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Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

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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.

Great story. This is like observing everyday people when they trip -- how do they react? Look around to see if anyone saw them? pretend it didn't happen? laugh at themselves? The origins of slapstick are found in real life.

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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. 

 I think there's a kind of subtle violence in these I Love Lucy scenes. It's the violence of mechanical disciplining imposed on the body of the character and the body's dogged resilience in resisting this kind of discipline. I'm thinking of the opening scene of Chaplin's Shoulder Arms here. The army training is inflicted on Chaplin, violently inflicted on him. But his body unleashes some undisciplined, disorderly violence on the drills he can't quite pick up. He goes the wrong way. Not a violent struggle between people hitting one another. It's a struggle between imposed order and a natural, human disorder. A different kind of mayhem.

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I agree with the definitions of what encompasses slapstick comedy as presented by Prof. Edwards. I would like to add to that definition that slapstick comedy frequently presents a poor, lower class character invading the high society life of a wealthy person and causing mayhem and chaos.  This poor vs. wealthy concept can be found in silent comedy (Buster Keaton, Chaplin), early talkies and two reelers ( The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy) right up to today's modern comedy films such as Caddyshack.  Yes, I believe that for a comedy film to be considered purely slapstick it must contain all five of those conditions.

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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.”

One of the most important differences between regular theatre and clown theatre is that the clown has a direct connection to the audience -- I've always loved that Keaton and Chaplin would do a "take" directly to the camera when they reacted to what just happened.  An short pause in the action that draws the audience in...

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One of the most important differences between regular theatre and clown theatre is that the clown has a direct connection to the audience -- I've always loved that Keaton and Chaplin would do a "take" directly to the camera when they reacted to what just happened.  An short pause in the action that draws the audience in...

As did Oliver Hardy's look of "You see what I'm up against, right?" directly into the camera. Also, note that Jack Oakie got away with this when with Chaplin in "The Great Dictator." How Charlie didn't catch it and do another shoot of the scene, I'l never know.

Letting the audience in on the joke is a sure laugh maker. It also tell the audience that this is film, not life.

In Oliver Hardy's takes, it helped me feel sorry for his character's situation and lent empathy to him.

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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.

 

 

Those are great examples!  I love how SLOW and deliberate the actions and reactions are in the Laurel/Hardy/Lupe scene -- and I love that the girl gives as good as she gets. Interesting how they set up a rhythm and then break it.  Also clearly an example of the slapstick interrupting the flow of the story.  And the second clip:  I've always said that I hate the Three Stooges but this clip was so different from anything I've seen -- definitely could use some sound fx to make it more "make believe" but it is so absurd and over the top!

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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.

I believe that Hal Roach also assisted with the design of the glove.

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In just this introductory module I have come to respect the slapstick artists for what must be learned, practiced, improved and disciplined in order to make an audience laugh.  Some of the situations are outrageous and sometimes one wonders how it was accomplished- from the moment the gag begins; to savor the timing of the comedian.  Truly an art form that has evolved.

 

I would tend to agree with both definitions that were presented.  It is a type of comedy that involves the physical...and I'm sure it is somewhat choreographed and carefully thought out as film's amazing dance routines.  The more I think of the famous slapstick comedians the more I admire their work.  I'm sure slapstick at one time was considered "vulgar" and B or C list cinema.

 

The 5 conditions I believe must be considered when viewing.

The exaggeration will probably lead to the loudest laughter from the audience; we tend to enjoy the over-enhanced spectacle and to add comedy to it adds to the enjoyment.  

Physical actions do not need dialog or explanation in slapstick.  Add to it sound effects and it flavors the comedians performance.

Ritualistic?  There are films where the characters repeat certain gags to evoke a larger laugh each time (more exaggeration and more physicality) or situations happen where slapstick is used to further the character's development.  (Streisand's Judy Maxwell character in What's Up Doc?)  The comic may not have to be involved in the actual routines.  Are the characters jinxes thus causing a slapstick situation?

Definitely make-believe.  These are professional and trained actors and film for many of us is an escape.  Were we to even try a simple gag there may be some light injury.

Violent...a comedy?  From the light violence in the "slowly I turn" routine to falling flat on one's face.  How many times has an audience felt the ouch or slaps during a film?

 

So, slapstick comedy is a force to be reckoned with and most of all respected.

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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.

Classic clown set up involves status: the #1 and the #2, the boss / the servant, the smart one / the dumb one.  And we like to see power deflated and the underdog triumph.  That's a tradition from way back in commedia, in the circus with ringmaster vs. clown, it's just a great way to get a situation started.

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I think that something is missing from the definition. Slapstick is not 'ritualistic' in the sense that it demands absolute repetition. Like all comedy, it is repetition, with variation. The audience is shown what is probably going to happen, then is given a surprise. This is shown clearly in the BY THE SEA clip where Chaplin repeats a gag that he first used in THE TRAMP  a year previously; giving a back kick as he tosses something over his shoulder. But he tosses the banana peel with his right hand and does the little kick with his left foot. This makes the subsequent slip and fall on the banana peel as he heads screen left much funnier than if he simply dropped it and then slipped on it while walking screen left.

 

The number 3 is important in slapstick. The comic hero tries once and fails. They fail again on the second try. On the third try, they either succeed, or fail spectacularly. What is amazing to me is that the same template can be used in tragedy.

 

.

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"....slapstick needs to be aligned with the worlds of make-believe in order to operate. So filmmakers have to figure out ways for the audience to know that the physicality and the violence of slapstick is not "real" and that no one is actually getting hurt from this excess of violent actions."

Do you still find this to be true?

 

I think, as audiences have become more accustomed to screen (both large or small) portrayals that filmmakers no longer tend to do this as far as the make-believe queues.

 

Of course there are still the outlandish sound effects, but slapstick itself is seamlessly melded into established action so frequently that it's become accepted.

The audience knows that whatever they're watching isn't real to begin with... Batman (with West & Ward), The Monkees, Blazing Saddles....

 

I wonder if this criteria is now more of a "it once needed to be..."  rather than the concrete "needs to be aligned" position it currently holds.

 

 

 

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The five criteria set for defining slapstick are, in my point of view, generally true, but not absolute. It's obvious that not every single slapstick gag is ritualistic, violent e.t.c., but many of them are and practically all meet at least some of these criteria. I think it's difficult to find a direct definition of what slapstick is, so trying to set some criteria to find out whether a joke is slapstick or not seems like an excellent idea.

 

What I'd also like to say is that these criteria seem to apply much better to the classic slapstick films and gags than to recent ones. Nowadays films have changed and all this ritualism and make-believe described are much less observed in modern comedy. It's also true that slapstick is not used as much as in the past but, when it is, it's usually a short, exaggerated gag used for emphasis and to get a quick laugh, while in the past it often used to be the core of a comedy film's humor. 

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I agree with all 5 factors for slapstick. I believe that the violence has to be part of it though. But for slapstick to work the violence needs to be at an absurd level so that we know it is make believe otherwise the violence just becomes a slasher flick. Take Wile E. Coyote (Super genius), even though it is a cartoon, we know that the violence is just absurd. We expect the fall and blowing up (ritualistic) but we still want him to never get the road runner and to continue to have the prat falls.

In the silent movies and beyond the violence never seems to hurt to actors/actresses, so we know it is make believe. Every movie of Abbott and Costello had Bud Abbott slap Lou Costello at least once, but they did it because it got laughs, Lou was never really hurt (I assume there must have been some stinging) but this violence again was over the top and absurd, no way in real life could a person get away with this. It was ritualistic because they did so often that Bud knew how to slap Lou without causing any real pain and Lou knew how to take the hit.

 

The violence is needed but again needs to be at such a ridiculous level that we know it is make believe. 

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The five conditions make sense and put slapstick into a better perspective for me. I haven't been so keen on most slapstick. I don't mind the physical comedy, the pratfalls, banana peels, risk-taking, etc. because the action is limited to one person. I haven't like the head bonks, eye pokes or face slaps - too personal and invasive. I love Buster Keaton the most, and Charlie Chaplin, but not so much the Three Stooges (except for Swingin' the Alphabet, which is clever and not physical).

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I agree with the definitions used. It's almost like a check-list that all slapstick comedies use as common guidelines to follow. I feel like these definitions definitely apply to the origins of slapstick when everything is exaggerated and physical because in a silent film body language was their only tool, but in a modern slapstick it seems to be somewhat subtle because they have the use of dialogue. Just watching Chaplin a pioneer of slapstick and then a modern physical comedian like Chris Farley, from different eras but both used all the slapstick definitions.

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(According to intro) Slapstick: involves exaggeration, is physical, is ritualistic, is make believe, is violent.

 

I think the comedy could use each of these qualities individually or in most cases use all of the features together to make up the full form, for a prank or a gag, or for almost an entire movie.

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Exaggeration is definitely a key element in slapstick comedy, whether it's through sound or physical motions.  These comedians performing slapstick, for the most part, are going through the motions of seemingly normal routines.  In order to make them funny or highlight the ridiculous, exaggeration is needed so that the audience catches it and finds the humor in it.  However, this is not an easy task because if something is over exaggerated, it is no longer funny, it just comes off as stupid or annoying.  As mentioned in the module, it takes these comedians many years of performing to get it just right.  To get into the grove of just how much to exaggerate a routine.  There are way too many examples out there to list of comics who got the exaggeration just perfect. 

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I'm loving this class.  I agree with the conditions though not all of them have to be present.  The gags are so well done and timed that it is hard to believe they are make believe. I'm ready for some laughs!

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In watching TCM today, I caught "4 for Texas" (1963) during the Summer Under the Stars salute to Dean Martin. Unexpectedly, in the middle of the movie, there were The Three Stooges! I've never been a fan of the Three Stooges or slapstick so imagine my surprise when they popped up in the middle of what was, up to that point, a comedy western. As soon as they appeared on screen the entire mood of the movie changed from one of a satirical western, to one of vauldville slapstick with everyone, including the other actors in the movie, watching the "gag".

 

Since following #SlapstickFall and especially part two of the first module, I've learned about the four items that are present in all slapstick, namely, exaggeration, physicality, violence, and make-believe. In addition, I've learned that the sound effects of the experience aid in helping to establish the atmosphere of make-believe as well as comedy.

 

While watching the short skit in this movie, I was keenly aware of the sounds of the triple slaps the Stooges performed, the beating sound of the umbrella the old lady in the wheelchair used to emphasize her annoyance, and the make-believe of the old lady being pushed out of the wheelchair and landing face down in the dirt. The repetition of the act of trying to define "pointing to the right" was expected and yet, ritualistic. Pulling Dean Martin into the gag and having him point to the right also brought the audience into the gag.

 

Even though I still didn't find the whole scene funny, at least thanks to this course, I was able to see new things in the comedy of The Three Stooges. Perhaps, in time, through understanding the various parts and make up of slapstick, I'll be able to appreciate it more and begin to at least chuckle when I see it.

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I am finding the definitions very helpful.  I have never been a big fan of slapstick.  But having seen the first lecture and reading the introduction I am getting a better appreciation of the skill and mind set that it takes to do this kind of comedy.  I think the thing that struck  me the most was that it is  the violence that bothers me,  even though it is make-believe.  I enjoyed the Summer of Darkness last year and I am hoping to at least gain some insight into this very different art form.

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I agree with the definitions of slapstick. It is really important that the receiver of the violent act be obviously unharmed. Slapstick and cartoons are so alike in this. 

It's been my unscientific observation over the years that men are more attracted to slapstick than women. I am often the only woman in the room laughing at Keaton, the Stooges, or Chaplin's more physical bits. Is there any research on this aspect of slapstick?

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I don't think Violence necessarily has to be a part of slapstick. Yes, the tree stooges and even Bugs Bunny used violence as a technique. However, when I think of the Marx Brothers, and Saturday NIght Live (in many instances) they meet all the criteria except that they are not particularly violent. Silly, unrea, silly, wide , and wordy, but not necessarily violent. And is a prat fall violent or just a fall? If no one pushed you, it's not a violent situation. Just thinking. 

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I agree with the two definitions of slapstick presented in the 1.2 notes, although like many others have noted, I do not feel that each bit/short/scene/etc. needs to contain every defining element.

 

I think that it is the combination of elements, thoughtfully chosen, that make the greatest comedic effect.

 

I especially want to point out the notion of slapstick being "make believe":

When cinema was young, the technology basic and the public inexperienced, the emphasis on showing that the bits were make believe was tremendously important. This was the same era in which viewers sprung from their seats and ran when watching a film of a train headed toward the camera. As the moviegoing public got more and more used to films, and then techniques used within, they understood that what appeared to be happening to those on camera was not real. Later on, as actors and actresses had a name and an image beyond titles such as "The Biograph Girl", moviegoers recognized the personality behind the part, the "reality" off the screen.

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Great story. This is like observing everyday people when they trip -- how do they react? Look around to see if anyone saw them? pretend it didn't happen? laugh at themselves? The origins of slapstick are found in real life.

What a great story!!  Now I wonder how many slapstick moments in real life I've missed simply because I'm facing in the wrong direction or am too busy speaking to the person next to me!!

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