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Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

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I think that it is valuable to understand the derivation of a term, but I think that is far from definitive. For example, 'sarcasm,' originally means tearing of flesh, but even metaphorically that definition does not suffice today. 

 

In the same way, to attribute slapstick's definition to something that makes noise (the slap stick) is an ironic association for a visual, and often silent art form. 

 

And instead of list commonalities popularly associated with what we know as slapstick, which gives more of a loose guideline than a functional definition, I propose through observation we find a definition that succinctly articulates the fundamental quality of slapstick as it necessarily is. 

 

To discourage people from the definition presented in the first part of this course, I will point out that the original sprinkled sprinkler movie has no exaggeration, and that the beginning stunt of The Other Guys shows two protagonists fall to their death, (or many moments in Life is Beautiful) - far from benign - this is off the top of my head, and the ease with which I can produce counter examples further strengthens my assurance that a list definition is structurally unrealistic.

 

I theorize that comedy must present two conflicting ideas, and their isolated seeming of reality, in addition to their ultimate dissonance, defines the extent that anything is funny.

 

Slapstick, I assert, is simply the visual and physical manifestation of this premise.

 

Usually, one character will have one notion of the physical reality, while another character will impose another. The discovery, in which the conflict bares its fruit, is when the two realities collide showing one to be faulty.  

 

I'd better stop writing now or this will feel like an essay instead of a forum post.

 

cin cin,

Daniel

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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?

Yes, it seems that the Three Stooges are generally enjoyed more by men than by women, presumably because of their violent nature, but you've provided evidence that some women enjoy them too (and surely not all men do).

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The discussion of definitions made me think about something you mentioned: How did slapstick, which relies in part on a sens of unreality, change when film became more and more realistic with sound, color, I'd add more realistic acting styles, etc.? It was one thing to understand that the crazily mustachioed characters of Keystone were not of the "real" world and therefore were not really getting hurt, but another thing to connect those actions to more "real" characters. I look forward to evaluating this as the class goes on.

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After reading and reviewing this section, I can see how each condition can fit into the definition of slapstick comedy. As I was reading it, I was trying to think of some of the comedies I have seen (Marx brothers, Chaplain, Three Stooges, etc.) and thinking how each of these conditions fit.

 

This might be far fetched, as I'm looking at my personal movie collection, but would anyone disagree that the Ernest P Worrell (Jim Varney) movies fit into these conditions? I wouldn't go as far as saying he was a modern day Chaplain or Keaton, but I could see how he fit these conditions even for a cheaper laugh.

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In my experiences with observing slapstick, not all five conditions have to be met, but in order for a gag to work, it has to have at least most of 'em. However, in the cases of many a comedy short, especially if it's animated, such as Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes shorts, they do a fantastic job at having every single condition met with no problem. They are physical, often exaggerated, ritual in that they put a spin on an older gag at times, violent (i.e. any Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote short), and make believe to the point where the characters come out unscathed in the next scene.

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In a way, slapstick can be of an acquired taste, but reading more into this course, I realize that there is more than meets the eye with slapstick. Sometimes slapstick doesn't need violence, especially if it is not required. Slapstick can be a little silly at times, but if it is done really well, then it may look dangerous. There are many examples in many Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd films, where you realize how much danger they put themselves in. I'm glad this course exists, so that I will be able to understand the deeper meaning of this particular genre.

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It's just my opinion that all five conditions of the definition of slapstick need to be present. The three obvious characteristics of slapstick (physical, make believe, violent) must be present. However, what distinguishes many of slapstick's greatest performers is the varying degrees in which all of the five elements are present. For example, The Three Stooges are most frequently judged by the extreme level of violence in their gags. Curly getting hit on the head with a sledgehammer, or Moe dragging a saw across his head, are brutal and should result in physical injury. The sound effects are actually hilarious. The action looks extremely realistic. Despite Curly pointing to a flattened edge on the sledgehammer or the rumpled teeth of the saw, giving his famous, "Oh, look!", some viewers have a hard time with it.

 

Let's contrast that with the slapstick gags of Abbott and Costello. Lou getting slapped in the face by Bud (for example, in their dice rolling gag), is enhanced by the sound effect. Watching the back and forth between Lou and Joe Besser on the TV show is like two kids taunting each other. We can all relate to a slap in the face, getting pinched, or receiving a kick in the pants. It's still violent, but very unlikely to cause injury. It still looks realistic, but it is not as intimidating.

 

The other two elements (ritualistic and exaggerated) also are used by these performers in varying degrees as a further means of establishing their characters.

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I agree with the definitions of slapstick.  Honestly, this was a little hard to read just because an analysis on something funny takes away the funny.  I find it interesting that so much of humor is verbal in today's world.  Slapstick doesn't need to be verbal and it can't be communicate in something that is written.  Or can it?  *Smacks forehead against keyboard*.  It is so in the present. There is not the wait for the punch line. 

 

I think that the physical ability of the performer is an excellent point.  I remember hearing that Donald O'Connor was bedridden for days after his "Singing in the Rain" performance of "Make 'em Laugh".  The tape didn't take and he had to do it again - all while carrying on a big smoking habit. 

 

I also am pleased to see timing mentioned.  What a skill!  I cringe even before the smack across the face during a community theater or high school productions because I have seen so many that are so poor and a foot away from the face.  What a gift for those that can do that timing well over and over.  I wonder if we'll see many of the same partners in slapstick often because to know each other that well and to be in sync must be rare.

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Let us not overthink what slapstick is. I knows it when I sees it at the end of this sketch by Monty Python (Please note exaggerated hammer and floppy nightsticks (uh, slapsticks?)):

 

 

 Argument Clinic :lol:

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The five keys of slapstick are always present in for example, in most of the best Warner Bros / Bugs Bunny / 1940's Bob Clampett / Frank Tashlin / Chuck Jones cartoons, but there are many films that have slapstick elements present, but are based on situational comedy. I was an avid fan of the Three Stooges when I was younger, whose films fall into the five keys most of the time, but as I was exposed to different comedians, I found that approach to comedy less fulfilling. What made these guys travel together? The product that came from the Hal Roach studios (Laurel and Hardy, The Little Rascals, Charlie Chase...) was more my cup of tea, slapstick comedy coming out of life during the depression with a foot in reality in almost in every film. Plus the bond the characters had with each other. Stan and Ollie, Dickie & Stymie, Spanky and Scotty, Charlie and the wife...in the twenties, Chaplin and the Kid, for example....I also agree on the the five conditions on what is considered pure slapstick.

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Let us not overthink what slapstick is. I knows it when I sees it at the end of this sketch by Monty Python (Please note exaggerated hammer and floppy nightsticks (uh, slapsticks?)):

 

 

 Argument Clinic :lol:

 

I agree. Don't over think comedy. If it must be explained it loses it's humor..........................except for one sketch where the humor was explained and demonstrated. Try the short version on youtube - Monty Python - History of the Joke. I prefer the longer version as performed in "Live at the Hollywood Bowl", because, well, because there are more laughs! Notice how the audience anticipate the slapstick and laughs just the same. The "telegraphing" (knowledge of what is to occur) enhances, rather than detracts, from the laughter.

I really like what Dr. Edwards does as he does not say why it is funny, but how (in this case) Chaplin devises the joke. Dr. Richard Edwards

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"..... but as I was exposed to different comedians, I found that approach to comedy less fulfilling."

Beautifully stated.  I think we all have things we've outgrown over the years.

 

My problem is that while I adore older slapstick (Charlie and Buster) and the mid-era (Stan & Ollie, Bud and Lou) and situational slapstick ("Dennis the Menace", "Lucy", tv's "Batman", Jackie Chan, "Ghostbusters") most of the modern work which they try to pass off as comedy, leaves me cold. It may be slapstick, but it falls short (pun intended) for me and is annoying at best (the "Dodgeball", "Goldmember" and "Home Alone" movies and things of that ilk)  To be honest, i don't even watch them.....  

 

It might be fun to look at why they aren't funny, but then I'd have to sit through them, again, for another fifteen minutes. 

hahaa Nope. Not I!  

 

 

 

 

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...a quick look at the trailer from "When Comedy Was King", a great compilation film on 1920's slapstick comedy...If you can find it, worth a look...

 

 

 

Holy crap that is a great compilation! I almost spit my lunch onto the screen! Thanks!

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Beautifully stated.  I think we all have things we've outgrown over the years.

 

My problem is that while I adore older slapstick (Charlie and Buster) and the mid-era (Stan & Ollie, Bud and Lou) and situational slapstick ("Dennis the Menace", "Lucy", tv's "Batman", Jackie Chan, "Ghostbusters") most of the modern work which they try to pass off as comedy, leaves me cold. It may be slapstick, but it falls short (pun intended) for me and is annoying at best (the "Dodgeball", "Goldmember" and "Home Alone" movies and things of that ilk)  To be honest, i don't even watch them.....  

 

It might be fun to look at why they aren't funny, but then I'd have to sit through them, again, for another fifteen minutes. 

hahaa Nope. Not I!  

 

 

 

 

I completely agree. Maybe the comedians today or worse, the movies, lack the soul we used to know and love

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I completely agree. Maybe the comedians today or worse, the movies, lack the soul we used to know and love

The use of stunt people makes it look really fake. 

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Maybe the comedians today or worse, the movies, lack the soul we used to know and love

You may be on to something there!

 

In an earlier comment someone said slapstick works because we care about the characters...  and it was Chaplin who stated that it was about the character's personality.

 

Most of the characters, whose movies I've turned off, haven't been at ALL likeable...  it was slapstick, but, IMHO, they weren't being slapped nearly as hard as they should have been!  hahahahahahaha

 

So, what else might make slapstick not work for you when it fails?

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I'm a bit late to the party, so please forgive me if this has been discussed already.  I'm pleased to see references to commedia dell'arte. I do historical re-enactment, and several friends are in a local commedia group.  They put a lot of effort into their work, with sets, costumes, masks, etc.

 

I was surprised not to see a reference to Punch and Judy puppet shows, which seem clearly to be an antecedent for slapstick.

 

One of my main reasons for signing up for this class was to explore the question - why do we laugh at people getting hurt?  And as I read the first couple of essays, it hit me like a rubber truncheon - because we're human, and humans are inherently violent, find violence entertaining, and seemingly always have, as far back as we can tell.

 

The Roman gladiators immediately come to mind.  Russel Crowe's shout to the arena crowd in "Gladiator":  "Are you not entertained?"  Medieval knights stylized and institutionalized violence-as-entertainment with their jousts and tournaments, despite the Church's condemnation. Bare-knuckles boxing in the 19th century, with gloves added in the 20th, and MMA in the 21st.  The ritual and theatrics of professional wrestling, with the Mexican variant really taking it over the top. Bull-fighting.  Rugby, hockey, and football.

 

We're a violent race, and we like to cheer for our heroes and boo the villains. So what makes laughter replace cheering and booing?  It's true that humor is like a frog or a watch - when you take it apart to see how it works, it stops working.  

 

Something to think about. 

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You may be on to something there!

 

In an earlier comment someone said slapstick works because we care about the characters...  and it was Chaplin who stated that it was about the character's personality.

 

Most of the characters, whose movies I've turned off, haven't been at ALL likeable...  it was slapstick, but, IMHO, they weren't being slapped nearly as hard as they should have been!  hahahahahahaha

 

So, what else might make slapstick not work for you when it fails?

For me, a killer is when someone like Jerry Lewis lets you know that he is going to be funny. It is that "OK, now watch me" attitude that ruins it for me. He knows comedy probably better than anyone else alive today, but I just can not warm up to him.

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In an earlier comment someone said slapstick works because we care about the characters...  and it was Chaplin who stated that it was about the character's personality.

 

Most of the characters, whose movies I've turned off, haven't been at ALL likeable...  it was slapstick, but, IMHO, they weren't being slapped nearly as hard as they should have been!  hahahahahahaha

 

Perhaps that's why we laugh at the rotten kids in "Willy Wonka and he Chocolate Factory" - because they're getting their just desserts? 

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Slapstick doesn't necessarily relate to the act of committing violence, but rather to the civilized conventions we developed to avoid violence. In caveman days, when one of our ancestors was bothered by another troglodytes obnoxious behavior, our ancestor probably picked up a club and committed murder. So when we see actors play out comedic aggression on the screen, it relieves us of pent up everyday frustrations we encounter without resulting to violence. We wouldn't kick a crying baby or push a slow walking elderly person down the stairs, but WC Fields did it for us and we laughed. All done of course in an exaggerated physical make-believe ritualistic manner. "If it bends it's funny." Crimes and Misdemeanors. 

 

Slapstick hilarity may still be achieved, but it's golden age has passed. After 100 plus years of cinema we've seen every physical bit invented by performers from commedia dell'arte to vaudeville, so we've become somewhat desensitized to the humor. The 21st century audience finds reflective stand up comedians, verbal satire combined with slapstick, or even deconstruction of slapstick (see early Woody Allen films) as our preferred laughter outlet. Action films however, with it's plotless explosions and gratuitous buckets of blood, provide a much more direct to our physical frustrations. "If it breaks it's not funny." Crimes and Misdemeanors. 

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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.

 

Some of the best slapstick comedy situations I have seen are the ones filled with irony, taken from everyday situations, like the one just described. But of course, in a movie, if the comedy is to work effectively, it must appear unprepared, spontaneous, with unexpected circumstances.

 

One such example is in the movie "The Ref"(1994), where Lloyd and Caroline (a dysfunctional couple played by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis), whose belligerent behavior upstages Gus the burglar's plans (played by Denis Leary). The comedy worked well throughout the movie because no one knew what was coming next. 

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I was rather amazed to realize there are many levels to slapstick. I always thought a pie in the face was a pie in the face before the start of this course, but I am beginning to see that while Chaplin was subtle and elegant, the Three Stooges were broad and in your face and they both basically achieved the result--laughter. While comedy is ageless, everyone learns from those before them and broadens it so this course will be extremely interesting to follow as it progresses.

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