Comic Layering, via Marxes and Jackasses.

ANightAtTheOpera jackass_the_movie

Comedy relies heavily on the layering principle, meaning that when you take one normal activity or object, and layer it with several more, the layers could potentially lead to a comical situation. A Marx Brothers film brought intrinsic comic layering, with at least three of the five siblings (Zeppo being optional, Gummo never appearing onscreen), the prerequisite harp solo from Harpo, a piano solo from Chico, and the studio-mandated romantic interlude between whatever pair of twenty-somethings happened to be on the MGM lot that day. (See the GB,HR. Guide to the Marxes)

Take a look at the cabin sequence from the Marx Brothers’ 1935 film A Night at the Opera. Please note that being on a boat isn’t funny, having a large trunk isn’t funny, stewards aren’t funny, ordering room service isn’t funny, having the floor mopped isn’t funny, sleeping isn’t funny, getting a manicure isn’t funny, and looking for one’s aunt isn’t funny. But, add all of these elements together, and, voila:

Now, back when the Jackass films first came to cinemas, I was bombarded with tersely worded e-mails expressing disapproval and outright dismay that I—a holder of calligraphied degrees from American institutions of higher learning—would not only pay for a ticket, but would also have a strong desire to go see these films. So why do I like the Jackass films so much? Because the Jackass boys took this layering principle and broke new ground by synergistically combining it with something I like to call the “things your mother told you never to do” principle (previously a staple of the Our Gang television series, and mainly exploited by child and juvenile comic actors against their adult counterparts, harping on the juxtaposition between adult and child-like judgment.)

Remember when you were a kid? What did your mother tell you not to do? She told you not to walk on tightropes. And if you were to walk on a tightrope, not to walk on a tightrope over an alligator pit. And if you were to walk on a tightrope over an alligator pit, not to do so while wearing a jockstrap. And if you were to walk on a tightrope over an alligator pit while wearing a jockstrap, make sure you don’t do so with raw chicken strapped to your person.

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