Watching Drew Richardson perform as Drew the Dramatic Fool is exactly like watching the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, or any of the great screen comedians for the first time. What they base their act around is important, but how they do is it even more crucial. Groucho makes huge winding circles with his dialogue and then dances around with them as if they were twirlers. Buster Keaton knows that facing danger is even more funny if you have a deadpan face. And Drew Richardson knows that it’s important to honor, salute, and bow down to those who came around long ago, but also make absolutely sure that you make your own mark in the modern day, much like a dog doing the business it knows best at a young age.
For a good time, we called Richardson, who gave us his take on his world and all the people and routines in it.
How did you suddenly decide, “Well, I think some crazy hair and permanently wide eyes are in my future?” ^ It wasn’t so sudden. I started performing magic when I was eight, theater when I was eleven, and juggling when I was sixteen. It wasn’t until I went to Ohio University that I was introduced to physical comedy and theatrical clowning by John Towsen where all my interests came together. But it’s been slow and evolutionary. In terms of the hair, I’ve been losing handfuls of the stuff over the past decade. It wasn’t until I was working on my previous one-man stage show, The Psychology of Clumsiness, that I began taking advantage of the hair loss. The character I played had a mad scientist quality, so I exaggerated what was already happening to my hair. But it had more of a sideways, bozo/Einstein quality than what I use now, where the hair sticks up more. You can see the change from my first movie, “The Guy Who Lived on a Chair”, to my most recent, “The Guy Who Made Movies”.
Wide eyes? I’ve always used an innocent naiveté as an avenue into creative thinking. The wide eyes are a side effect of that perspective. Someone once described my character as a psycho innocent. When I rediscovered the Marx Brothers’ movies in college, I felt a kinship to Harpo Marx and his wide-eyed persona. I did not consciously try to imitate him, but he was certainly an influence.
How much silent comedy did you absorb and who were you inspired by the most? What did you learn from these guys that you applied to your act? ^ Once I got interested in physical and visual comedy in college, I began seeking out and studying silent comedians, as well as sound comedies with a strong visual component, and even comedy records that sparked my imagination. Besides Harpo, there is a bit of Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon in my persona. They both play child-like characters that have other dimensions. Stan Laurel could go from innocence to violence depending on the situation. From them I learned that cartoonish characters don’t have to be one-dimensional. Buster Keaton inspired me with his strong sense of filmmaking, frame composition, risk taking, storytelling, and building complex gags based on character. Chaplin made the business in between the gags as carefully designed and physically executed as the gags themselves, even if it’s just opening a door. W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Looney Tunes, Peter Sellers, Sid Caesar, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams inspired me as well with their playfully absurd and often surreal views of the world.
What isn’t as well known is that there is still a strong tradition of visual/physical comedy that continues to this day. Stage performers like Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, Avner the Eccentric, Ronlin Foreman, Jim Calder and many of the acts labeled “new-vaudevillians” have perpetuated and evolved this tradition and sometimes even teach. Avner has been one of my more recent teachers and is one of those brilliant people who can do and teach. He’s also the director of my one-man theater show.
Throughout your act and well on into your films, Drew the Dramatic Fool has some way of making a solution work, no matter the nutty circumstance. How did you apply that from your predecessors? ^ All the great clowns, in the best sense of the word “clown”, demonstrate creative solutions to problems the world throws up. When Buster Keaton tries every rational way to get a sticky piece of a paper unstuck from his hand, he finally has the insight to place it down on the floor so a passer-by can step on the paper and take the problem far away. In my stage show, when I can’t get a volunteer to saw in half, I become the magician and the volunteer, chase myself around the stage, and finally saw myself. It’s lateral thinking in action.
In your silent films, what kind of yardstick do you use for the gags? ^ I set myself certain disciplines with my silent movies based on the best silent movies. If I could, I wanted the gags to happen on a single take so that the audience knows I’m not creating an effect through editing or camera tricks. Not that there isn’t editing or camera tricks in my movies but often they come from making the footage I got work or for the rhythm of the piece or to tell the story. When I walk on the ball in “The Guy Who Needed Exercise”, I’m really walking on a ball. But I’m not perfect and break my rules all the time.
And how about that sepia color? Puts you squarely in with the masters of silent comedy while you’re still creating your own hilarity. ^ I used a sepia-tone, not so much to look like an old film, but because I like how the strong visual contrast brings out my character and his actions in a way that color would muddy. There is some speed up, but not in that stereotypical way that reminds me of bad recreations of silent movies that echo the Keystone Cops and that TV shows like the Brady Bunch would do with lots of pies. Faster is not always funnier and the best silent comedies had as much subtlety as slapstick. It’s not what you do, but how you do it, but more importantly who does it and why. Gags can be so much more meaningful and funny with a strong character executing them. Timing helps, too.
Many of the silent comedians had their own methods of training, in terms of creating characters. In what way was your training? ^ I didn’t have the training of vaudeville and music hall like Chaplin and Keaton had, but I do have over two decades of performing in front of live audiences who have helped me develop my character and material in a way I could never have done sitting in front of a word-processor. When I started making movies, I think the edges of my character became stronger and clearer. He went from being a charcoal sketch to a painting, and this has helped my stage work. Having this developed character I think connects me most to classic silent film comedians, in a way that other modern recreations of silents don’t have. They just imitate the look of the films or blatantly copy the character of Keaton or Chaplin. An homage, perhaps.
Obviously, your main theme in being Drew the Dramatic Fool is “everyday insanity”. Of course it’s as only Drew can do it. What’s the process like in coming up with what Drew will do next? ^ When I decided that all the movies would be titled “The Guy Who…”, I made a list of everyday and absurd situations. I think the world has a lot more everyday insanity than we realize. My life does, but maybe that’s why I do what I do for a living. Often I take plots from my own life like insomnia or a job I once had watering plants, and put Drew the Dramatic Fool in that situation and the movie practically writes itself. Other times I find a prop that motivates the story like the giant winter coat or a phone receiver attached to an alarm clock. Sometimes the situations come from my stage act, such as the
“The Guy Who Juggled”, but I don’t use eggs on stage because of how long clean-up would take, so that movie was a chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t. I’ll steal from my own material whenever I can. Often it’s just finding a problem and pushing it until a creative solution suggests itself. And then I start shooting and something real happens that’s better than what I prepared, like when the bowl of cereal fell in “The Guy Who Lived on a Chair”.
What do you feel when audiences laugh uproariously at your work as demonstrated on the DVD? You have to keep working the routine, lest it die down, but inside, what is it for you? ^ Well, I’ve certainly experienced the opposite often enough to know that I enjoy the laughter better. One of my mentors, Jay Marshall, a magician and ventriloquist, and so much more, his career included vaudeville, Broadway, night clubs and fourteen appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Anyway, he passed away recently. On his casket was a sign that read “Not the first time I’ve died.”
So when audiences laugh uproariously I appreciate it immensely. I usually go into a state of flow and am in sync with the audience. There’s a sense that we are communicating at an almost unconscious level and they are instructing me on how to best perform the rest of my act. This is the beauty and risk of live theater, especially live variety theater where the fourth wall is broken down and the audience can change the performance with their reactions. I don’t have this when I’m making the movies, but I do have the experiences of live performance to apply when I’m acting and later editing. The Marx Brothers toured scenes from some of their later movies so they could get the timing down based on audience reactions.
Visit Drew at his official website.
Posted on September 5, 2005 in Interviews by Rory L. Aronsky
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