The Kinesthesiology of Silly Walks

I’ve been a long-time listener to the QI spin-off podcast No Such Thing As A Fish, where researchers for the long-running BBC comedy panel show — the “QI elves” — riff on some of the most interesting facts that they’ve encountered in their daily jobs as fact-checkers, fact-searchers, and factoid-dismissers. It’s been a good continual source for random twiglets of information at family gatherings, even if a staggering amount of their weekly facts tend to be about the strange and varied world of animal penises.

When they first started podcasting, their episodes each came with a lengthy source page for each episode. I can understand why maintaining that service after the many, many weeks of production would be a chore, but I miss it anyway, as it was a useful place to follow up later when I was trying to remember the specifics of some fact they’d casually dropped and I’d casually listened to while doing the dishes. The episodes used to be hosted, at least partially, on their Soundcloud page, but now seem to be entirely distributed via Audioboom. Scrolling all the way back to their earliest episodes, there don’t seem to be any show notes any more.

They don’t make an enormous number of Python references — my go-to for that remains Kermode and Mayo, and one of these sequester months, I’m going to go through their archives and make a supercut of all the times Mark has dropped a quote or impression — so I was surprised to learn that one of their key facts in a recent episode was a study about the relative silliness of silly walks and that the study had come out of my home state of New Hampshire.

Starting at 18:44 in the podcast, James “Egg-Shaped” Harkin introduces the fact that John Cleese’s silly walk “is exactly 6.7 times sillier than a normal walk”, which the co-authors of the study determined based on the additional knee flexion compared to a normal gait. Apparently, Cleese’s knees bent more than 110 degrees during portions of his walk, compared to the regular flexion of about 20 degrees.

What particularly got my attention, though, was that Harkin’s summary of the study included the detail that during a live performance in 1980, his walk “was only 4.7 times more variable.” This is especially damning, as Mr. Pudey’s demonstration silly walk where “the right leg isn’t silly at all and the left leg merely does a forward arial half turn every alternative step” rates a 3.3 increase in silly variability.

Listening to this only a few days we’d recorded Nathan’s proclamation that he found the series two version of “Silly Walks” to be less funny than the Live At the Hollywood Bowl performance (while released theatrically in 1983, the performances were filmed over four days in 1980). Nathan’s assessment was that Cleese was more unrestrained in Hollywood Bowl, as he has the whole stage to move about in, instead of the smaller in-studio office space from the original version. However, as the study is not freely available unless one has access to the journal of Gait & Posture, I can’t mount a definitive counter-argument to Butler and Dominy’s methodology.

What do you think, listeners? Now that science has determined that the television version of Cleese’s silly walk is funnier than the Hollywood Bowl version, should Nathan — improv comedian, actor, and scientist! — recant his position and re-elevate the “Silly Walks” sketch to a higher rating?

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