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Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

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The Three Stooges shorts were very violent, but the violence is so over-the-top that it isn't alarming. When I see Moe drag a saw blade over Curly's head, it cracks me up. There is no blood or pain that lasts for more than a few seconds. Now that I think about it, the stooges might have been the precursors to superheroes. Finally, I do believe slapstick is based in reality to some degree, and that might be why I find it interesting. We have all taken an embarrassing tumble, and it is funny when we see that no one is injured.  

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I agree that all five elements of the definition are usually present. But, as a kid, I was sickened by the violence of the Stooges. Their physical slapstick would have injured badly. On the other hand, I was mesmerized by the physical slapstick of Keaton and Lloyd. The silent film comedians seemed to have more athleticism, while later versions relied on the sound effects to do the work. I can't envision any later comedians risking their own lives the way Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton did. The Stooges' tricks were not as ritualistic as, say, Chaplin's.

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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.

Wile E. Coyote got pretty messed up but he's a cartoon also.

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In reading this week's ... uh, lecture? I was reminded of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows which were (apparently) first recorded by Samuel Pepys. These shows involved all of the proposed definitions of slapstick, at a time much earlier than Vaudeville, but of a similar vintage as the commedia dell'arte in Italy. It would appear, then, that this form of comedy goes back centuries, and has informed most every major art form since.

 

...Which is a thought that has never occurred to me, before. I've traditionally thought of slapstick as having emerged around the advent of film, as an easy way to forward a story when dialog wasn't possible. The truth, however, would appear to be much different.

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In reading this week's ... uh, lecture? I was reminded of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows which were (apparently) first recorded by Samuel Pepys. These shows involved all of the proposed definitions of slapstick, at a time much earlier than Vaudeville, but of a similar vintage as the commedia dell'arte in Italy. It would appear, then, that this form of comedy goes back centuries, and has informed most every major art form since.

 

...Which is a thought that has never occurred to me, before. I've traditionally thought of slapstick as having emerged around the advent of film, as an easy way to forward a story when dialog wasn't possible. The truth, however, would appear to be much different.

Me too! As soon as I saw the photo of the "slapstick", I was reminded of my theater history days (I had a professor who was an expert in commedia). It was, for lack of a better phrase, a slap in the face. DUH! While I can't believe I didn't make that direct connection, it's kind of cool to see it all come together.

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While not all 5 aspects may be required to be considered slapstick, a majority of them combined really makes slapstick what it is. To add to the definitions, I've always loved the "believable" aspect. Yes there has to be elements of make believe but it would not be the same if the gags were not something that actually could happen. I am sure most of us have seen someone watering a garden and desired to prank them by stepping on the hose. Slapstick takes all the possible, crazy situations and puts them on display for us. We never have to experience the pain ourselves but enjoy watching as a screenwriter takes our imagination of real possibilities and brings them strikingly to life. 

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I don't necessarily think slapstick need be ritualistic.  I do think that slapstick films (or films that employ slapstick elements) can have running gags (gags that are repeated multiple times throughout the film that create recognition and anticipation in the audience) and motifs (repeated elements of any kind), but it strikes me that when Kramer mentions the "professional and ritualistic nature" of the slapstick actions, he is writing about the general ritual elements of the actions in the slapstick genre as a whole - not within one film - that alert the audience to its make-believe nature.

 

So far, though, I do agree with the other elements -- exaggeration, physical, make-believe, violent.

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Do you agree or disagree with these definitions?

I agree with these definitions.

Do you have an alternate definition you would like to propose?

No.

Do you believe slapstick comedy has to include all five of the conditions I discuss?

Yes. Let me briefly refer to each definition:

1: Slapstick involves exaggeration

(I've never seen Slapstick that is precise in nature, so I'd have to agree. Animated cartoons started perfecting slapstick comedy with the emergence of Tex Avery and his Looney Cohorts.)

2: Slapstick is physical

(I once thought I saw non-physical slapstick, but it turned out I was having an aneurysm.)

3: Slapstick is ritualistic

(You have to know what you're doing when you're practising slapstick. If not, you'll get hurt. <edit: I think that I misunderstood what he meant by ritualistic, I took it to mean mastery of slapstick by performing it over a long time. Live and learn!>)

4: Slapstick is make believe

(Yes, I'd agree. We may laugh at a real instance of someone falling down or some such thing on YouTube, but that doesn't jive with what we think of as slapstick, which is deliberate in nature and comedic in intent.)

5: Slapstick is violent

(Slapstick has to have hits or near-misses. The character will experience pain or narrowly avoid pain.)

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These definitions have been very enlightening. Looking back into my childhood memories of black and white movies of repetitive gags of butt slapping, dropping and punching with exaggerated physical response, I see much clearer now, why I was so amused about the scenes that appeared indeed violent. There was quite a subtle way to indicate the make believe portion of the acts (that I don't remember realizing conscientiously as a child) by the huge exaggerated moves in the acts that I would have not dare to imagine happening in real life. Movies well done, and even more two definitions well said.

Thank you,

Razvan

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Each of the five conditions listed appropriately string together countless slapstick gags that we've laughed over before. I could easily picture Buster Keaton's flapping and flailing legs while reading the paragraph about physicality (not to mention vaudeville as a crucial factor when talking about slapstick), as well as remember Chico and Harpo's choreographed "fight" scene that the pair acts out in several of their movies during the ritual section. I was very interested, however, at the question that posed if stage slapstick and screen slapstick vary, and by how much and why. This is exactly the probe into the depths of film/comedy I was eager for.

I also feel that a general slapstick gag would have some sense of simplicity wrapped in it. I understand that there are complex and outright outlandish, novel scenes, but, with the origins of slapstick coming from the utmost basic stunts and feats, I feel that underlying in the genre of slapstick comedy, you'll see some form of unsophisticated, yet still hilarious, gag.

And how fitting to have a photo of Gene Wilder at the top!

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I don't think that it can be a hard and fast rule that slapstick must contain all five of the discussed elements to truly fill the bill. The chaos of the cruise cabin depicted in our class banner is a great example of exaggeration, physicality, ritualism and make believe but I don't see violence. Everyone comes into this tiny room confident in their ability to not only fit but to be able to carry on their business while almost not seeming to notice they are jammed in like sardines. When the door is finally opened and they all pour out in an avalanche none of them really seems too terribly concerned. The only one that seemed to realize the insanity of the situation was Groucho...and us. The Marx Brothers were almost just observers, seeing just how many people would willingly cram into the room without any hesitation.(We later copied this with volkswagons and phonebooths)

Now, then you have the Stooges. They definitely embodied all five, especially the violence. It got to the point where wincing outweighed laughing with their short features. The feature movies that came out, with actual plot lines, brought back interest because though they still performed the signature eye gouging, head smacking and hair pulling, it didn't overpower the plot. Actually a lot of parents felt that their kids were copying the Stooges and becoming more violent without considering any real consequences. Hmmmmm.

I didn't have early exposure to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, but as I am watching them now I am coming to appreciate their contributions, their genius in many cases.

I have to admit though, my favorite modern movies in the slapstick genre are the Naked Gun series. Leslie Nelson was so totally over the top! The exaggeration was so complete that nothing else was needed to show the "Make believe" component any clearer. Oh, and Boy howdy, is there violence...but I can't stop laughing.

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Everything in the reading explains perfectly well what slapstick is and I agree with the definitions. In a comedy movie, slapstick is most likely used throughout the film and some or all elements could be used. I think that not all five conditions have to be used because if it's used properly, it will have the same effect, but it also wouldn't hurt to have all of them. I agree with all the definitions and I don't have anything different, but in my words I would say that slapstick is a way to make people laugh by doing something physical and way over the top. 

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Was just thinking about stage and early film slapstick. In vaudeville they had to p!ay to the back of the house and often the house was more suited to broad humor, so actions were probably exaggerated and simplified to make them much more easy to see. This exaggerated style of "emoting" can be seen in some early silent films, and not just the comedies. Acting of all kinds went through growing pains so we definitely do have to consider how cinema technology contributed to the evolution of slapstick.

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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.

 

 

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I agree with all of the definitions that were listed in todays reading and I believe that a true and successful slapstick movie must contain most of those elements to be seen as slapstick.

 

I would like to offer up a 6th criteria - Endearing and/or likeability. 

 

I don't think that many of us would be here taking this class if we didn't like the characters that were created by theses talented artists decades ago. Even Mo, who could be seen as a bully was likeable, they made sure that we saw their "humanness", that they were "regular guys" that we could sort of relate to.

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I would have to say that yes, I do agree with the definitions of slapstick.  As for the violence, I am probably sure that when I was a young child my parents assured me that no one was hurt. In fact listening to them laugh or foretell a gag under a chuckle probably let me know that it was 'harmless' fun. Silent movies, no matter the genre, seemed to be shot in a different speed. The quick jerky movements of even the most melodramatic films always made the action and mood seem less serious to me anyway. Then suddenly there's sound effects coupled with the still quirky actions and the gags appear even less violent in nature. Sound really does signal our emotions! In time the audience comes to expect comedic stunts from the usual actors. Not to mention the movie posters telling them the show is a comedy already sets up the audience.

I can recall watching old black and white movies as a child and hearing my mother say things like, "This guy always gets hit over the head." Although that let me know that the actor wasn't hurt, it gave me the false belief that actors were just immune and immortal. Think about it, even in dramatic roles where they get shot they don't REALLY die. They live to make another movie and we do our part as audience. We believe the drama to be real and the slapstick to be just harmless fun.

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Back in high school band we used a slapstick to make the whip crack sound for "Sleigh Ride."  I didn't know that device existed outside of the percussion section, we just called it the whip.

 

I agree with the definitions of slapstick comedy, and can't really think of anything to add to them.

 

I think all of the conditions are present in slapstick comedies.  The more exaggerated the situation is, the more violent the performers can take the act.  In yesterday's film, the situation wasn't very exaggerated with the boy messing with the gardener and the violence ended up being sprayed in the face with the hose for both the gardener and the boy at the end of the clip.  The Three Stooges shorts often had the boys in very exaggerated situations which allowed for the violence level of the Stooges routines.  If Moe was the gardener in L'Arroseur Arosse with Larry as the boy I think we'd be more appalled at the eye gouges and hair pulls that Moe would unleash than we are in the Stooges' own shorts. 

 

The Stooges are a great example of the ritualism of slapstick.  They repeated cues and gags from several of their shorts, as well as remaking them and cutting footage from them into new shorts...  Curly's dog barking and spinning on the floor with a "woob woob woob," Moe's angry glare and "Why, I oughta..." show the exaggeration in the situation and foreshadow that a violent gag is coming.

 

"Niagra Falls... slowly I turn... step by step...."

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I agree with the definitions listed here. But I have to admit I was surprised when I read "violence" as one of those definitions. Apart from the Three Stooges, I hadn't thought of slapstick as so much violent as people having terrible accidents from which they usually came away mostly unscathed. The "make-believe" part really is a big factor in that. As was noted in the last citation, I do frequently cringe at first then smile or google because my brain is eventually reminded that it is make believe. I hadn't really thought of it in those terms before. I think that may be why I've never been a Stooges fan. It just looks like violence for the sake of violence and doesn't come across as make believe. Is it a stereotype that women tend to not like the Stooges while men do? Could it be because we don't see the make believe part of it? Are there other examples out there like the Three Stooges with slapstick that comes across solely as violent and the make believe part doesn't come out? One of the reasons I wanted to take this class was to see if this was addressed in any way. Why are the Three Stooges so divisive; you either love them or hate them?

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I unequivocally agree with all five proposed definitions of what makes slapstick, Slapstick. The definitive comedic geniuses undoubtedly employed these five traits into their Slapstick routines.

 

This particular type of comedy is often times ritualistic (i.e. routine), exaggerated, and physical in its nature. I feel as these three characteristics are most likely the "go-to" or popular definitions in describing the idea of Slapstick. The only addition I would implement into terminology is simplistic.

 

Comedic acts use everyday objects and occurrences in their finest simplicities to create artistic forms. Comedians appear to draw from anything and everything around them in order to generate laughter. Something seemingly innocent as a banana peel can set off an entire comedic routine. And in citing a banana peel brings about discussion of the physicality and exaggeration in Slapstick.

 

Many modern day comedic actors will often say, "I love doing physical comedy." Clearly "physical" indicates Slapstick. Variety shows, such as SNL to sitcoms, such as Friends and Will & Grace many times involve/d some form of physical comedy.

 

I do not believe Slapstick must implement every definition of the five discussed and/or my addition of the term simplistic. However, in order to achieve a successful Slapstick routine, one must use at least some of the aforementioned traits. I've never imagined any type of comedy to be easy in execution, but the true talents magically make it appear effortless.

 

**Just learned of Gene Wilder's passing. Glad TCM will be revisiting "The Frisco Kid" in its Slapstick lineup. RIP Gene, a true comedic great.

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I would have to say that yes, I do agree with the definitions of slapstick.  As for the violence, I am probably sure that when I was a young child my parents assured me that no one was hurt. In fact listening to them laugh or foretell a gag under a chuckle probably let me know that it was 'harmless' fun. Silent movies, no matter the genre, seemed to be shot in a different speed. The quick jerky movements of even the most melodramatic films always made the action and mood seem less serious to me anyway. Then suddenly there's sound effects coupled with the still quirky actions and the gags appear even less violent in nature. Sound really does signal our emotions! In time the audience comes to expect comedic stunts from the usual actors. Not to mention the movie posters telling them the show is a comedy already sets up the audience.

I can recall watching old black and white movies as a child and hearing my mother say things like, "This guy always gets hit over the head." Although that let me know that the actor wasn't hurt, it gave me the false belief that actors were just immune and immortal. Think about it, even in dramatic roles where they get shot they don't REALLY die. They live to make another movie and we do our part as audience. We believe the drama to be real and the slapstick to be just harmless fun.

 

You make a VERY good point that knowing the movie is a comedy going into it helps us rationalize the violence as comedy and make believe.

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While agreeing with all five of the basic conditions for slapstick, i would also add that although elevated to an art form in the hands of its most skilled practitioners, slapstick is at its heart a crude form of comedy. Chaplin was originally shunned by the intelligentsia in favor of the more genteel, situational drawing room comedy of people like John Bunny, but his preoccupation with the kick in the fundament and Sennett's glorification of the pie in the face, the anthropological equivalent of monkeys throwing excrement, are precisely what endeared them to the  immigrants who made up the bulk of the movie going public at the turn of the century. It is the comedy of embarrassment and, to a certain extent, revenge.

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I do agree with the definitions of slapstick. I always did think what happened was real as a child and had to be told by my parents that it was all fake. When I did watch them again, I would laugh again and again at people getting hit on the head, pie in the face, etc. and they became favorites.

 

HOWEVER, I have NOT been able to embrace the Three Stooges. They are too violent, the nitwit talk is below me, and their behavior is too uncouth for me.

 

Do all the conditions have to be in a slapstick? Not necessarily. There should be at least one type of gag to keep the audiences' attention. That, and especially snappy dialogue should be included as well.

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Agree with the 5 parts of the definition - but would probably say repetition versus ritualistic. 

 

Favorite movie of mine that has some great slapstick moments - Noises Off.  This annoying video captures many of the great moments from that movie - invented physical acts, violent often cringe worthy moments, exaggerated, broad humor, repetition - lots of confusion and sardines.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oetWZow7HHM

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I love your experience and I agree with you to a certain degree! I too have been through moments that would be considered a slapstick moment, especially living here in NYC. I like to overlook things and see them on the comedic side, like slipping on snow during winter, not being able to swipe your metro card successfully on the subway, your bags ripping in the middle of the street. I can go on and on, but the point is, I guess that’s what makes and separates fantasy from reality? In a slapstick comedy skit, we’d probably find those moments incredibly funny, and could easily picture yourself in that situation given how relatable they are, but the outcome of it is what parts reality from fantasy. In real life, you’d probably be pretty mad at any of those situations, scared, nervous, embarrassed, but in a skit, you laugh because it’s not you and even if it was everything has a much better outcome because like in your imagination anything can happen than what truly happened.

I agree with all the definitions that were given to us on what makes slapstick comedy what it is, even the violence part, especially with today’s thinking and viewing of things. The Three Stooges, Three’s Company, Looney Tunes, I Love Lucy are just a few examples of it. I like to think that the violence part is our inner subconscious telling us “why can’t real life be this way?” There are limitations that one has in real life that suppresses you from doing what your internal thoughts wishes it could do. For example, I Love Lucy, how many times doesn’t Lucy fall out the window, and what happens? She’s okay and what her cloth are screwed up? In Three’s Company, the many hits Jack takes from Cindy are too exaggerated for words, but he is always okay, annoyed yes but okay. On Looney Tunes, how many times don’t they fall off cliffs, use bombs on each other, but everything is alright and well. As a little girl, I use to watch these shorts/episodes and think to myself “Why can’t life be this easy, why does someone always have to get hurt for real?” I knew well enough that everything was just a big stage, but that was the beauty of it? I get to be in a world where everything could happen to you and no one would get really hurt. Everything and everyone was there and in one peace. It’s a world where you can escape to and all and nothing goes wrong. I probably look a little too into it, but this is how I see it and I had to discuss the violence part that was mentioned as an ingredient in slapstick comedy.

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