Sometimes people tell me they can’t tell when I’m joking. I may point them at this article in the future. I’m merely doing a deadpan…
How to Do a Deadpan
By Bob Balaban, actor
Deadpan: a vaudeville term coined in the 1920s to describe a comic with an expressionless face, pan being slang for face, and dead being dead. Think Jack Benny. Buster Keaton.Christopher Guest. Deadpan is the double take without the take, the mysterious, hysterically funny nothing.
In “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” Buster Keaton walks into a neighborhood that has been devastated by a cyclone. He stops in front of a house. The house begins to fall. Keaton, of course, is unaware of it. The shot is wide enough for you to know that Keaton is really there and that the house is really falling. Audiences reportedly shouted: “Look out! Look out!” at the movie screen during this sequence. The house falls, the audience gasps, the dust rises, and when it clears, there is Keaton, expressionless, standing in the safety of an open attic window that has fallen around him. He walks away as if nothing has happened to him. That’s major deadpan.
Here are some rules for deadpan:
1. This thing works better the less you do. You could actually be dead and get pretty good results. Lowercase yourself — clear your mind, silence your inner voices, disappear, be nothing. Don’t forget, nothing can be really something. An accomplished deadpan can create a force field akin to a black hole.
2. Don’t act. Deadpan is, by definition, the antithesis of acting. Deadpan allows the audience to imagine your reaction. You are the ultimate Rorschach test. You are Peter Sellers in “Being There.”
3. Like the proverbial dark gray suit, deadpan is appropriate for almost every occasion. It’s the way to go whether you are on the receiving end of spoonfuls of baby food thrown by a peckish infant, or in a speedboat and the female bass player to whom you have just proposed takes off her wig and tells you she’s a man, or if you are about to have a house fall on you.
4. And this is an absolute absolute — do not comment on the deadpan. The audience must never know that you know a house has fallen on you. You are not in on the joke, and the audience will love you for it. They will feel superior. Let them.
Doing nothing is not for everyone. A great deadpan is a rara avis. But who knows? In the brave new world of Botox and Restalane, today’s Jim Carrey may become tomorrow’s master of the expressionless expression.
(Source: The New York Times)