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Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

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Hi Everyone:

 

In Part Two of Week 1, we consider definitions of "what is slapstick?"

 

I offer a couple of definitions, but feel free share your own definitions or other definitions that will help us explore the topic.

 

Let the discussion begin!

 

--Dr. Rich Edwards

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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.

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The questions and my answers:

  • Do you agree or disagree with these definitions?  I agree with the definitions.  They do provide some clarity as we start to explore this form of comedic expression in film.  I am sure others with greater knowledge on the subject will broaden my view.
  • Do you have an alternate definition you would like to propose? Not that I can think of.
  • Do you believe slapstick comedy has to include all five of the conditions I discuss? After viewing our short film from yesterday, I would say not all of these five conditions are required.  That clip was not necessarily "make believe"(#4).   It was a realistic situation where a young chap might indeed prank the gardener.  Also, the prank was not necessarily "violent," (#5), although I suppose that is a subjective perspective, depending upon widely drawn the definition of violence is.
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Reading the five definitions of "slapstick," (Exaggeration, physical, ritualistic, make-believe, violent), I think all of those definitions definitely apply, but I don't think all necessarily have to be present to be considered true slapstick.

 

The Three Stooges I believe encompass all five of these qualities.  Often their ineptness in various situations is exaggerated.  Their gags and stunts are very physical.  They have a shtick, which I think in this case, can be synonymous with "ritualistic."  With The Three Stooges, if you have the original gang (Curly, Larry and Moe), you know there will be some nose tweaking, eye gauging, and other types of trademark violence inflicted on each Stooge by the other Stooges. When they changed lineups, (e.g. Shemp replacing Curly), then their shticks changed as well.  The Stooges' situation and stunts are ridiculous, but they make them believable.  I think the style in which they inflict violence upon each other is believable make-believe (if that makes sense), you can tell that they aren't really hurting each other (due to choreography between participants), but it looks like they are.  Their typical shtick, with the nose tweaking, eye gauging, et. al. is also violent and could really hurt someone, but it is also funny when combined with Curly's nyuk nyuks and other noises that they make. 

 

Someone like Lucille Ball on the other hand, I think encompasses 4/5 of these features.  Her brand of slapstick isn't particularly violent.  In her show, I Love Lucy, many of her situations are absurd, and would never happen to a real person.  However, the situations were written in a manner that the eventual climactic situation (e.g. Lucy and Ethel's misadventure on the chocolate conveyor belt) logically made sense based on the prior events of the plot.  Lucille Ball's humor came more from her situations starting out in a reasonable fashion, but then spiraling out of control.  In The Long Long Trailer, she ends up being thrown around inside a moving trailer while attempting to make dinner.  The audience knows that it's not going to go well.  After all, Lucy and Desi have to make sure everything is secured and put away inside the trailer when traveling, what makes them think that Lucy can be inside working and have everything stay put? However, the situation is set up by Lucy and Desi having a fight and Lucy coming to the conclusion that they fought because they were tired after driving all day.  Her plan is to make dinner while Desi drives, so that it is ready when he pulls into a new trailer park.  Makes sense.  But it completely goes awry.  In one way, the set up of Lucy's comedy is also ritualistic as her brand of physical comedy arises from situations gone out of control.  Often she exaggerates her mishaps during her comedy. If you notice in The Long Long Trailer, while she's being thrashed around inside, she purposely pulls a bag of flour down on top of her.  

 

I personally prefer slapstick when the situations seem clever and change from film to film (or episode to episode if on TV).  With Lucille Ball's brand of comedy, sometimes she's Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy), sometimes she's a honeymooner (The Long Long Trailer), other times, she's a failed sales girl (The Fuller Brush Girl) or a bumbling receptionist unknowingly working in a gambling racket fronting as a real estate company (Miss Grant Takes Richmond).  No matter the situation or the character, Ball finds a way to get into a comedic situation with her brand of humor. Sometimes The Three Stooges can wear thin for me, because they always seem the same, and they're oftentimes exasperatingly bumbling.   At least The Marx Brothers change up their characters, storylines and gags, even if the characters themselves are always the same persona (Groucho:smart quips; Chico: con artist; Harpo: Silent and silly).  

 

I do think that slapstick has to include some physical brand of humor.  If there are no physical stunts or gags, but it is a comedy, then I believe the film would move into screwball comedy territory. 

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I agree with the definitions of slapstick. They all relate to the art form. The origin of slapstick does go back to the actual tool of the slapstick itself. The term slapstick, I feel has been personified by the

Three Stooges. I'm not sure anyone can bring up the meaning of slapstick without thinking of the Stooges. That being said it is better that we look deeper and discover what the word means, where it came from and its total definition. I learned the five point formula for slapstick tonight. it makes sense and when you put the definitions to the formula you begin to understand what it is.

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While most slapstick situations are make-believe, I seem to find them in real-life, purely by chance.

 

The best one was when I'd just gotten off the subway at rush hour, and noticed a little brown leaf, blowing around the platform, weaving around the feet of the crowd. Then, I realized that leaves don't have ears and a tail. It wasn't a leaf, but a tiny brown subway mouse...and it dashed onto the train, just as the doors were closing.

 

Pause.

 

Then, CHAOS!

 

The people on the train began leaping about in terror, as (evidently) the equally terrified little mouse zig-zagged through the car. I saw a couple of executive-type men leap to the overhead bars and dangle from them, pulling their knees up to their chests.

 

As the train pulled out of the station, I was doubled-over with laughter, and people were looking at me as if I'd escaped from somewhere.

 

Imagine... In that huge crowd of people, I was the only one who'd seen that glorious moment of serendipitous slapstick. THE ONLY ONE.

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I am not sure if I am on the right track here but I believe that slapstick comedy does not necessarily have to be violent. I think that the shows and movies about Mr. Bean are a form of slapstick comedy that does not necessarily involve violence. Lack of common sense yes, violence not so much.

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I agree with the definitions, to a point. I also believe slapstick can be more subtle. To meet the definitions, I think of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. Classic slapstick. its all five elements. But what about the subtle missed high five that I just watched the two anchors on the evening news perform? Meets four of the five elements, just not very violent. Is that slapstick?

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I thought it was an interesting point about how many people are turned off of slapstick because of the violence, no matter how make believe it might be. My grandfather loves the Three Stooges and as a kid I could never get in to their movies or shows because of how violent I thought they were. 

 

I'm interested to re-watch them now as an adult and with the new point of view this class will provide. 

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I have seen a number of different comedy films that involve the use of slapstick. So, they do incorporate the five conditions that you discuss. As for an alternate definition of the term slapstick, I don't think I have one. Let me give you an example of some films that utilizes slapstick to the nth degree. Home Alone (1990) involves a ton of slapstick gags that is complex and very violent even to make audiences cringe when they see Kevin McCalister devise such dangerous traps for the burglars to catch them even though the pain looks too real. In Tommy Boy (1995) the comedy is not dangerous but more lighthearted than Home Alone. Most of the slapstick involved in the film is not violent since the quality is 4/5. It's not dangerous, but it does involve exaggeration, it is make-believe, somewhat ritualistic, and is physical since Chris Farley did some of his own stunts in the picture. I have to agree with you on the definitions that you have mentioned since I can see the idea of how slapstick evolved from a simple weapon in commedia dell' arte to today's definition of the term slapstick in vaudeville, movies and television.

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I think the violence in slapstick is one of the reasons that the genre seems to appeal more to men and children than adult women. I know of very few adult women who like The 3 Stooges, who are one of the more violent slapstick teams. Even young girls don't seem to find the Stooges as funny as boys of the same age do. I hope this topic will be further explored in this course.

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I believe both definitions to be true. One part that I found interesting was from the Encyclopedia Brittanica definition: "The slapstick comic... must often be an acrobat..." After I read this, I remembered Buster Keaton was a trained acrobat. It's funny because he was one of the first physical comedians that made slapstick films. Just something I thought I should point out. Slapstick in general has all of the components listed. As for the five conditions, I also think that they should be included. For example, audiences must know an actor is unharmed in order to get the joke. Sound effects help this. If they don't, they might be more concerned than entertained. However, I don't think audiences today are as affected by this aspect as ones from the early 20th century. We are used to this type of physical comedy. This brings into the point of slapstick being ritualized. Like I said, we are used to someone falling down stairs or being hit with an object. We enjoy watching these types of scenes and find them hilarious. Slapstick is obviously extremely physical and violent. The example of someone falling down stairs is one that includes all these five aspects. It involves physicality and violence. With sound effects or exaggerated noise, we know the scene is "make-believe." And finally, being that the actor has practiced this gag over and over (assuming it's an act that has been repeatedly shown in film) we know it includes a ritual.

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Yes and no. I know, ambiguous but I agree that there are times that slapstick is all of these things:

 

Slapstick involves exaggeration

Slapstick is physical

Slapstick is ritualistic

Slapstick is make believe

Slapstick is violent

 

but there are other times it is not.

 

I think the example of the Three Stooges is spot on as their form of comedy definitely meets all of the above but then there are much subtler nuances of slapstick. Again, Lucille Ball's and even the Marx Brothers' humor though broad and democratic (everyone is pulled into the fray) offers a much different experience of the artform to the viewer.

 

I think the weakest link in the five is the ritualistic aspect. I don't disagree that it exists within slapstick and that it cannot heighten the stakes just that it is unnecessary. Many commented yesterday of how the anticipation of the familiar actions and reactions of comedians and skits adds to the overall enjoyment. I just don't see it as necessary to the definition. The other four: exaggeration, physicality, make believe and violence of one sort of another...yes. Ritual? I'm just not ready to commit to it.

 

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding Prof. Edward's use of the term but for now I'll just say I don't need ritual in slapstick to find it funny. In fact sometimes I think it detracts and instead it is the originality of the moment that helps me enjoy it most. Even if the skit has been done a thousand times, it is the unexpected... the timing and reaction of the person hit by the pie that makes me explode in laughter not that I know what's coming.

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I am not sure I can buy into the idea that slapstick is violent. The Three Stooges are ritualized and choreographed in comedy dances I have seen third graders try to re-create. There might some element of danger, but danger is not be taken seriously. Moe never leaves a mark on Curley no more than Elmer Fudd ever leaves a bullet hole on Bugs. That's not violence.

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What is slapstick? I've always imaged the perfect slapstick film made by Mack Sennett and involving either Chaplin, Arbuckle, or the Keystone Kops. These films prove to never fail to get laughs, and is the perfect idea of slapstick in my mind at least. Do I believe slapstick to be violent? Sometimes, yes. It depends what film you're looking at. If you're looking at a crazy, zany film of the silent era, then the answer will most likely be yes. If you are looking at a more sophisticated early talkie of the 1930's, I don't think it should be too violent. If you look at the slapstick comedy of recent years, it's a perfect mix of the silent era and the sophisticated early talkie.

 

If I had to explain to someone just exactly what slapstick was, I would answer with, "Slapstick is a form of comedy involving amazing athletic skills, occasionally violent slaps and eye-pokes, and many other distinctive mannerisms that is slowly, sadly fading out in the likes of audiences today." 

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 I have read the definitions on the Splapstick, and in general I seem to appropriate as point of reference for know of what talk.  The 5 elements that characterize it I will add, that it is a form of humor that keeps its validity as long as the Viewer is "complicit" in the same, and participates with his laughter, the routines he sees on the screen.

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When I think of slapstick I think of the early comic greats such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and of course Charlie Chaplin.  I also think of pie throwing, broken chairs and high jinks that turn a rather normal situation into an environment of utter chaos that ends with a happy ending.  

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I think the violence in slapstick is one of the reasons that the genre seems to appeal more to men and children than adult women. I know of very few adult women who like The 3 Stooges, who are one of the more violent slapstick teams. Even young girls don't seem to find the Stooges as funny as boys of the same age do. I hope this topic will be further explored in this course.

I loved the Stooges as a girl and still love them as a grown woman. Perhaps I'm in the minority, I was a "tomboy" however I bet I'm not alone in this class with my feminine Stooges' love. I did grow up near Philadelphia and every day after school tuned in to the, "Sally Starr Show" so that probably has something to do with it. But the violence never turned me off. I knew even as a child it was make believe and that I shouldn't try to poke my brother's eyes out or hit him over the head with a hammer. It was just funny to watch their antics. There was then no TCM and I wasn't sophisticated enough to know the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton or The Keystone Cops and too young to watch the Late, Late Show. I had Lucille Ball reruns, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis and the Stooges. They were my comedy world and I loved them. Still do. I too would like this topic explored. I never thought of the gender gap in slapstick preference. Great idea JazzGuyy.
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Slapstick is a difficult genre for me to fully enjoy, perhaps because of how violent it must be (one of the reasons I also never warmed up to the Loony Toons cartoons). After looking at the definitions, I tend to agree with the conditions that will generally be met with slapstick. There is a definite divide between different types of comedy - the one that comes to mind the most is the difference between a screwball comedy and a slapstick comedy. Slapstick relies more on physicality than a screwball comedy might (at least in my mind).

 

Although my experiences with slapstick comedians are somewhat limited, I do tend to prefer comedians like the Marx Brothers and the silent comedians. However, this could be because of my unfamiliarity with other comedians, like the Three Stooges. While the Marx Brothers did meet all of the requirements of the genre, I also feel like they expanded into different forms of comedy beyond slapstick, though at this point I could not confidently say what I thought that was.

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I agree with SpeedRacer5 slapstick does not necessarily have to have an element of violence directed towards another person. In fact I prefer the Lucille Ball “making bad decisions” type of slapstick. I also enjoy the type of slapstick where any harm that is done is unintentional such as in Young Frankenstein when the monster meets to the blind man in the woods.

 

Of course this also means I agree with JazzGuyy. I am not a big fan extreme physical humor such as Three Stooges as a general rule. However, oddly enough I do seem to enjoy it when I watch it with other people that find it funny. For me and a few other women I know there does seem to be something contagious in this type of humor. Because of this I found Pets Kral observation that slapstick both alienated and liberates particularly intriguing. I suppose that in the company of others I'm able to enjoy the more liberating aspects. This makes me wonder if there isn't some kind of communal response too slapstick. One big laugh sets other ones off and were able to see the humor where we didn't see it before.

 

Or perhaps I and the other women I know are just a little on the strange side.

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I think slapstick is all five. to  enjoy  slapstick you have to  suspend disbelief. you have to give the viewer enough credit that what you see is not real. The first four points is what makes a good slapstick. the fifth point concerning violence is I think up to the viewer. The question then becomes when Does slapstick become to violent I know violence is part of slapstick  but where is the moderation what makes slapstick violence funny and not to the point where people are not laughing

 

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I like the idea of slapstick performers as acrobats or athletes, but there's something about slapstick itself that reminds me of a dance.  Maybe it's because of the violence.  If you've ever seen actors learning and rehearsing fight sequences (and, incidentally, sex scenes) you'll see that these performances are highly choreographed.  Clearly slapstick has to be choreographed too for the idea that "it's only make-believe" to take hold and to ensure that no one really gets hurt.  So I'd like to propose that slapstick performers are dancers (some soloists, some part of the ensemble) as much as they are anything else.

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Dr. Edwards asked:

 

“The question for you to explore is how do these slapstick films let the audience know that this is all just ‘make believe?’”

 

I’d like to address this question very briefly.  I think that one of the main devices used in slapstick films to emphasize the make believe aspect and to help defuse the violent content is having an actor occasionally ‘play to the camera’.  Early film directors had a dickens of a time getting veteran stage actors NOT to do this.  Film is supposed to present the viewer with a world that has its own internal logic and realism.  Even if the film depicts leprechauns riding unicorns, there are certain rules of reason and logic to which those creatures must adhere.  When an actor ‘plays to the camera’, the whole effect is spoiled.  But in Slapstick, when Fatty Arbuckle, for example, looks directly at the camera and winks, we get the message, “Hey, this is all make believe.  Lighten up a bit and laugh.”

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Hi all: I’ve read some interesting posts and analyses of slapstick. Though Prof. Edwards points out the physical aspects of slapstick, I think athleticism might be a subset of that.


 


I’m amazed at the physical prowess of actors like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the second bananas populating the studios like Mack Sennett’s. Even though it might not be slapstick, Lillian Gish came close to freezing on an actual ice floe in Way Down East.


 


There had to be lots of bruises, cuts, scrapes, soreness and perhaps worse, after a day on a slapstick set.


 


For the most part, this work has been taken over by professional stunt players. And maybe that’s how it should be.


 


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.


 


Thanks,


 


Glen

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