Why Charlie Chaplin is still important to comedy 36 years after his death

By | March 8, 2013 at 2:38 pm | 3 comments | Features, TV/Movies | Tags:

On Sunday it will have been 38 years since Charlie Chaplin received his knighthood. Sure, he received it a little late into his life, but he was a knight nonetheless – even if it was only for two years. So, skipping over those controversial issues that plagued Chaplin’s name in the newspapers of the 40’s (those politics principles and that paternity test), let’s remind ourselves of just why Chaplin fully deserved his knighthood.

Although Chaplin died 36 years ago, Charlie Chaplin the ‘Tramp’ character still lives within cinema. Not only has his image – baggy trousers, small hat, large shoes and the iconic moustache – remained as a defining image of silent cinema, but the character of The Tramp has evolved into arguably the most used personality in comedy. The Tramp sympathises with social outcasts of the time and casts a comical light on the struggles these people were faced with, which taught us that laughing at our misfortunes is hilarious. At the same time, Chaplin portrays The Tramp as a useless idiot with a sad face, using pathos to evoke pity from the audience for this unlucky character. By combining pity and humour, Chaplin established – or at least, through the success of his Tramp character, helped influence – the luckless clown character that still features in today’s big comedies.

Think of Michael Cera as Evan in Superbad. He takes on the role of an unpopular and meek nerd. The audience love him because of the sympathy they feel for him as all of his funny moments are underlined with an element of sadness. Or Neil from the TV show The Inbetweeners – an underdog of sixth form whose stupidity allows him to be blissfully ignorant of social issues and content with his own life, adopting The Tramp’s ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself down’ philosophy when things don’t go to plan. Chaplin’s Tramp is also reflected in The Hangover. Phil and Stu have their share of funny lines, but it’s Alan that the audience enjoy most because he’s the lovable and stupid outcast. Everything he does is funnier because of his character. Imagine if Bradley Cooper had worn the satchel; the audience wouldn’t have laughed but would have gone straight from the cinema to Topman.

Drama and stand-up students (yes, there is a degree in stand-up comedy) almost 100 years after Chaplin entered the film industry still draw inspiration from his work today. A lot of stand ups are funny because they ridicule themselves; not many people will laugh at a man showing off how good he is. No, we want to laugh at a man making a fool out of himself. Feargal Parham, who studies a degree in Drama and takes the Stand Up module, finds that Chaplin’s work was fundamental in the development of his own comedy: “I used to watch a lot of his films when I was a kid and I’d try to copy the faces he pulled. When I’m writing my stuff – about the stupid mistakes I make – I always end up using the face from The Circus posters; disappointed but still funny”.

At the end of it all, Chaplin remains a 20th Century icon who was intrinsic in the characterisation of funny characters to this day. Even in the midst of ‘Chaplinitis’ – the Charlie Chaplin craze that saw Chaplin immortalized in toys, puppets, and playing cards – Sir Chaplin stayed humble. So for what he did for the art of film and comedy, Sir Charlie Chaplin wholly deserved his knighthood, and, as he famously said: “It takes courage to make a fool out of yourself.”

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About the Author

Rachel Perkins

Rachel is a writer based in England.