Having changed the least since the beginning of cinema, the clown genre is both the most basic and the most obvious of comedy types. Unlike other, more thematic-oriented comedy approaches, the clown model is dependent upon a central comic figure or figures, such as Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) or the Marx Brothers (Chico [1887–1961], Harpo [1888–1964], Groucho [1890–1977], and Zeppo [1901–1979]). Around them is fashioned the loosest of storylines, for clown comedy is character-driven. The story line merely provides the pretext upon which the comedian can hang his comic "shtick"—specific routines and/or variations of them, which lend themselves to the establishing of the all-important screen comedy persona. This has been so since the pioneering days of Max Linder (1883–1925) in France and John Bunny (1863–1915) in the United States. For example, Chaplin invariably showcased his underdog Tramp's ability to work a comic metamorphosis on inanimate objects. In The Pawnshop (1916) an alarm clock in his examination becomes everything from a medical patient to a can of beans. Chaplin himself becomes a lamp in The Adventurer (1917), a tree in Shoulder Arms (1918), and a laughing mechanical figure in The Circus (1928). In discussing Chaplin's use of pathos, Gerald Mast points out Chaplin's poignant use of flowers as metaphors—surrogates for beautiful heroines Charlie cannot possess, and as fragile and transitory as love. While these memorable sequences may serve a metaphoric or thematic function, they do little to advance the plot.
Other classic shtick associated with a specific comic persona includes the surrealist sight gags of Harpo Marx, such as when he pulls a blowtorch from a magic coat in Duck Soup (1933); Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and Oliver Hardy's (1892–1957) tit-for-tat exchanges of comic violence with any number of antagonists, as when they destroy the house of frequent nemesis James Finlayson in Big Business (1929); and Bob Hope's (1903–2003) spoofing romantic banter with Dorothy Lamour (1914–1996) in the Road pictures: "Do you want me to kiss you now, or should I tease you for a while?" ( Road to Rio ,1947). The comic word games of Danny Kaye (1913–1987) are a key to his comedy shtick, especially in the delightful The Court Jester (1956), one of the best comic films ever made, in which he must remember, "the pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle." In contrast, essential to Harold Lloyd's (1893–1971) persona is visual "thrill comedy," exemplified by his hanging from
Besides the clown's specific shtick, there are three basic components to the personality-comedian approach. First, there is a penchant for physical comedy, which Walter Kerr (1967) succinctly defines as being a prisoner of one's body. Thus, besides the obvious pratfalls or sight gags one associates with Chaplin's Tramp or Jacques Tati's (1909–1982) Monsieur Hulot, personality comedians often simply look funny. Through costume, makeup, shape, or fluid contortions of face and body (best showcased today by Jerry Lewis's successor, Jim Carrey [b. 1962]), clowns telegraph their comedy. Their funny appearances are a key in the clown genre, even when the comic personality might be linked more closely to verbal humor as opposed to physical comedy. For instance, while the rapid-fire delivery of Groucho Marx is famous, it is more than a little dependent upon that mustache, hydraulic eyebrows, and distinctive stoop. Second, cinema clowns generally are underdogs who frequently exhibit comically incompetent behavior, such as when Laurel and Hardy try to put a radio on a less than user-friendly roof in Hog Wild (1930), or when Will Ferrell (b. 1967) fails as a toymaker in the title role of Elf (2003). Even the normally dominating Groucho becomes an underdog when dealing with Harpo and Chico, as in their tour-de-force silly phone-answering sequence in Duck Soup . And third, outsider clowns frequently are nomadic. Fittingly, cinema's greatest clown, Chaplin, is linked closely to the picaresque through his alter ego, the wandering Tramp shuffling down life's highways. Not coincidentally, the inspired teaming of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (1903–1977) reached its zenith in a series of Road pictures in which the duo comically roam the globe. The clown finds humor in new places and people through travel situations, from Harry Langdon's (1884–1944) cross-country walkathon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) to Pee-Wee Herman's (Paul Reubens [b. 1952]) trip to the Alamo in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Steve Martin (b. 1945) and John Candy's (1950–1994) quest to get home in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987). As the last title suggests, the mode of transportation itself sometimes can become joke: the machine-oriented Buster Keaton (1895–1966) led the way in this regard with his own ocean liner in The Navigator (1924) and in the ultimate nonstop train picture, The General (1927).
Most studios at some time have featured a prominent personality comedian. During the pioneering days of silent comedy, the pivotal fun factories were those of Mack Sennett (1880–1960) and Hal Roach (1892–1992), both of which released their films through Pathé, which was also the distributor for Max Linder's neglected early shorts. During the studio era, Paramount allowed its comedians more artistic freedom than other studios did, and because of this the Marx Brothers, Mae West (1893–1980), Hope and Crosby, and Martin and Lewis all did their best work there. While women have tended to be "straight" for male comics (Margaret Dumont [1882–1965] for the Marx Brothers, Paulette Goddard [1910–1990] for Charlie Chaplin), some female comics in addition to Mae West have had movie careers, including Martha Raye (1916–1994) and Lucille Ball (1911–1989), both of whom successfully carried their comedy over to television. In recent years there has been more opportunity for black comedians like Eddie Murphy (b. 1961), Cedrick the Entertainer (b. 1964), Queen Latifah (b. 1970), and Bernie Mac (b. 1958) to develop their comic persona in film.