Slapstick comedy is a physical style of comedy characterized by exaggerated, cartoonish violence and physical humor. The tone of slapstick comedy is usually lighthearted and cheerful, but it can be quite raunchy as well.
These types of jokes are characterized by their visual nature. Slapstick comedy often involves one character getting hurt, usually in the form of a physical injury or attack (hence the name).
Toward the end of the 19th century, slapstick was used in vaudeville shows, usually as a way to entertain audiences between more standard acts.
As film developed around the turn of the century, slapstick became more popular on screen.
What Is slapstick comedy?
Slapstick comedy is a form of humor based on the physical that’s been used in films and television for many decades.
It’s a way of telling jokes through physical action, without the use of spoken dialogue.
The term “slapstick” comes from the idea that the jokes are so physical that they’re like being hit with something — like a stick. Most slapstick comedies rely on sight gags, rather than dialogue.
Slapstick is one of the broadest categories of comedy because it encompasses so many genres.
The main source of humor is physical action, rather than dialogue. Slapstick comedies rely on sight gags to create laughs rather than words.
This can be achieved through things like exaggerated facial expressions, or even violence and destruction.
In addition to these three genres, slapstick has also been used in other forms of comedy as well, including prank shows and sketch comedy shows.
The most important thing about slapstick is its reliance on physical action to create laughs and not just witty one-liners.
Slapstick has been used in film and television for more than a century, but it was especially popular during the silent film era (1895).
What Is Slapstick Comedy?
Slapstick is a style of comedy involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy.
It often uses props, has characters perform dangerous stunts, involves characters getting hurt or injured, and is largely based on visual depictions.
If you want to see slapstick comedy done right, you need look no further than the masters of the style, the three silent clowns themselves:
- Charlie Chaplin,
- Buster Keaton, and
- Harold Lloyd.
The development of more advanced movie-making techniques allowed filmmakers to create even more violent and graphic gags like sharp pratfalls, explosions, and physical fights.
Slapstick has remained popular throughout most of film history.
It is especially prevalent in cartoons and animated television shows today. Examples include:
- The Simpsons,
- South Park, and
- Family Guy.
Slapstick is also very common in live-action comedies like The Three Stooges or Spy Hard.
The style is still used in contemporary films like Blades of Glory.
It’s usually not intended to be mean-spirited or cruel. It’s just meant to be funny. Many people find it hard to laugh at slapstick because they can’t help but feel sorry for the people getting hurt. That’s the nature of slapstick: you’re supposed to laugh at something that makes you feel bad inside.
What Does Slapstick Comedy Look Like?
Slapstick comedy is not necessarily physical in nature but it usually includes:
- deliberate collisions or physical contact between two characters (such as a character being hit by a heavy object and flying into another character), or
- the violent transformation or destruction of an object.
Slapstick comedy generally relies on visual depictions, with minimal dialogue and a plot that emphasizes character over narrative.
The main characteristic of slapstick is a physical act that looks painful or damaging when performed and the sound effects of the blow indicate the level of pain. Slapstick is a genre that overlaps with both ridiculous comedy and visual comedy, often using copious amounts of pratfall.
The primary objective of slapstick is to entertain and amuse by creating an atmosphere of playful banter, though it can also be used for satire or political commentary.
It uses a visual style of comically exaggerated mundane activities, like falling down the stairs or navigating an obstacle course. As opposed to high concept or character-based comedy, the plot is subordinate in slapstick films; it provides a framework for comedic set pieces but it is generally not used as a device to develop characters.
The main focus of a slapstick routine is the chase and many rules govern this format: the most basic being that the villain must be punished for his bullying by the hero.
Slapstick Comedy In Film
Slapstick is generally classified as a low comedy because it does not appeal to highbrow tastes: it is commonly associated with physical parody, non-sequiturs, irrationality, and spectacle rather than wit. Slapstick has its roots in various short sketches of the English music-hall theatre and the British Victorian burlesque.
However, probably the most influential exponent was Charlie Chaplin whose film career was based upon comedic and physical humor. In silent film, he created a new style that inspired many filmmakers to follow him.
To this day slapstick is a popular form of comedy in many movies and television shows. Let’s take a look at the history and development of slapstick comedy in film.
Slapstick Comedy History
The idea of Slapstick Comedy being used in the same sentence as “History” may seem rather odd. However, I hope to show how a careful analysis of the historical impact of comedy will reveal a deep and important influence that has been largely overlooked.
What is slapstick? Before we get into the serious history, let me first offer a brief definition of what I mean by “slapstick.” The term is somewhat elusive and can be defined in many different ways.
While there are examples of this type of comedic style dating back to Greek theater and Shakespearean plays, it was at its height during the silent film era. Every great silent comedian had their unique brand of slapstick: Charlie Chaplin was known for his Little Tramp character and deadpan delivery of physical.
The term arises from a well-known sketch in the British music hall tradition, featuring “the hit-the-bons” (slap the butt), which is one of its principal feats
Slapstick was developed in the early years of cinema when filmmakers were looking for something to fill their shorts. It gradually evolved from novelty acts into an art form.
As more movie theaters were built, people began to seek them out and pay for tickets, which gave filmmakers more freedom to explore new styles and techniques.
The most famous slapstick comedians are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
Origin Of Slapstick
In the early days of film, slapstick comedy was the only way that filmmakers could draw laughs. Slapstick is an exaggerated physical comedy style with an emphasis on the body and its reactions to pain or violent impacts.
It’s a broad term that encompasses both the physical humor of Buster Keaton and the comedy-of-errors antics of Charlie Chaplin. The word “slapstick” comes from the sharp noise made when something is hit hard.
Slapstick has been around for thousands of years and is one of the most universal forms of humor. In ancient times, slapstick was represented by rituals and folk tales that featured costumes, masks, or physical acts such as tongue pulling.
There are several theories as to how slapstick transitioned from oral tradition to silent film and eventually talkies. One school of thought suggests that early pioneers in cinema needed something loud and physical to compete with other popular forms of entertainment like vaudeville and music hall.
Another theory says that audiences wanted to see realistic depictions of people getting hurt but without any real danger. The earliest known example of slapstick in film came in 1898 when Thomas Edison filmed a man getting slapped by a woman in his short film “The Kiss.”
Slapstick Comedy Techniques
The simplest way to define slapstick is physical comedy, but it’s more than that. To fully understand slapstick comedy, you need to know about the roots of comedy and how slapstick developed over time.
The three main categories are:
- Visual slapstick: Physical comedy that involves an actor hitting or falling over something or someone. This is usually performed by small stunt performers.
- Verbal slapstick: Puns and pratfalls of the spoken variety. These often involve puns on the actor’s name (e.g., Curly Howard) or appearance (e.g., a whacked-out pronunciation of “banana”).
- Slapstick violence: Physical comedy involving real (not fantasy) acts of violence, such as hitting someone with an actual stick. This form of slapstick is extremely rare in modern times and is never performed by children under any circumstances.
The slapstick comedy techniques were developed in the early years of film when filmmakers were looking for ways to show movement and action that could be understood by the audience. These techniques are still used today, even in more sophisticated movies.
Understanding these techniques will help you to appreciate slapstick comedy and become a better audience member.
The humor is often physical, utilizing a lot of exaggerated movement and sound effects. In creating this type of humor, the three main elements that must be used are exaggeration, incongruity, and context.
Exaggeration is when something is made to appear much bigger or smaller than it really is. A person running down a hallway might look like they’re bouncing off the walls.
Or someone might fall down a flight of stairs with an exaggerated cartoon “thud.” Anything can be amplified for comic effect in slapstick comedy.
Incongruity is when two things shouldn’t go together but do anyway. A man with an umbrella walks into a room full of people wearing swimming gear.
Or perhaps someone who has just had a terrible accident at work arrives home looking perfectly fine. Incongruity is one of the hallmarks of slapstick comedy, and it’s what makes the whole situation funny.
Context plays a big part in slapstick humor as well. If our man with the umbrella goes back to his office and says he had to walk, there must be a justification for this action through context. Slapstick is never random, it is always calculated and pointed.
Many of these techniques have been used in film for years, but a lot of them were made famous by Charlie Chaplin in his various short films like “The Tramp” and “The Little Tramp,” which are still popular today. Slapstick comedy is easy to do on film because it doesn’t require fancy cameras or equipment; all you need is some time and creativity.
So let’s look at some of the best examples of this type of comedy and how they were done.
Slapstick Comedy Icons
The Three Stooges were one of the most enduring comedy teams in American film history. Originating in the 1920s, the team was composed of three actors – Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard – who appeared together in a series of short-subject films for Columbia Pictures from 1934 through 1959.
The group’s hallmark was physical violence, which often played out with Moe Howard being the victim. Since their initial appearance, the Three Stooges became cultural icons and had a profound influence on modern comedy.
Trying to define slapstick is like trying to define pornography: you know it when you see it. But here are some guidelines: Slapstick involves physical humor that is largely exaggerated or violent in nature.
It is distinguishable from sight gags (e.g., the Road Runner running off a cliff) since sight gags don’t necessarily involve physical pain or injury (though they may). Slapstick requires a character who has been wronged by another character that he/she holds responsible.
This can range from physical assault to emotional abuse (e.g., a wife scolding her husband). Slapstick also requires another character to witness the wrong-doing and react with obvious amusement.
Slapstick Comedy Today
Today, slapstick has made something of a comeback as a staple in comedy films. Comedy teams like Wayans Brothers and The Three Stooges rely heavily on slapstick for their humor.
Slapstick comedy today largely consists of parody and pastiche with frequent appearances from classic figures like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” (as in Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock
The Golden Age Of Slapstick
While 1985’s “Back to the Future III” doesn’t hold up as well as its predecessors, it does feature a scene that delights me to this day: When Marty reads an issue of “Playboy” from October 1985, we see a model named Jennifer wearing nothing but a bedsheet.
As he puts it, she’s “not wearing much.”It was a great gag back then — almost like a version of the magazine cover that promised to make Paris Hilton disappear — and it still is today, even though Jennifer is now a 55-year-old married mother of two.
Of course, that’s not even close to being the oldest joke in the Hollywood vault. You can thank vaudeville for that.
The humor bone wasn’t just well developed; it was constantly being tossed around. And while many people think slapstick comedy peaked with Charlie Chaplin or The Three Stooges, I’m here to shine a light on the Golden Age of Slapstick: The 1990s.
Alfred Hitchcock, who is considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, directed many popular movies that are still remembered today. However, he also directed a few silent films that are rarely shown or talked about.
The most notable of these is his 1925 film The Pleasure Garden which was described as “the Citizen Kane of slapstick.”The Pleasure Garden is a silent movie, but it still has a lot of the same humor and plotlines that are made famous by slapstick films.
You see the usual crazy chases mixed with silly fights and characters being dumb enough to get themselves killed. What makes this movie unique is how it tries to add some depth to its plot lines.
The Pleasure Garden often goes into flashbacks and dives into the psyche of its characters to try to give them some sort of depth. This is something we don’t see very often in slapstick movies even today.
The plot of The Pleasure Garden revolves around two main characters, Marco (played by John Dall) and Nellie (played by Virginia Valli). Marco and Nellie are both young adults and they have just met on a train ride through Europe.
Modern Slapstick Comedy Is Alive And Well
Slapstick comedy was the most popular form of comedy between the World Wars, and it’s alive and well today. It’s easy to identify slapstick because of its over-the-top style.
Slapstick comedy has been around for over a century and shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, slapstick may be more popular than ever before. The humor of the Keystone Cops, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and the Three Stooges is alive and well in movies today.
Funny accidental falls, pratfalls, physical comedy, eye-pokes, nose-stabs, and other forms of pain-induced humor are still just as funny as they’ve always been. And audiences love it! Whether you’re writing your own script or just watching a movie with friends, slapstick comedy can help you create some truly memorable moments.
So let’s take a quick look at how to incorporate some effective slapstick comedy into your movies or scripts.