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Just now, I watched a mini-marathon of Buster Keaton movies on Turner Classic Movies followed by a good documentary that its director, Peter Bogdonovich, made about him last year. Actually, I went to see this when it was showing at the Nuart Theatre’s big screen in Santa Monica. Along with about twelve other people, I walked in and carefully considered its 303 available empty seats. Settling into my perfect spot and the lights dimming, a guy threaded down the long row ahead of me and sat down in the way. I did my best Keaton expression of deadpan side glances.

Much of Top Gear‘s effectiveness, I think, is how its comedic moments are informed by techniques from silent-era comedies like Keaton’s. Often, the scene has two independent things happening at once, and only we in the audience are witnessing both of them. In the foreground, there’s our hero, sincere but witless, while in the backdrop there’s an unfolding calamity he’s blissfully unaware of. It’s a Top Gear staple: Clarkson looking you straight in the eye as he gets increasingly confused describing a car’s dizzyingly complex valvetrain, while that very car, for some reason, is falling off a cliff behind him.

My favorite example of this is Top Gear‘s famous Reliant Robin episode (series 15, number 1). The Robin was a low-price fiberglass-bodied English car that was semi-popular because it was taxed like a motorcycle. It was famously chided for its dorky three-wheel (one in front) design and justifiably questionable stability. Naturally, Clarkson and Co played this foible to the hilt. After Jeremy himself rolls it several times on a short drive from Sheffield to Rotherham, it makes periodic appearances in the background throughout the show. My favorite, and perhaps yours, too, is live TV newsman “Harry” who’s doing a remote report as suddenly, the Clarkson-driven Robin tumbles over behind him. It’s pure Keaton.

How’d they rig the poor Reliant to roll on cue? According to Reliant’s Wiki page, the car was fitted with asymmetric wheels, a modified differential, and weighted on one side to destabilize it. Watching it, I’ve had flashbacks to a dragstrip test day in the 1980s where an (unmodified) Trihawk three-wheeler (one wheel in back) flipped over during an emergency brake test (the driver was rattled but unhurt).

Figuring out how to create comedy when automobiles are the physical actors, almost necessarily spills into the engineer’s realm. Among early comedy’s greats, Keaton was uniquely mechanically minded; maybe you’ve seen the classic Keaton scene from Steamboat Bill, Jr. —a sudden hurricane is splintering wooden buildings all over town. Buster is standing in the middle of a street when, suddenly, the façade of the two-story house behind him fractures loose, tilts, and falls toward him. He’s untouched as it hits the ground in a cloud of dust because an open second-story window lands precisely where he’s standing. This was carefully designed. An inch either way, and it would have struck him. As it’s falling, Buster is facing us, unaware. Like the newsman Harry as Clarkson dumps the Reliant behind him for the umpteenth time. This particular episode has always made me laugh. And unusually intrigued by its engineering challenges, unstable three-wheel vehicles, and the sort of comedic tricks I love.

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