Physical Comedy in the Modern Era: Mr. Bean (TV Showcase #5)

My favorite film of all time is The General by Buster Keaton, and similarly, I enjoy alot of works by Keaton, along with his contemporaries, like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. All of these actors were big names in the field of silent comedy. But that was the 1920s, and for the most part, physical stunts and wordless humour like that which come from that era is dead. And it’s probably because a modern audience can’t relate to humour without some qualifying dialogue, and showmakers can’t seem to modernize what stars like Buster Keaton had. But one show managed to accomplish this, and it’s mixture of silent comedy and modern-day style of wit have immortalized it among today’s audience. I’m referring, of course, to “Mr. Bean”.

“Mr. Bean” was a British sitcom that ran from 1990 to 1995, over fifteen half-hour episodes. The series starred Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, who is an extremely immature man about London, but is also very quiet when it comes to talking. This dynamic allows Bean to do ridiculously crazy things, like riding a chair atop a car, or swallowing a fish during a game of bingo, or just continually running a blue three-wheeled car off the road. “Mr. Bean” has become and still is immensely popular, and was followed up by two movies, a cartoon spinoff, and even an appearance in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games (if only David Tennant could have lit the torch…). The question now is, why does a show with almost no dialogue continue to entertain people who have been used to “talkies” their whole life? Why isn’t “Mr. Bean” just seen as some guy flailing about and doing dumb things? Naturally, there’s an answer… or I wouldn’t be writing this.

What differentiates Rowan Atkinson from Buster Keaton is style. While both displayed key elements in a silent comedian, they both did so in different ways. For instance, Keaton was famous for his deadpan expression; while he was trying to process the insanity of a situation, his face would remain emotionless. Atkinson as Bean did the same thing, only instead of a straight face, he would always be smiling, but even so, he rarely showed an emotion other than immaturity (if that’s an emotion). For one other example, Keaton was a minimalist; every little action he did was done with as little motion as possible, which went well with his continually straight face. Atkinson had more movement when he did mundane or small actions, alot more jumping and moving. It was never taken out of control, but he certainly didn’t stand still; this went along with his never-changing smile.

Another thing that freshens up “Mr. Bean” is the fact that the show doesn’t ignore that there was sound in entertainment in the 1990s. If a showrunner wants to do something old-fashioned, or revive an element of the past, he at the same time can’t ignore the way entertainment has progressed to now. “Mr. Bean” used other people’s voices and sound effects to enhance the comedy, especially with alot of outdoor filming and sets full of people. Mr. Bean’s interactions with his surroundings were much more relatable and at the same time ridiculous, because the sounds around him were real; it wasn’t a set with some cheap soundscape. And the people around him reacted probably the same way you or I would, which not only produced some authentic sounds from the people, but also again showcased the modern style, displaying how people acted in the 1990s.

Lastly, “Mr. Bean” doesn’t need much of a push to go downhill fast were it to continue. It has all the potential to become really stupid and to treat the audience that way as well. Fortunately, however, Atkinson has claimed that there won’t be any more episodes and probably no more movies for Mr. Bean, saying that to be at his age and still act like a child becomes very sad very quickly. And he’s right; the way “Mr. Bean” is now is fantastic, and any more additions would risk spoiling that image.

So, with the right blend of old-fashioned ideas and modern-day embellishments, there could be more shows with all the wit and entertainment value of “Mr. Bean”. What do you think?


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