Gene Wilder's Big Pause

Advertising has always done its best to kill comedic timing. And not just kill it. Give it a curb job. Real greaseball shit. Sure, we’re constrained by media but we fill it with features and benefits and cleverness and jabber. We need to create some space for characters to live, to breathe, to react.

In my classes, we don’t call it comic timing, rather comedic timing. Comic timing is designed to get a laugh. Comedic timing is the amount of time it takes a character to work through his/her thoughts. 

Some say you’re born with it. That can be true. Garry Shandling was once asked why he was so good at reacting. He replied, “If you grew up in my household, you’d be good at reacting too.”  If you grow up in madness, you get really good at waiting it out, making sure things are safe, digesting the insanity.

This paean to Gene Wilder’s timing is worth watching again and again. (If you can bear the appalling music which fills all the beautiful silence Mr. Wilder created.) His patience, his listening, the fearlessness he displays. You can see the wheels turning. Look at his eyes at 1:15. They’re telling us, “I want to make sure the sheriff understands so I’m going to pick my words carefully.” And when that word is “morons”… well, I don’t know how Cleavon Little kept a straight face. Actually, he didn’t.


Comedic timing is that moment when we figure something out. Sometimes in life, we’re so shocked we don’t know what to say. Sometimes we’re so angry we stammer. Sometimes we’re so in love we open out mouths and nothing comes out.

As a performer, silence can be scary. Pausing to digest what the hell is going on around you, feels like death. Action, on the other hand, feels like you’re accomplishing something. And all too often we’re not listening, we’re pushing through the moment.

In dying, Gene Wilder has created the ultimate comedic pause. No more talk, just silence. It would be funny if he weren’t so dead. He’s one of my heroes.