag. Visual gags generally work best from one particular angle, so to change the angle means to change the gag.

Visual gags generally work best from one particular angle. (Image via Screenshot YouTube)

Visual gags generally work best from one particular angle. (Image: Every Frame a Painting via Screenshot/YouTube)

Buster’s world is flat, and he goes by a rule — if the camera can’t see it, neither can the character. So he creates jokes that make sense visually, but not logically. Characters can move up, down, right, or left toward the camera, or away from the camera — creating humor in geometry. Or the camera is positioned back far enough so we can see the shape of the gag.

The camera was often placed back as far as possible to see the shape of the gag, parallel lines, circles or in this case triangles. (Image via Screenshot YouTube)

The camera was often placed back as far as possible to see the shape of the gag — parallel lines, circles, or in this case triangles. (Image: Every Frame a Painting via Screenshot/YouTube)

My favorite type of gags were Keaton’s “Impossible Gags.” These were the ones that had their roots in vaudeville, and were performed to be like magic tricks. Very inventive and bordering on surreal at times, these jokes as a storyteller capture me the most.

For feature length films, Keaton moved on to the “Natural Gag,” as he felt the story had to be believable or the story wouldn’t hold up. A “Natural Gag” is a joke that emerges organically from the character and situation.

The "Natural Gag." (Image via YouTube Screenshot)

The ‘Natural Gag.’ (Image: Every Frame a Painting via Screenshot/YouTube)

Keaton was big on keeping himself open to improvisation; he would have 50 percent in his mind before he went out there, and the other 50 percent he would develop as he was making it. Some jokes went well, and he would call them back later. Others didn’t work as he planned, so he would get rid of them.

And then the accidental ones would come. In a planned gag where he jumps from one building to another, he fell by accident, but decided to keep the gag and just built on that.

The accidental gag where Keaton didn't make his jump and just built on the gag of falling. (Image via YouTube Screenshot)

The ‘Accidental Gag.’ Keaton didn’t make his jump, so just built on the gag of him falling. (Image: Every Frame a Painting via Screenshot/YouTube)

Buster Keaton’s most famous rule was never fake a gag.

He wanted his audience to trust the gag was real, so for this reason he would never make a cut. They would either get the gag in one shot or it would be thrown out. For this, he is remembered not just for his skill, but also his integrity. And just as they say in the video: “No advancement in technology can mimic this.” It’s true. Buster Keaton gives us the real thing.

Buster Keaton. (Image via YouTube Screenshot)

Buster Keaton, one of the great silent comedians. (Image: Every Frame a Painting via Screenshot/YouTube)

For me, it’s this authentic approach that shines most brightly in Buster Keaton’s films, and you can see why his work is long lasting and he continues to inspire.

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