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Moving pictures were a newly developed presentation in the early 1900s and had a huge influence on the direction of entertainment. Prior to the rise of the film industry, most people entertained themselves with stage performances such as vaudeville: a performance based on physical and verbal comedy. However, vaudeville did not cease after the rise of the film industries; instead, it became a part of the films in the early 1900s and continues to influence films today. The film, A Night at the Opera (1935) perfectly represented the spirits of vaudeville on the big screen, and as an early hollywood movie, it set the path of many comedy films today. A more modern film that utilizes the same approach is Office Space (1999), which magnifies a normal situation until it becomes absurd.Therefore, although Office Space and A Night at the Opera are separated by sixty-four years of history, the core components of the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville-inspired comedy is still present in Office Space.
A Night at the Opera and Office Space developed their comedy around a common story line; the defeat of the authoritative figure by the common man. Although the two films share a common theme, they chose to introduce comedy in different ways. A Night at the Opera often expressed its absurdity through its verbal and physical comedy, and it captured the audience through the exaggeration of each character. One scene that successfully captures such absurdity was the stateroom scene in which Otis Driftwood continuously invited people into the crowded room. Although all of the characters were well aware of the tightness of the space, they normalized the situation by continuing their duty. This can be seen by multiple remarks made by the manicure lady, “ did you want your nails long or short?” Many of Otis’s lines also demonstrated this normalization; such as, “This boat will be in New York before you get to that phone” or “You have to start on the ceiling”, and it was this sense of institutionalization that marks this ordinary scene as one of the most iconic comedic moments in cinema history. Another famous scene that utilizes physical comedy and irony to capture absurdity was the aviator scene. In which, the three stowaways disguised themselves as the aviators by cutting off their beards. This scene captures absurdity through the use of physical comedy and irony. For example, when Tomasso kept drinking water to disguise his condition when he was asked to give a speech in front of the crowd. Because of these excessive use of physical and verbal comedy, A Night at the Opera essentially developed its storyline according to these staged slapsticks. However, in the Office Space director Judge featured a story that is relatable to many Americans and poked fun at the monotony of office life.
In contrast to the Night at the Opera that mainly contained structured comedy, the Office Space contains an array of comedy that goes from the most subtle to obviously structured. Director Mike Judge focused on the most recognizable nuances of life and expanded it to a level of absurdity. The opening scene of this film established the overall style of the movie as the characters sat in the bumper-to-bumper traffic on their way to work. As this scene proceeds, Peter, the main character, looked out his window and saw an old man in a walker passed him with ease as he sat in traffic. This scene was successful in establishing the style of the movie because it resonates with many white collar workers. Director Judge expanded this idea to a greater spectrum, and borderlines painful to watch because of personal experiences that may be associated with. This setup was consistently used throughout the movie and created the overall tone of the film. As the main character tries to survive through his day, he is repeatedly kicked when he was down, as his coworker Nina remarks, “sounds like somebody’s got a case of the mondays”. He was greeted with this phrase again by his waiter at lunch, and the last thing Peter needed is a cringe-worthy line like this. Although this line was only used in the beginning of the film, it is one of the most memorable quotes from the movie because it captures the essence of the film: how to make a joke out of the sheer absurdity of life. The film also contains many comedies that were obviously structured. For example, the scene where Peter disassembled his cubicle so he can get a better view of the window. Instead of being scolded by his supervisors, his boss, Bill Lumberg, simply decided to “we’ll go ahead and, uh, get this all fixed up for you later”. Thus, this scene also demonstrates the defeat of the authoritative figures and the championship of the common man. However, instead of following the usual pattern of triggering the audience’s personal experience, this scene was over-exaggerated so it can express the destructive feelings people sometimes have over their jobs. Therefore, it also shares some similarity with A Night at the Opera because by using verbal and physical comedy it portrays a situation that is not likely to happen in real life.
Although the two films, A Night at the Opera and Office Space, are significantly different in the ways of demonstrating comedy, the spirit of vaudeville is still present in both films. The central idea of vaudeville is the use of physical and verbal comedy. In the classic vaudeville, Who’s on First? The actors mainly based their performance on verbal comedy and exaggerated movements as one character tries to explain who was on the first base to the other. Many of the scenes from A Night at the Opera have a similar formula to early vaudeville. For example, the famous sanity claus scene where Otis Driftwood was trying to explain to Fiorello about the contract. There were an abundant use of verbal comedy such as, “ The party of the first part
shall be known in this contract…as the party of the first part” and “The party of the second part
shall be known in this contract…as the party of the second part”. Similar to many of the vaudeville shows, this scene makes no logical sense. However, its comical value derives from this feeling of nonsense and chaos. This type of verbal comedy was often used by the main character throughout the film, as many of his lines were extremely sarcastic, “Well, watermelons are out of season” or “Oh, we had an argument and he pulled a knife on me, so I shot him”. Therefore, the movie contains many of the key qualities of a good vaudeville. Similar to its predecessor, Office Space was also in some degree influenced by vaudeville due to its sufficient use of verbal and physical comedy. One of the scenes that utilized physical comedy was when Peter arrived at Initech with a drill and made a huge mess at the company by disassembling the door knob and his cubicle. This scene embodies the spirit of vaudeville because the reactions were nonsensical. Instead of firing Peter for his rude behavior, Bill agreed with the consultants about Peter’s promotion. Therefore, although most of the comedy was subtle and relatable, this scene was influenced by A Night at the Opera because it was illogical.
A Night at the Opera and Office Space were drastically different in the ways that comedy was introduced. A Night at the Opera structured its storyline around its staged slapsticks, but Office Space developed its jokes from everyday life and contains a spectrum of comedy that goes from subtle to obviously structured. However, despite their differences, the underlying core components of the films are similar because they were both influenced by vaudeville. There was physical and verbal comedy presented in both films that convey a sense of absurdity.