George Carl and the Magic of Pantomime

George Carl (1916 — 2000) performs one of my favorite physical comedy acts of all time. In this clip from 1969, he delights spectators at California’s Hollywood Palace with a mixture of clown, object manipulation and pantomime. The act is a comedy of errors in which Carl rapidly attempts to perform rope magic, hand-to-hand, and cigar box juggling. He fails at all of these, because his clothes stick to his body, his hands disappear or his feet just won’t stop dancing. We love him for the same reasons that we adore Chaplin, Lloyd, Atkinson and the other bumblers: He fails at the circus tricks he likes in a way that most spectators do when they get home and try something they saw in a show. He celebrates the clowns that we all are when we knock a toothbrush into the toilette or lean on something that can’t support us. George Carl bumbles beautifully. His is an act that celebrates and helps us laugh at this humbling experience of being human.

His act is also an excellent example of how to combine elements of magic with the art of pantomime. His optical illusions, gimmicks and constant thwarting of spectator expectations continue the tradition of silent magical comedy numbers made famous by nineteenth-century troupes like the Hanlon Brothers. It’s a little known secret that George Carl filled one of the magic slots at the famous Crazy Horse in Paris. This is a venue that Tom Mullica and other world-class comedy magicians worked. If you like George Carl, check out the pantomime of Avner the Eccentric and Arden James too.

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