Lesson Plan: Buster Keaton’s The General

Ian here—

This is another lesson plan from my “Comedy and the Moving Image” course. It’s from the week immediately following the previously-posted week on Bergson’s Laughter, and it follows up several of those ideas, merging with Bergson with the theories of Keaton’s humor forwarded by Noël Carroll in his book Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping.

I’ve assigned portions of Carroll’s Comedy Incarnate for several classes. The book’s ideas intersect with my personal research interest in phenomenology, and I have found that his discussion of Keaton also does a surprisingly good job of explaining some of the pleasures of contemporary action cinema. (This includes, interestingly, a few films that came out right around the moment the book was published, including Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum). For this particular class, I assigned a portion of the book’s first chapter, pages 45-63.

I readily admit that Carroll’s prose is a bit dry (the book is, after all, largely based on his dissertation), and that students sometimes struggle with it. I decided to start discussion off for this particular lesson with a very broad question that allowed for multiple points of entrance. Carroll, I pointed out, draws ideas from Bergson, but also breaks from his theory of humor. Why does he break from it? What is Carroll interested in that he thinks that Bergson can’t account for?

Students were a bit fuzzy on the details of this, but one did helpfully suggest that Carroll was interested in a spectrum of humor that extended beyond the confines of the ridicule of stupidity. This was a good start. Here, to help students along, I read aloud a quote from Carroll. It’s fairly long, but I found it was worth quoting in full:

Bergson is aligned to that brand of comic theory which correlates comedy with stupidity, the nonrational, the irrational, or the absurd. There is a major problem with this attitude toward comedy; however; it cannot deal with all the data that comedy provides. Specifically, it cannot deal with the type of humor we find in Keaton’s successful adaptation gags. These gags involve insight on the part of the character rather than stupidity. In terms of the audience, such gags involve a shift in our mode of organizing the situation. This shift, often abrupt, is surprising. Our expectations are brought up short when Johnnie comprehends a new way of employing his broken ax handle. Here, the Bergsonian idea, that laughter serves to humiliate the character in order to correct his behavior, is completely untenable because the character’s thinking is far ahead of the audience’s.

Rather the audience laughs at these adaptation gags with a variety of laughter akin to the laughter one indulges in when a particularly brilliant checkmate is executed or when a tricky mathematical puzzle is ingeniously solved. Sometimes we laugh at engines and at puzzle solutions. That is, there is a category of laughter that is evoked when things “fall into place.” It is a kind of laughter prompted by the apparition of pure intelligibility. [i]

The word “spectrum” doesn’t appear here. Nor, in fact, does it appear anywhere in the selection I assigned. But I thought this student was right: it was a good way to think of things. With the input of students, I began drawing a diagram on the board of how we could think of this “spectrum.” On the one end, I put Bergson’s theory of comedy. I jotted down some of the things we had already been through the prior week: Bergson thinks that humor stems from our recognition of mechanical inelasticityInattentiveness to one’s environment and inflexible adherence to fixed ideas are the sort of things he thinks we laugh at. And, as the student pointed out, this sort of humor is a humor based on ridicule. It’s quite explicitly about social shaming.

Polling students and adding things on my own, I added a few contrasting things to the end of the spectrum that Carroll develops. The types of things that Carroll thinks Bergson can’t account for are gags based around adaptability, around alertness, around sudden bursts of insight. And these sorts of things aren’t worthy of our ridicule. They inspire a different reaction in us. One student suggested the term “awe.” The humor of Keaton’s successful adaptation gags is one that is grounded in a feeling of awe, rather than a feeling of ridicule.

The following diagram is a nicer-looking mockup of the original version, which was just a rough sketch added to in real-time on a chalkboard:prezi_screenshot-the_general_1

I pointed out that this spectrum is really one of embodied intelligence. On Bergson’s end, a lack of intelligence leads us to derisively laugh at someone. But, as Carroll points out, impressive demonstrations of brilliant ingenuity can also tickle our funny bone.

Next, I showed a series of clips, and asked students to point out some of the gags, and note where they placed on this spectrum. Moments such as when Keaton’s character Johnnie Gray obliviously continues chopping wood while he drifts deep into enemy territory, or when his tending to the boiler makes him miss the derailment of a runaway carriage previously obstructing his locomotive (prompting perhaps the greatest reaction shot in the history of cinema, as seen in the header image of this post) ended up on the “Bergson/ridicule” end. Meanwhile, the series of traps that Johnnie lays for the pursuing Union soldiers ended up on the “Carroll/awe” end.

Here, I pulled attention to Keaton’s performance style. How does his trademark blank face add to our appreciation of this spectrum? Students pointed out that it makes Johnnie’s mental processes essential private. We never quite know when he’s going to be utterly befuddled, and when he’s going to display an amazing bit of adaptive insight. Since his facial expressions remain constant all over this spectrum, it allows the eventual gag to hit with an element of surprise. Keaton doesn’t telegraph Johnnie’s successes and failures, making them all the more delightful when we see them in action (especially the successes).


Next, I moved on to the film’s plot structure, honing in on its oft-remarked-upon symmetrical structure. The film is split into two mirror-image chases, with the first half being devoted to Johnnie’s pursuit of the Union spies, and the second half devoted to the Union’s pursuit of Johnnie, once he has rescued the General (and, as a bonus, Annabelle). We can plot this mirroring in time, but also in space: after all, given the geography of the war, we can think of the film as a trip up north and then back down south again.


Initially, I had thought that I was shifting gears here. But then, I realized something: there was a very real congruity between the two diagrams I had drawn on the board. It was only because of a student request that I had ever drawn the “spectrum” to begin with, so this was unplanned on my part. But there it was, quite obviously:


In the first half of the film, as Johnnie pursues the stolen General, there’s a much greater reliance on gags built around what Carroll terms Johnnie’s “defective cognitive habits.”[ii] This half of the film is generally about Johnnie being daft. His heart’s in the right place, and he certainly shows valor in his mission, but he’s also prone to tunnel vision and a general lack of environmental awareness.

Gradually, though, as we reach the middle, Johnnie undergoes a shift. At the film’s 25-minute mark (out of a 75 minute runtime), we get this gag, perhaps the most paradigmatic of Carroll’s “adaptability” gags:


By the time we’re on the films downward slope, Johnnie has fully transformed into an action hero. The gags tend to no longer be about his failures, but about his successes—for instance, the elaborate trap he sets by switching the tracks for the pursuing Union train. (There are still some gags ridiculing stupidity, but Annabelle tends to be the butt, emerging as a ditzy figure to serve as a comedic foil to Keaton’s now-transformed Johnnie.) In short, we move from the type of humor that interests Bergson to the type of humor that interests Carroll.

Fully analyzing the film along these lines will take much more work, but as a class discussion, this line of thought provided some satisfying (dare I say Keaton-esque?) insight.

[i]. Carroll, Noël. Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. Pg 54.

[ii]. Carroll, Comedy Incarnate, pg 63.

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