The roles of editing and technique truly don’t get enough credit in most comedic films. Sure, praise is duly given to the screenwriter when he pens a well-crafted joke, and the actors are lauded when a line or pratfall is delivered well. But when it comes to a medium like film, one particularly dependent on the juxtaposition of one moving image against another to convey a visual narrative, the power a particular cut has to set up a joke into something brilliant or disastrous cannot be underestimated. This explains why, for example, the slow and intercutting set-up of John Cleese gradually storming his way into Swamp Castle on a foolhardy rescue mission remains one of the most hysterically memorable set-ups in movie history.
Of course, knowing when not to cut can make for similarly effective, or effectively limp, comedy. When you edit too much – as a movie like The Dictator does because it’s more obsessed with its non-sequiturs and offensive one-liners than narrative –comedic momentum is essentially sabotaged. When it comes to his 1974 classic Young Frankenstein, however, Mel Brooks is too smart to make such a sophomoric mistake. The film may have garnered an Oscar nomination for its writers – Brooks and star Gene Wilder – but the reason it truly remains one of the great American comedies is because Brooks was sure to make a film as sophisticated in its visuals as it was in its verbal witticisms.
We see Brooks’ mastery of visual humor all over the place, with varying degrees of prominence throughout. We see it in numerous sight gags, as when the camera tracks across one recently deceased skull after another before landing on the warped physiognomy of Marty Feldman’s irrepressible Igor, and we see it when Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher divulges her master plan, accompanied by the dramatic martelés of the very same violin she happens to be playing at the time (this might have counted solely as a sound gag were it not for the flamboyant bowing of Cloris Leachman). We even see painstaking attention to visuals in the smallest gags, as when Igor inconspicuously tilts his hand-sketched artists’ depiction hanging from the wall of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein’s ideal monster, almost anticipating Brooks’ dissolve to the fresh corpse of Peter Boyle’s Monster swinging from a noose.
Come to think of it, most of Young Frankenstein’s best sight gags involve Igor, including the movie’s lengthiest, best-engineered visual joke. It is a moment of expertly calibrated comedic momentum that demonstrates, most notably through staging, that the best joke set-ups are the ones that call above all else for one simple thing: simplicity. But before I talk about that scene, let’s play a game of charades:
(Apologies for the terrible quality; this is the best video I could find)
On its face, the reason this sequence is so amusing seems terribly obvious. We react to the ludicrousness inherent to watching a man parlor-game his way out of strangulation by Peter Boyle’s “seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide gorilla,” and we react to the audacity of watching essentially the same gag being repeated in a slightly different context. But praising the scene solely on the merits of absurdism and repetition – or even Feldman’s hilariously valiant attempt to solve Freddy’s pantomimes by shouting “Give him a Sedagive!” – ultimately doesn’t convey what makes the scene work. Basically, it’s all in how Brooks knows when not to cut.
If you break down the entire 3-minute charades scene shot-by-shot, you see that the camera cuts all of seven times, for a total of eight individual shots. But if you consider how each one is framed, brooks seems to be editing across merely four distinct shots:
Brooks’ accomplishment in this bare-bones assemblage of essentially two long takes – each one cloven with brief establishing shots of Terri Garr – is that he essentially charges his script and the physical and vocal inflections of his performers to deliver a gradual sense of comedic momentum. For the most part, Brooks stays his camera at medium-shot, allowing the actions of all characters to be seen mostly with clarity. Fixing his camera where he does, cutting as discerningly as he does, is absolutely critical for a scene like this – one whose primary tactic for story progression is to convey the excitement felt when playing an incredibly tense game of charades. Brooks makes it as if the viewer is actually in the room with the four actors, watching in frustrated horror as Dr. Frankenstein flails around helplessly.
I suppose I should explain what I mean when I characterize Brooks’ medium shots as depicting the action “mostly with clarity.” With as many as four frantic actors sharing the screen at one time, Brooks has a lot of action to capture. Indeed, there are some acts and gestures the actors make that, given the framing of the shots, might have been made clearer by splicing in more close-ups of the characters’ faces. In doing so, he might even have made the entire scene feel more chaotic or joke-heavy. For example, Brooks might have cut to the Monster’s enraged visage, or to Igor’s self-satisfied grins following his hopelessly misguided stabs at guesses, or even to a cleaner shot of Frederick throwing up his arms to the monster in bewilderment of his assistant’s answer of “Sedagive!” The charades sequence might then have been more humorously manic than it currently is, and a more contemporary director of comedy (again, The Dictator, anyone?) might have shot Young Frankenstein in such a fashion – and might even have supplied Igor with a few more ridiculous guesses – if only to speed up the pacing.
Yet as straightforwardly as this entire “game of charades” might be shot, Brooks’ choice to pack so much action into a visually linear sequence is ultimately the correct one. The joke he tells feels more protracted, yet it only serves to strengthen the punchline. What’s more, Brooks’ framing – loaded with frenetic action from several performers – ultimately rewards multiple viewing. Had Brooks, his DP Gerald Hirschfeld and his editor John C. Howard not maintained that elegant simplicity, the scene would have practically no sense of momentum, and none of what makes the scene so hysterical would be there.
We would not laugh nearly as hard at Frederick’s exasperation with Igor over his pitiful guess of “sedagive!”- nor at his brief commiseration with the Monster mid-assault over his assistant’s stupidity – had the tension of the charades game not been properly mounted. We might also never have emphasized with the Good Doctor’s slowly festering rage as Igor confesses to retrieving the brain of one “Abby Someone” What’s more, the humor of repetition would be completely lost in Freddy’s subsequent choking of Igor (and Igor’s initiation of his own charades game) had the visual presentation of the action not mirrored what we saw in that first choking/charades sequence (again, compare Shots 3 and 8). But since Brooks goes to great pains not to over-direct his cast and crew, because his ability to know when not to cut facilitates a well-orchestrated sense of pacing, this Master Moment becomes an unqualified success. Most critically, Brooks and company prove that a joke, no matter how inspired it is conceptually, is never inherently “funny.” It takes considerable work to make a gag land, and that work is precisely what distinguishes good jokes from great comedy.
In Young Frankenstein, “Sedagive” is not merely a punchline; it’s the rewarding payoff to the setup from a crew masterful joke-tellers.