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Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

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According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a slapstick was a device composed of two flat pieces of wood, which was sometimes used in farce, allowing one actor to strike another in a way that would make a loud noise, thus making it sound as if the blow was a severe one.  The dictionary goes on the explain that the actual device is no longer is fashion; however, one can see how it remains the spirit of slapstick comedy!

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One thing that struck me in today's reading was the question of how changing technologies affected slapstick humor.  Maybe I'm jumping way ahead, but I think CGI is very much destroying it.  A good slapstick gag just isn't funny to me when I know it wasn't achieved in-camera.

 

For instance, there is simply nothing funny about this for me: 

 

 

So in a way, there's a certain realism that has to be present for me to appreciate the gag.  I'd rather see them use cheesy, floppy-limbed dummies than CGI.  But then again, I've always had a special place in my heart for dummies in slapstick.

 

Not sure how that gels with the definitions of slapstick put forth by our masters.

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Do you agree or disagree with these definitions?

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

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

 

I agree that slapstick can contain all five elements listed in the instructor's notes, but all five elements do not have to be present for comedy to be slapstick. 

 

For example, director George Stevens, in the first  part of his career, was a great creator of slapstick routines in his films. If you watch the dinner party scene in Alice Adams, Hattie McDaniel gives a wonderful slapstick performance as a hired-for-the-evening maid. To impress her new beau,

Alice has her mother hire a maid to serve at a dinner to which she has invited him. Playing the maid, McDaniel has consistent problems keeping her lacy cap on her head while serving a heavy meal on a very hot evening. Since she has miscalculated cooking and serving the dinner, Alice makes McDaniel the scapegoat for her error. Even though the dialogue is somewhat cruel in its content toward McDaniel, her comedic performance can only be described as slapstick in my view, although it is certainly not violent. So, in some respects, I would substitute the element of "cruelty" for "violence.'  

 

 

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One thing that struck me in today's reading was the question of how changing technologies affected slapstick humor.  Maybe I'm jumping way ahead, but I think CGI is very much destroying it.  A good slapstick gag just isn't funny to me when I know it wasn't achieved in-camera.

 

For instance, there is simply nothing funny about this for me: 

 

 

So in a way, there's a certain realism that has to be present for me to appreciate the gag.  I'd rather see them use cheesy, floppy-limbed dummies than CGI.  But then again, I've always had a special place in my heart for dummies in slapstick.

 

Not sure how that gels with the definitions of slapstick put forth by our masters.

 

Good point. I feel the same way towards CGI slapstick. Perhaps as humans we tend to find the more realistic slapstick somewhat discomforting and therefore it incites tension and then when the brain realizes it is not real the tension is released as nervous laughter or comic relief.  Perhaps our instincts “know” the CGI is not real.  I think that is why slapstick is a balancing act to the point of an art form.  The timing and setup has to find that balance of realism and exaggeration.

 

And when I think about our instincts picking up the cues from the CGI form I think of the “Uncanny Valley” hypothesis. The aesthetic hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost (but not exactly like real human beings) elicits feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. Valley denotes a dip in the human observer's affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica's human likeness. Examples can be found in robotics and 3D computer animation.  The concept was identified by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970. The term was first translated as uncanny valley in the 1978 book Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction, written by Jasia Reichardt. This hypothesis could be why so many viewers felt the movie “Polar Express” was eerie or creepy.  So perhaps the over the top CGI slapstick is in a way kind of a reverse of the Uncanny Valley principle where as our instinctual intuition completely discounts what the eye is seeing and thus no elicitation of tension and comic relief.

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After reading today's lesson, especially this part "But another way to think about "exaggeration" is to consider, as does film scholar Don Crafton, how "the gags of early slapstick serve as a source of narrative 'excess'—the pie in the face, the slip on a banana skin, the burst of digressive violence--…impedes narrative development and resists the storytelling logic of classical Hollywood cinema. "(Slapstick Comedy, 7) In this formulation, the gags are so exaggerated and so excessive, they literally stop the movie and any forward momentum of the plot. It is definitely a thesis to consider as we begin to watch slapstick gags evolve over time in the classic Hollywood system." I thought back to a few hours before when I was watching Blazing Saddles (spoiler alert. i'm sure most have seen it already but just in case.), and the scene near the end when they are fighting each other and it zooms out to the studio lot and all that great hilarious stuff happens. I just thought it was a perfect example of how "the burst of digressive violence--...impedes narrative development and resists the storytelling logic of classical hollywood cinema."(Slapstick Comedy, 7). :) 

 here's the link. Also it's a great representation of sound, like the over exaggerated noise when the director hits the guys hat hahaha. :)  

 

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First off I would like to say thank you for using a picture of Gene Wilder in the lesson when we all have just heard of his passing. He will be greatly missed. 

 

Second to answer these questions.

  • Do you agree or disagree with these definitions?​​

​I agree with these definitions. I am glad to have more of a clear understanding of what is slapstick and what makes up slapstick comedy.

 

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

​I do not have any alternative definitions. I am content and understanding of these definitions.

 

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

​I don't believe slapstick comedy has to include all five of the conditions but at least 2 or 3 of the five. That way it is more noticeable that it is a slapstick comedy not just a comedy. 

 

I am greatly enjoying this class. I am getting a lot out of it and can't wait to learn more. :)

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The third definition of slapstick being 'ritualistic', or perhaps 'repetitive'  might be a better term, is interesting. The 'rule of three' in slapstick comedy is nicely illustrated in Laurel and Hardy's 'Busy Bodies'. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZujoJaR2ERY) At about three minutes into the film there is the  repeated gag of Oliver (and Stan) having a collision with a plank of wood. The first sets up the gag, the second develops it and just when you least expect it, the third twist of the gag provides the final conclusion. It's interesting that it is three times for the perfect slapstick routine. A fourth repetition would over do the joke making it boring and predictable.  What do you think?    

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I would add an additional condition to the 5 mentioned. That would be demonstrative. By that I mean the gag needs to show feeling. As in L'arroseur Arrose' you knew the gardener was angry and the boy joyful then scared. 

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The third definition of slapstick being 'ritualistic', or perhaps 'repetitive'  might be a better term, is interesting. The 'rule of three' in slapstick comedy is nicely illustrated in Laurel and Hardy's 'Busy Bodies'. (

) At about three minutes into the film there is the  repeated gag of Oliver (and Stan) having a collision with a plank of wood. The first sets up the gag, the second develops it and just when you least expect it, the third twist of the gag provides the final conclusion. It's interesting that it is three times for the perfect slapstick routine. A fourth repetition would over do the joke making it boring and predictable.  What do you think?    

I understand what you are saying but to me, the ritualistic condition refers to a situation that happens in real life. Like watering the garden in L'rroseur Arrose' or crushing grapes in the I Love Lucy episode. Slapstick needs that situation that most people can relate to then exaggerate it.

 

 

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After thinking about this for awhile I have come to the realization that slapstick need not be ritualistic. All of the gags in slapstick were performed for the first time somewhere. Did that disqualify them from being slapstick? I would substitute ritualistic for domonstative to complete the five conditions of slapstick.

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Looking at the five defining conditions for slapstick comedy, I was immediately struck by the fact that all five apply equally to a completely distinct form: professional wrestling. Take them one by one:

 

 

Slapstick/professional wrestling involves exaggeration

Professional wrestling is often labeled as "fake," but that's an oversimplification. More accurately, it involves actual physical contact that is made to appear more intense, damaging, or "real" than it actually is.

 

Slapstick/professional wrestling is physical

Hopefully no arguments here. Whether or not you're a fan (I used to be), professional wrestling requires athleticism and is predicated on ongoing physical interactions.

 

Slapstick/professional wrestling is ritualistic

Professional wrestling is equally if not more ritualistic than slapstick. At its core, wrestling uses relatively short physical interactions as symbolic battles between opposing philosophies. Beyond that, individual storylines often incorporate age-old issues of class, race, gender, and politics. Performers represent these issues and embody archetypes and stereotypes, but they also relive similar events and cycle through conflicts in a highly ritualistic fashion.

 

Slapstick/professional wrestling is make believe

Again, probably no arguments here, but I'm very interested to see how the course explores the delineation between performers and the characters they play --especially in cases like Chaplin, Fields, or Keaton, where the line might not be as clear as it first seems.

 

Slapstick/professional wrestling is violent

Check.

 

If all five conditions apply to both, it seems that we need to either add a condition to the definition of slapstick or qualify the existing conditions a bit more. While I'm sure the lecture made no attempt to arrive at an exhaustive definition, a useful definition should effectively distinguish this form from other, similar forms. (Note that I've avoided the term "art form" throughout in case that raised any hackles when applied to professional wrestling!)

 

 

 

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After thinking about this for awhile I have come to the realization that slapstick need not be ritualistic. All of the gags in slapstick were performed for the first time somewhere. Did that disqualify them from being slapstick? I would substitute ritualistic for domonstative to complete the five conditions of slapstick.

 

But does the ritual have to echo something from slapstick in particular? I think "ritualistic" is more about serving a ritual effect, that is, representing something in the culture or society that the group needs to work through. Whatever it is, it can take different forms. There could be a first time that something appeared in slapstick, but that doesn't make it the first time overall.

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It is the violence of slapstick that interests me - or more accurately makes me dislike slapstick.  You highlight this issue in your discussion of the violence, i.e. that audiences are somewhat repelled by the violence.  I signed up for this course specifically because I dislike slapstick and thought if I learned about it, I might change my mind.  I remember watching a lot of The Three Stooges as a kid. I know it was make-believe and it didn't bother me.  But as an adult looking back on it, I am repelled.  For those of you who, like me, dislike graphic violence in any sort of films, how do you overlook it to appreciate the other qualities slapstick offers? 

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I agree with most of the definitions of slapstick, except the ritualistic nature. I think repetitive is a better word. I also think that sound is a detriment to slapstick because it makes it more "real." There is more of a sense of make believe in the silent films, and I think it works better.

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It is the violence of slapstick that interests me - or more accurately makes me dislike slapstick.  You highlight this issue in your discussion of the violence, i.e. that audiences are somewhat repelled by the violence.  I signed up for this course specifically because I dislike slapstick and thought if I learned about it, I might change my mind.  I remember watching a lot of The Three Stooges as a kid. I know it was make-believe and it didn't bother me.  But as an adult looking back on it, I am repelled.  For those of you who, like me, dislike graphic violence in any sort of films, how do you overlook it to appreciate the other qualities slapstick offers? 

I don't like graphic violence in movies. I prefer silent slapstick to sound because it's less real. There's also more of a cartoonishness in slapstick as opposed to something like Suicide Squad or a horror film. It's like watching Wile E. Coyote fall off a cliff as compared to someone getting shot or stabbed in a film. 

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First I would like to just echo so many with: " RIP Gene Wilder".

I agree with the definition of slapstick that is brought out in the five conditions. In order for us to have meaningful discussions of this art form throughout the course, we need to have some basic acceptable definition otherwise each of us will venture off within our own idea of what slapstick is. 

One area that I would like to explore and share is the idea that in the first or "remake of the very first slapstick short" that we all watched, we had a protagonist and a antagonist. In both cases they were people. In looking at our five conditions do we need to differentiate between the interaction between a human protagonist and human antagonist(s) and situations where we encounter a human protagonist and non-human inanimate antagonists. Examples would be Buster Keaton and the giant cannon in "The General" or Charlie Chaplin and the giant gear machines in "Modern Times" and many others. Another set of parameters to look at and see if they count as slap stick would be animated films. In other words, slapstick situations depicted in cartoons. Should they be part of our exploration of slapstick in our course?

One last comment ...we mention the fact that in slapstick "exaggerated sound effects" helped to signal the audience, we certainly must tip our hats to the early silent "slapstickers" for getting that across in a silent world. (Did the theater add live sound effect sounds in all of this silent films? Not sure.)

:)

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Thanks everyone for the observations and suggestions so far - let's keep it up.

 

But based on reading this thread, I'm going to spend some time today refining Part Two so we have a more collaboratively authored definition that we can use to see these films with fresh eyes!

 

As an instructor, I love this cinematic hivemind we have here at TCM - I really enjoy working collaboratively.

 

Tapping into this network of knowledge is also one of my impulses in starting Club Slapstick and having a space for original student presentations - so much expertise here!

 

So I'll post here when I've made my changes to the Part Two section of Canvas.

 

Thanks, Dr. Rich Edwards

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As I read the posts, there seems to be an issue with ritualistic and repetitive.  So I thought I would check that simple thing called a dictionary.

 

http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/ritualistic

 

So, ritualistic - always done in a certain way

 

http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/repetitive

 

So, repetitive - the same action (ritualistic - MY ADDITION) but OVER LONG PERIODS OF TIME

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It is the violence of slapstick that interests me - or more accurately makes me dislike slapstick.  You highlight this issue in your discussion of the violence, i.e. that audiences are somewhat repelled by the violence.  I signed up for this course specifically because I dislike slapstick and thought if I learned about it, I might change my mind.  I remember watching a lot of The Three Stooges as a kid. I know it was make-believe and it didn't bother me.  But as an adult looking back on it, I am repelled.  For those of you who, like me, dislike graphic violence in any sort of films, how do you overlook it to appreciate the other qualities slapstick offers? 

I don't have a problem with violence, per se, in film. I find it to be ritualistic when used appropriately. But I agree that, as I matured, I found the violence in slapstick like The Three Stooges to be mundane, at best, when, as a child, I had adored them. I wonder, now, if their violence has in some fashion inured me to the violence of, say, a Tarentino film, which often has some slapstick quality to it as inherited from the martial arts genre.

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As I read through the second portion of this week's lecture, I began to think of various situations often seen in slapstick films that fall in line with a few of the defining elements of slapstick comedy, as set forth in the lecture. All the conditions in some way rely on the other ones to also be true in order for the comedic gag to be successful. The most obvious element of slapstick is the violence factor. It's human nature to laugh at the misfortunes of others, however most people refrain from laughing if they know the victim endured actual bodily harm. For this reason slapstick must let the viewer know that no one was actually injured in the making of the sketch. This is pretty evident in the film L'Arroseur Arrose, as water is a fairly harmless prop, especially on a bright, sunny day as displayed in the film. But often times actors are required to endure a more complex routine in order to accomplish the gag. Sitting on a weak chair that gives way, dangling dangerously from the ledge of a tall building, or getting smacked in the head by a wooden plank could all be seen as painful, or potentially painful experiences, and play into the condition that slapstick is physical. However, actual physical bodily injuries are rarely displayed on screen, tying into the element that slapstick is make believe. This is a way the director reassures the audience that the actors are fine.
 
The make believe element may be the most critical of slapstick though. The first condition of slapstick states that slapstick involves exaggeration. One way this is done is through the pausing of the plot to build up the joke. Once the joke is accomplished, the plot may resume. However, if the actor is actually injured from the gag, the story line may be stalled, causing the tone of the entire sketch to change. For this reason, it is critical that the actor express only a brief amount of anguish before miraculously recovering and trudging onward. Alternatively, over time actors have created their own brand of slapstick comedy (slapstick is ritualistic). By continually subjecting themselves to risky situations, all of which they manage to recover from, the audience knows that if they've lived through it before, they'll most likely survive this time too. Because of this, viewers can enjoy watching the actor fumble through their follies in the same, zany style they've done it in the past.

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Thanks for the definition, which works for me. Exaggeration, Physicality, Ritualistic, Make-believe, and Violent. I'm one of those people who doesn't respond well to the "violence" and was glad to see so many other folks on the boards who, like me, are in this class to try to figure out the appeal here. So let me turn to one aspect that doesn't seem to have been covered in the definitions. Is Slapstick Funny?

  I think that the idea that Slapstick is funny is just assumed. People will say that they couldn't help laughing, or it's just funny, don't try to understand it. I agree that we often cannot control our laughter, and it functions in sub-conscious and un-conscious ways. But humor is very much a learned behavior, too. And cultures are taught what is funny. If everybody else laughs when somebody slips on a banana peel, you eventually laugh, too. But I never picked up the habit. If somebody accidentally gets hit in the face, I feel sympathy. I don't think America's Funniest Home Videos are all that funny, either.

   So going back to the definition offered, where does humor fit in? Is exaggeration automatically funny? Maybe big clown shoes are funny, but a large person can be frightening. Physicality and athleticism is admired, but it doesn't make me laugh. Make-believe, Ritual, and then violence... none of this implies Humor. Some situations are in fact exactly the opposite. Hanging on a flagpole over the street fills me with terror. I am afraid not necessarily for the character in the film, but for the actor who is taking risks.

    I know that it can be a huge drag to explain why something is funny, and very uncool if you don't just automatically "get it." But we've started to explore gender differences in the appeal of slapstick, and I'm sure there are cultural differences as well. The Hoser Hosed didn't make me laugh at all. My dad (who loved Laurel & Hardy beyond belief) taught me to be the straight man, so I know there's lots of room in slapstick for humorlessness. But I will be disappointed if we don't stop and ask why "we" laugh. 

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Is "imped[ing] narrative development" actually an impediment? Or is it the birth of Romantic Comedy?

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As was often the case in traveling theater and in vaudeville, and would rapidly become the case in film, audiences appreciated the role of ritual through "character" and this was a more subtle part of the slapstick. We see this development clearly, later, in Chaplin's tramp garb, in Keaton's paleface, in Lloyd's all-American "uniformity," etc.

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I agree with most of the definitions of slapstick, except the ritualistic nature. I think repetitive is a better word. I also think that sound is a detriment to slapstick because it makes it more "real." There is more of a sense of make believe in the silent films, and I think it works better.

 

It is the violence of slapstick that interests me - or more accurately makes me dislike slapstick.  You highlight this issue in your discussion of the violence, i.e. that audiences are somewhat repelled by the violence.  I signed up for this course specifically because I dislike slapstick and thought if I learned about it, I might change my mind.  I remember watching a lot of The Three Stooges as a kid. I know it was make-believe and it didn't bother me.  But as an adult looking back on it, I am repelled.  For those of you who, like me, dislike graphic violence in any sort of films, how do you overlook it to appreciate the other qualities slapstick offers? 

I agree, barbgt, this is why I signed up too. 

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For me, the repetition is what works. The same situation has the same result. Of course, the great comedians can always vary the result to make it new or funnier.

 

I also appreciate the "telegraphing" of the gag. You, as the audience, can plainly see what the comedian is going to endure. But, of course, the comedian DOESN'T see it at all. The best comedians used this approach. It was a standard bit with Laurel and Hardy. When I show L&H films to audiences, you do hear them begin to laugh as they see the "set up" before the actual gag occurs.

 

The hose gag seen in the film is an early example of that.

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