This is an interview of the silent movie star, Buster Keaton, by Studs Terkel. They talk about many different parts of Keaton's career, the movie industry, how it's changed, and the context behind gags.
Terkel begins by introducing acting “The art of acting is still an eternal one,” and then Buster Keaton, “one of the geniuses of the silent film.” They speak for a small while about the distinctions of silent comedy, Keaton saying that on the set, “your lips moved, you spoke.” However on the film, “you had to communicate through action.”
Keaton then goes on to talk about the transition between different formats,”we started off with 5 reelers but then around ’25 we went to 7 reels.” Then he and Terkel talk about the use of titles to narrate the action, “the average picture used 240 titles.” Keaton describes how few titles he used, and how he and Chaplin had a friendly competition for the least number of titles in a feature-length film, “Chaplin beat me in that, he used 21 and I used 23.”
They move on to talk about the inability to come up with new gags, “Trying to dig up new material…it’ll drive you to the sanatorium,” and how Keaton would never do a weekly show because of the difficulty. This continues into a conversation about how much of the gags were improvised for the movies, “about 50% you have in your mind before you start the picture” and the rest were improvised while on set.
Terkel then asks about Keaton’s trademark stoic face, to which Keaton replies, “I was the type of comedian where if I laughed at my jokes, the audience didn’t…Not smiling was mechanical.” Going off of the mechanical comment Terkel asks Keaton about his relationship to the machines on-camera, “you make the machine part of yourself.”
They then talk about impossible gags in the context of 2 reels vs. feature length films. Keaton said they stopped doing impossible gags, because they had to be believable for feature-length films. Continuing on Keaton says, “Neither Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or myself never had a script…we never needed to.” He talks about having the beginning and ending planned out in advance, and the middle being the easy part with a lot of gags, “some things work and some things don’t.”
Keaton then talks about the situationality of some gags, “there are some people you can hit with a pie and some people you can’t.” Keaton says you can hit phonies, you can’t hit old ladies unless they’re phony. He then generalizes this to say that sometimes great gags don’t work in context, “misplaced gags are poison.” The interview cuts out shortly thereafter midsentence.