On the power of an awkward silence...

On July 11, 2018, I took part in a presentation on comedy and we started our presentation with a two-minute silence, which created an awkwardness to everything and a lot of nervous laughter. Following the presentation, I decided to craft this journal post as a brief overview of some of the best examples of how silence has been used in comedy and comedic performances.

The main idea or inspiration for starting our presentation with an awkward silence was primarily rooted in how actor and comedian Craig Ferguson (the host of the CBS LATE LATE SHOW from 2005-2014) used to end his interviews by asking his guests if they want to end the segment with an awkward pause or mouth organ (harmonica). A compilation of the best of these awkward pauses can be found on YouTube:

In terms of a more direct comparison to Ferguson, you can watch how comedian Andy Kaufman uses silence in an almost performative manner in this 1975 bit he performed on Saturday Night Live:

And you can see how Kaufman goes for almost two minutes without uttering a word on David Letterman’s old morning television show in 1980:

Kaufman was always able to effectively use silence in his routines to create an awkward tension in audiences which did nothing but make them break out in giggles. If you’re interested, Jim Carrey portrayed Kaufman in the 1999 biographical film, MAN ON THE MOON, as shown in this clip from the film, which recreates the famous Saturday Night Live sketch:

But these kinds of silences weren’t unique to Fergusson and Kaufman however. Today’s comedic magician duo Penn & Teller showcases Teller as essentially being a mime-like silent partner to the energetic antics of his partner Penn Jillette. In 2015, Teller discussed his silent role with the UK news magazine, THE DAILY MAIL. And if you’ve never seen Penn & Teller, here is a short clip of an appearance they made on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON. Notice how Penn does all the talking:

But if you want to go back and look at what may have influenced Teller, you might find that you could likely draw comparisons to how Harpo Marx acted in the movies by the Marx Brothers with how Teller acts when he’s on stage with Penn. The Marx Brothers were a comedic team who made many movies between the 1920s and the 1950s. Like Teller, Harpo had a face that could convey so many emotions and ideas, as can be seen in this clip from the 1933 film DUCK SOUP:

Harpo Marx was also a master at physical comedy, all the while not saying a word:

Through what’s been shown already, you can also begin to see how the humour and comedy of one generation can be influenced by what came before them. For example, when one watches the work of comedian Martin Short, they can likely see how Short probably learned a lot from watching Harpo when Short was growing up. What Short learned by watching the Marx Brothers was likely used in creating his own assortment of comedic characters, such as the leading title role he played in the 1994 film CLIFFORD:

Did you notice the similarities in the range of facial expressions used by Short, and Harpo Marx? Finally, Jim Carrey has also been able to master the ability of using a plethora of facial and body movements in both his stand-up comedy routines as well as in his comedic acting. In Carrey’s stand-up comedy, one can see how he is very adept at using silence and pauses to allow his audience to finish laughing so that they’re composed for just a little bit before he unleashes another part of his routine on them:

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about Craig Ferguson’s stint as the host of the LATE LATE SHOW, and how his style of comedy compares to the style of other late-night talk show hosts, this YouTube video does a great job of doing just that: