Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

222 posts in this topic

For me, one of the keywords that resonates with slapstick is in the Encyclopedia Britannica definition: "uninhibited." The best comedians aren't afraid of being the butt of a joke, or looking foolish. Pride sort of goes out the window and it becomes about making people laugh, not ego. That letting go of self-consciousness isn't easy and I really admire it.

 

It wasn't until that you put this up here that I realized that I haven't thought about the comedians at all. I would have to agree with you Comedians that are the greatest of the great are really willing to put everything they can into getting a laugh. They are not above their own jokes at all.

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in some respects, I would substitute the element of "cruelty" for "violence.'  

 

Yeah, I was thinking substituting "mean"? Although it is not always manifested physically, so???

 

The ritual element is strong, and I'm wondering too how far back the rituals go. I can see them in professional wrestling and circus as well. 

 

Breaking down the rituals of a Popeye scene, I recall the theme music, the opening of the spinach can, the eating of the spinach, some legit slapstick, and the inevitable falling-down of whatever was punched up into the sky, which usually had been broken to pieces, and then re-assembled into something else.

 

Gilligan's Island had some slap-happy moments too, but I don't know if the elements were more ritual or formula, or if that means the same thing here? 

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Whenever I see Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock face in Safety Last!, I still marvel at his pluck and daring. Even though he only has a few feet to fall, it’s still a dangerous stunt and an injury could halted production.

 

 

Yes, and it might be worth noting that Lloyd had already lost his right thumb and forefinger at that time (blown off by a misfiring bomb).  There were indeed real injuries resulting from all those make-believe moments.

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I tend NOT to think in terms of definition-why ?-Both of my two "children" -(now young adults) are on the autism spectrum. It is impossible to "define" what aspects of their personality are from the autism vs well personality. When they were toddlers, I being a good mother screened films and TV for appropriateness, I found much to my  amazement that Sesame Street had R rated episodes-most of these involved poor Grover as a waiter being thrown across the room by a swinging door.ie: SLAPSTICK-instead of laughing my kids would cry-even after seeing Grover repeat-(ritualistic repeats of the very same gag),But the mispronuncement of a word by cookie monster would send them into giggle fits. The rating system deemed these episodes R for violence. Yet clearly, violence is an aspect of slapstick-I remember very fondly watching Punch and Judy shows and Koolga Fran and Olly-filled with Billy clubs being swung for any reason at all. The word Violence ?- May be  harsh but accurate.

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. . .

 

One final followup on the Stooges, they are polarizing for a number of reasons and many people have pointed out in the post what they do and do not like about them. There is one characteristic about them that was not mentioned that I find to be one of the reasons they worked. No matter how zany the situation, no matter how stupid their approach or solution to the problem or job they addressed, they owned it. They always felt they were being smart, logical, and doing the right thing the right way. The classic picture you will see of them in their golf togs; look at their faces. They look like they totally rock this look and are expecting admiration for their fashion sense. The ability to carry that off in short after short and always be no only completely unaware they were being idiots but remain absolutely confident that they were not it amazing and one of the keys to their genius. That is very hard to do.

 

Interesting point. I have never been a huge fan of the Three Stooges, but I will have to watch for their ability to "own" their comedy, to inhabit their sketches fully, the next time I watch them. Maybe it will make a difference for me.

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I agree with the definitions but no, I do not think that slapstick has to include all five conditions.

 

I don't think all slapstick is always physical. Although the scenes that precede this scene are violent. Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill is just standing in front of a house when the house comes down all around him but he is in the space for the window and never moves and remains unharmed. Also, that scene is not violent as it didn't hit him yet gets a strong reaction from the audience.   

 

I don't think all slapstick is violent. (I Love Lucy – the candy on the conveyor belt is funny and I believe slapstick but is not violent.

 

I don't think all slapstick is repetitive. Sometimes once is funny and enough. And if the water hose was to be done again, it would not work.

 

I don't think all slapstick has to show that it is imaginary. Again I use the same example because I am unfamiliar with slapstick which is why I am taking the course. But in the I Love Lucy show which I am assuming is slapstick, in the conveyor belt scene, there is physicality, repetitive behavior, exaggeration in behavior but not necessarily imaginary. It seems like a situation that someone could have happen to them if the same situation occurred.  Conveyor belts did exist then for many jobs and maybe this was one of them.

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A number of thoughts came to me while I read the definitions of Slapstick.  I grew up watching The Three Stooges, Farmer Gray cartoons and The Marx Brothers films.  I can't remember a time when slapstick was new to me.  Because of this, it's hard for me to put myself in the place of audiences who might be viewing this form of comedic routine for the first time.   I've watched The Marx Brothers films as well as many other great slapstick comedies a zillion times over the years and they're still funny.  And I've always known that it's all make believe.

 

Timing is so important in slapstick.  It's amazing that more people weren't seriously injured or killed in the creation of slapstick films, and this is in large part do to perfect timing.  But timing is also important in pulling off sight gags so that they are truly funny.  If the timing is off, the humor loses its sharpness.

 

While some people are totally put off by the violence, I think it sometimes gives us the chance to experience things  vicariously.  Some slapstick violence isn't done by one person against another but is stuff like someone falling down the stairs or slipping on a banana peel.   We watch this and and feel sorry for the person but are so grateful it's not us looking so foolish!!  And with pie throwing or poking someone in the eyes, we can think of how we'd love to do the same thing to someone we know-- but of course we can't.  It can provide a safety valve of sorts. 

 

The crazy sound effects help us realize that this is make believe.  So, when someone is hit  by something that falls out of a window or gets poked in the eyes, as in The Three Stooges when Moe gives it to Curly,  we know this isn't real!!  And the background music, with it's comedic and sometimes zany sound, also keeps us on track.

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First of all, thanks for including Gene Wilder in the top screenshot of part 2. My husband and I were watching clips from Young Frankenstein yesterday and enjoying the slapstick comedy in this film. In regards to the definitions or "conditions" of slapstick, I would agree for the most part with all of them. I can't really think of an alternative definition, but I do think slapstick has evolved greatly from the stage to the screen and within cinema with the advent of color and sound. Also, let's not forget animation which includes a great deal of slapstick humor. Finally, I think slapstick must be exaggerated and physical, but the degree to which it is ritualistic or make believe or even violent can vary greatly from film to film.

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The question put forth was, "How do these same gags change on screen with the advent of sound?"

 

It had slipped my mind, until a moment ago... but the addition of music or a specific soundtrack can put a film over the top. 

 

The 1927 Laurel and Hardy film, "Putting Pants on Philip" was restored and had a new soundtrack put in place.   

 

Philip (Stan) is fresh off the boat, from Scotland and in a kilt. Ollie has to get him into pants..  you can imagine the rest.

 

The new soundtrack was done by Robert Israel and is comprised of acoustic versions of 18th and 19th century Scottish folk tunes which actually FIT the action of the film... not in just the tempo, but in the lyric content as well.  

 

It's simply amazing to watch.... providing of course you know the lyrics to the songs. lol

 

I messaged Mr. Israel, on Facebook, and commented on the perfect marriage of music and action throughout the film and he was floored ANYONE even noticed.

 

I've seen the film w/ your standard, Silent film soundtrack, and while it's funny it's far enhanced by the Israel soundtrack... right down to the gag sounds and special effects. 

 

.......just my two cents.

 

It's amazing how the right music can enhance what we're watching on the screen!!  The zany music that is the background for so many slapstick comedies adds so much!!  But this is true of all films, I think.  We have so many composers, past and present, to thank for this!!

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First of all, thanks for including Gene Wilder in the top screenshot of part 2. My husband and I were watching clips from Young Frankenstein yesterday and enjoying the slapstick comedy in this film. In regards to the definitions or "conditions" of slapstick, I would agree for the most part with all of them. I can't really think of an alternative definition, but I do think slapstick has evolved greatly from the stage to the screen and within cinema with the advent of color and sound. Also, let's not forget animation which includes a great deal of slapstick humor. Finally, I think slapstick must be exaggerated and physical, but the degree to which it is ritualistic or make believe or even violent can vary greatly from film to film.

I'm glad you brought up animation. I think that animation ascribes to that condition of making sure the audience knows it's make believe from the get go by virtue of the medium so they are able to spend less time establishing that fundamental principle. Animation definitely uses the notion of repeated gags as a means of establishing a character. To a certain extent...even the idea of physicality and athleticisim in that animated characters aren't bound by the limitations of a human body and can therefore carry a violent movement way past what is technically possible to REALLY do. 

 

As for the idea that a film HAS to have all of these characteristics to be slapstick, I worry about ascribing to absolutes..I think that, with any rule, there are always exceptions. Which begs the question how much can we rely on any given definition when there is likely to be a rulebreaker film out there that still classifies as slapstick. 

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I'd like to add another additional criteria to the definition of slapstick. Is it possible that slapstick also must involve some sort of struggle between a less powerful protagonist and a more powerful antagonist and that the less powerful must triumph over the more powerful in the end?

 

The little guy or the Everyman eventually wins the day by perseverance, cleverness or sheer will and the rich, pompous and mean get their comeuppance in the end.

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While reading through the boards, I found myself recalling the ill-fated attempt to make an animated series of Mr. Bean. You can see why someone would think it was a good idea, as the original show was almost entirely a physical comedy showcase with barely any dialogue, bringing to mind something like Tom and Jerry, and in animated form you could have far more freedom in taking the gags as big as your imagination.

 

But the show was a flop, as just about every fan of the original series said the same thing: the character just didn't carry the same interest when you weren't watching an actual person doing this stuff. That touches on the violence rule, but from a different angle: the risk of the actor actually getting hurt is an intrinsic part of the experience, even if it never actually happens.

 

I also remember an early Saturday Night Live episode where Chevy Chase gives a pratfall lesson to the host, and says the most important part is the audience briefly think they just saw something painful, even though it was actually carefully controlled. It's the same principle that got Buster Keaton's father in trouble for including his extremely young son in his "human mop" routine, even though he always insisted he was in full control.

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I'm trying to wrap my head around, "#3: Slapstick is ritualistic" and if it's lacking any repetition or ritual......is it not slapstick?  

And for that matter, if it's lacking any 1 of the 5?

 

Is it simply not "authentic" slapstick?

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  • Do you agree or disagree with these definitions?  Yes, I do.  They are as good as any I've heard.

     

  •  

 

Do you have an alternate definition you would like to propose?  No.  I do believe that any definition must place a heavy emphasis on physicality.  I recently competed in a film challenge where the producer who drew the slapstick genre screened a film with zero physicality and only suggested violence.  While there was some snappy dialogue, the film simply didn't work.  It left the audience feeling cheated.

 

 

 

Do you believe slapstick comedy has to include all five of the conditions I discuss?  "I certainly do, Ollie."post-60355-0-83670700-1472605846_thumb.jpeg

 

post-60355-0-83670700-1472605846_thumb.jpeg

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I'm trying to wrap my head around, "#3: Slapstick is ritualistic" and if it's lacking any repetition or ritual......is it not slapstick?  

And for that matter, if it's lacking any 1 of the 5?

 

Is it simply not "authentic" slapstick?

I believe that the ritualism provides the audience with something to anticipate, something to look forward too.  For example, when Moe Howard says, "Pick two." we know what to expect and we are NEVER disappointed.

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I honestly believe that this definition is too broad. I think there are different types of slapstick. The Three Stooges are the epitome of violent, ritualistic slapstick. Whereas, Keaton or Chaplin's form of "slapstick" was more refined and clever. It had some aspects of violence and repeated gags but their works took on a more graceful air about them. At times they seemed almost balletic. I wouldn't go so far as to say their is lowbrow and highbrow slapstick, but this definition tries to fit them all and I really don't think a single definition can do that.

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I'd like to add another additional criteria to the definition of slapstick. Is it possible that slapstick also must involve some sort of struggle between a less powerful protagonist and a more powerful antagonist and that the less powerful must triumph over the more powerful in the end?

 

The little guy or the Everyman eventually wins the day by perseverance, cleverness or sheer will and the rich, pompous and mean get their comeuppance in the end.

I believe this to be a common element in every film.  Conflict rules the day.  Also, America loves an underdog.  We almost always prefer to root for him or her.  If not in sports, at least in film.

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 Given a knowledge base strictly limited to enjoying Slapstick movies, this was an straightforward, uncomplicated and engaging  introduction , and I totally agree with the definitions. 
     Do (I) believe slapstick comedy has to include all five of the conditions . . .?

Several people have tested various "gags," and I would like to add my own experiment using the ol' Dutch Door gag:
     1) Slapstick involves exaggeration

 Here we have a door where the top and bottom can be opened independently of one another.  Take away the exaggerated movements involved in the gag, you might as well save the film budget and get a solid door.  One simply can't perform the physical comedy involved ; even the stopping short in front of the closed lower door needs some sort of exaggerated movement.
      2) Slapstick is physical
Whether it's the front flip over the lower half or--SMACK!!--the unfortunate discovery that the upper half swung shut, take away the physicality, and it's just an entrance.
      3) Slapstick is ritualistic
 The gag relies on the actor's response to the various positions of each half.  If said actor responded to just one of the physical situations described above, maybe it would get a laugh, but then what.  The appearance of the Dutch door itself is a set-up!  Wouldn't you be disappointed if the door wasn't used to it's comedic  potential?
       4) Slapstick is make-believe

Groucho, Harpo and Chico would give the gag a sense of make-believe.  Arnold, Sylvester and Bruce? Slightly more realistic , and speaking of . . .
       5) Slapstick is violent
As I described for rule #2, take away the violence . . .well, maybe . . .if Harpo were wearing a Dutch maid's outfit . . .

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Bingo! As a child, it was always obvious that the Stooges gags were just that and as such it was not violent in any way. Now I am from an older generation where parents spent a good deal of time with their kids and reinforced what was real and not real by participating in what we viewed. We were not raised in the time of ultra violent video games and action films that profess reality so perhaps our perspective is different. I do however offer that my 26 year old daughter watched the Stooges with me, loves them to this day and never thought a real person could or should do any of those things. It was humor, it was staged, and she was clear on that fact.

I think that one of the elements that make slapstick so attractive is that the violence is make believe.  Not a day goes by when we wouldn't like to smack one of our co-workers upside their head.  Of course, we never do.  However, we can do so vicariously through Moe Howard.  We can even beat up cops through te likes of The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and the like.  These comedic icons ritualistically do what many of us would like to do...if we could get away with it!

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Lawrence, to reply to a comment just click on the Quote button at the bottom right of the comment. A box will appear with REPLY TO THIS TOPIC. I hope this helps.

Yes it did. Thanks so much. I'm not that good on these new fangled computer things. But I do limp along. Love all the posts.

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First of all, thanks for including Gene Wilder in the top screenshot of part 2. My husband and I were watching clips from Young Frankenstein yesterday and enjoying the slapstick comedy in this film. In regards to the definitions or "conditions" of slapstick, I would agree for the most part with all of them. I can't really think of an alternative definition, but I do think slapstick has evolved greatly from the stage to the screen and within cinema with the advent of color and sound. Also, let's not forget animation which includes a great deal of slapstick humor. Finally, I think slapstick must be exaggerated and physical, but the degree to which it is ritualistic or make believe or even violent can vary greatly from film to film.

I agree. It does not have be "too" ritualistic to qualify as slapstick.

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"How do these same gags change on screen with the advent of sound?" Didn't "silent" films use sound effects in most cinemas?

Not really. In big movie houses, they would use music to highlight gags. Smaller houses might have one piano player to do the work. With the advent of sound, physical gags really got a lift. In the Laurel and Hardy comedy, "Perfect Day" at least one critic noted the anvil sound of Oliver striking Stan on the head lead to an explosion of laughter in the theater. (It still works today.) With television, we are used to hearing the sound effects. But in the early sound films, applying sound to the gag was a real innovation. 

Early comedians (like Lloyd and Laurel) were amazed that audiences would laugh when they heard ice tinkling in glasses. 

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For the ritualistic aspects you don't have to look any further than a typical back and forth involving Laurel and Hardy. It's as if there's a common agreement that as the next attack is being assembled that the intended target has to sit there and wait for it.

 

 

 

 

As to the exaggeration of violence those of us familiar with the Three Stooges need only compare the slaps and head bonks back when it was Ted Healey and His Stooges. Without the sound effects the slapstick seems a bit "off" as it becomes obvious that Ted Healey is really hitting Larry.

 

 

On stage, when Moe hit Larry, he had to do it hard so that the audience could hear it in the back row. People that met the Stooges in person said that one of Larry's cheek was completely calloused because of all the hits he endured.

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I agree with the definitions but no, I do not think that slapstick has to include all five conditions.

 

I don't think all slapstick is always physical. Although the scenes that precede this scene are violent. Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill is just standing in front of a house when the house comes down all around him but he is in the space for the window and never moves and remains unharmed. Also, that scene is not violent as it didn't hit him yet gets a strong reaction from the audience.   

 

I don't think all slapstick is violent. (I Love Lucy – the candy on the conveyor belt is funny and I believe slapstick but is not violent.

 

I don't think all slapstick is repetitive. Sometimes once is funny and enough. And if the water hose was to be done again, it would not work.

 

I don't think all slapstick has to show that it is imaginary. Again I use the same example because I am unfamiliar with slapstick which is why I am taking the course. But in the I Love Lucy show which I am assuming is slapstick, in the conveyor belt scene, there is physicality, repetitive behavior, exaggeration in behavior but not necessarily imaginary. It seems like a situation that someone could have happen to them if the same situation occurred.  Conveyor belts did exist then for many jobs and maybe this was one of them.

 

I agree with your assertion that all slapstick isn't violent. I Love Lucy also came to mind for me. Slapstick is often physical and most certainly over the top, but it isn't always violent, and Lucille Ball is the perfect example of it. I'm thinking not only of the conveyer belt scene, but also her ballet class: exaggerated and physical, sure, but not really violent. 

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Yes, and it might be worth noting that Lloyd had already lost his right thumb and forefinger at that time (blown off by a misfiring bomb).  There were indeed real injuries resulting from all those make-believe moments.

It didn't misfire. It was a real bomb that had somehow ended up in a box of props by mistake. Harold was at the Witzel studio, having publicity portraits taken. He'd lit the fuse of this "fake bomb", and was pretending to light his cigarette with it. As the fuse burned shorter and shorter, it made a lot of smoke, which hid his face from the camera. Harold realized this, so he lowered his hand and told the photographer, "There's too much smoke. We need another one---"

 

BOOM!

 

If he hadn't lowered his hand, the explosion would have ripped his head right off. As it was, he was badly burned, and temporarily blinded, as well as having his right thumb and forefinger blown off. Whike recuperating, he planned how he'd be able to return to work.

 

He had the idea for a tight-fitting and very thin leather glove, perfectly matched to his skin, and able to contain a prosthetic thumb and forefinger inside it. It would take a master glovemaker to make it undetectable. Harold took his idea to the best glove-maker he knew: Samuel Goldwyn. Before becoming a movie-mogul, Goldwyn had been a glove-maker. He did a beautiful job.

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