Gene Wilder and the power of the pause

Another blog post, another passed icon. Have I mentioned how much I’m going to bawl during the 2017 award season’s “In Memoriums?”

Last week we lost Gene Wilder, one of the greatest comic actors ever to grace the silver screen. It seems fitting to take a moment of silence in his memory, as he himself used moments of silence in some of his funniest moments. A whole video was created based on Wilder’s “mastery of the comedic pause” just last week:

Thanks to Raging Cinema Extras for doing a lot of my work for me by putting together that video. There are so many examples of Wilder’s pauses that I could spend days trying to do them justice through description and digging them up on all corners of the Web.

For those uninterested in the video (clearly your brain was donated by Abby Normal), or unable to view it or hear it because you’re like Wilder’s Producers character, Leo Bloom, who’s “a nothing. I spend my life counting other people’s money,” here’s a single example out of a pantheon:

Just take the lines from one of his best scenes in Blazing Saddles as a gunslinger-turned-drunk-turned-deputy:

  • “Well, my name is Jim. But most people call me” pause “Jim.”
  • After being asked what he likes to do, “Oh, I don’t know. Play chess.” pause “Screw.”
  • “I spun around, and there I was, face-to-face” pause “with a 6-year-0ld kid.” pause “Well, I just threw down my guns and walked away.” pause “Little bastard shot me in the ass.”

Even one of the most talked-about moments in Wilder’s film careerhis entrance as a limping, then somersaulting, Willy Wonka — relied on a pause in which Wonka stands stiff as a board after leaving his cane behind, then falling into the acrobatics that would brand him as an enigmatically unreliable character for the rest of the film. That decision was no accident, either, as Wilder only agreed to do the part if he could pull the stunt. It was imperative to his motives as the character (as was the iconic costume, which he had a major part in designing).

That mastery of the pause is one of Wilder’s greatest talents, and one of the rarest skills seen today, both on the screen and off.

That’s because pauses have become a sign of weakness: Of forgetting the next line or giving up. They’re rarely seen in comedy because they take up too much time in an era where sitcoms better be rapid-funny. Too much “nothing” space will make viewers change the channel to find something that fills every minute with laughter, even if it’s the prerecorded audience track that goads at-home viewers into guffawing along against their better judgment. The Big Bang Theory, anyone?

It happens beyond the comedy business, too. If you can’t snap back at a coworker or friend with a borderline-disrespectful (or flat-out rude) Chuck Lorre comeback, you don’t have a sense of humor. Ignore a text for a few minutes and incur the impatient wrath of the sender. Don’t respond to an email right away at work and you must be a bad employee. Stay quiet during an argument to contemplate a compromise or response, and you’ve lost the dispute. Take a moment to cough, and you’re declared unfit to be president. 

Of course, the internet is ripe with this frenzy.*

*Note: Not this blog, as I wrote several unfit-for-publishing articles in August that I let fall to the wayside. That’s my story for why I haven’t posted in more than a month, and I’m sticking to it.

One of my jobs is to keep an eye on our company’s Instagram account, which just launched a few months ago. Almost every time we post a photo, a follower comments “First to comment!” on it, as if they’ve won a prize. And most of them do — a prize for most misspellings, typos, punctuation errors, etc., as their rush to be “fist ot commetn!” left no time to do basic proofreading before posting. That’s why so many discussion boards and feedback sections are riddled with errors: We’re not stupid, just in a hurry.

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Pictured: The original Wilder expression I emulate when reading “Frist to coment!”

Even Willy Wonka gets ahead of himself when “We have so much time and so little to do!” But in the non-chocolate factory world, we don’t usually get the opportunity (or care to spend the time) to “Strike that. Reverse it.”

What if for a moment we pretended to be in Willy Wonka’s factory, just before we’re let loose in the edible world, and just…paused? We might actually have time to be the music makers, the dreamers of dreams, and we’d probably be happy as a kid in a candy…well, you know.

Clearly I’ve deviated from the typical, heartfelt memorials that have flooded the internet in the past week since Wilder’s death, but over the weekend I found myself reflecting not on his talent — which certainly deserves all the accolades it has received over the years — but on the importance of what his comedy represented. Wilder never confused “fast” with “funny,” and in doing so he stood for one of the most witty brands of comedy ever brought to screen. He certainly inspired me to take a few more minutes assessing my next line, rather than hoping whatever joke I throw at an audience sticks like an unlikely Broadway hit musical.

So in the memory of Wilder and in the hopes of rediscovering the power of pausing, let’s take a moment of silence. Forgot how? Just hold your breath, make a wish and count to three.

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