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Dr. Rich Edwards

What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

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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.

Agreed!  Up until the start of this course, I never took a moment to delve deeper into what was going on behind the "pie in the face".  The evolution of slapstick gags from the early days becomes no less brilliant....just a different level and realm.

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I think that, in terms of "required elements", slapstick only really needs exaggeration and make-believe in order to qualify as slapstick. As far as physical and violent, verbal slapstick (such as the infamous quips of Groucho Marx) is very much a thing--though the argument can be made that verbal abuse is violent in and of itself. I feel that "ritualistic" is a misnomer here, and "formulaic" may be a better choice. But even so, that's not a required element in my opinion.

 

It's the exaggeration and make believe aspects that separate slapstick from outright violence and cruelty. The sound effects, physical actions, and facial expressions are all exaggerated to where we know that what's happening isn't real, and it makes it okay to laugh at this scenario. Without these elements, we're just watching outright violence and have entered a grey area where it's only funny if it is not cruel. 

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This was the first time I had really viewed or paid attention in detail to a  slapstick. I think slapsticks are ritualistic only because they are due to performance within a set and adherence to the task at hand. Although  I do think these slapsticks look more make believe the acting is great. 

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I always thought of slapstick as the Three Stooges slapping one another. When I learned it was a sound effect prop I was surprised, but it makes since. People did not want to really hit each other and to make it sound like a real hit use a slap stick. I would have worked in sound effects for sure.

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I agree with the course's definition of slapstick. However, reflecting on these identifiers inspired a few thoughts, and I'd love to get others' opinions on this.

 

Regarding exaggeration: The course spends time talking about exaggeration as a way to ease audience's nerves in regards to the violence. By making it over the top, it transcends reality. Precursors such as vaudeville were brought up as well. What I think is also interesting is the difference between acting for the camera and acting for the stage. We see the earliest slapstick at a time when theatre is arguably among the biggest cultural influencers, not to mention that many radio (which could also be exaggerated when trying to paint a visual through sound). Film grabbed many of its screen actors from theatre and radio at a time when there were no classes on acting for the camera. For theatre you have to push the action to the back row. It's hard to give an understated performance that resonates like it does on film. I can't help but wonder if the exaggeration of slapstick is  at least in some ways a product of its theatrical origins - a result that worked to ease any visceral reactions to violence and allow the audience to laugh at the circumstances being presented on film.

 

Regarding violence: I find it fascinating that we can grow up with Looney Tunes and still get queasy when we see Buster Keaton in action. The only difference is that Buster is a real person, Bugs Bunny is a drawing. Interestingly, we have different reactions to each of these characters being hit on the head with a mallet, even though all of the slapstick elements are present in both examples: violence, exaggeration, physicality most definitely repetition. Despite all of the efforts to show viewers that slapstick is indeed a carefully choreographed expression of athleticism, animation takes us a step further from reality, making us feel that all is 'ok'. It's clear that the great slapstick artists influenced these cartoons, yet cartoons appear to be more easily accepted.

 

Christina

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My experience is that relatively little slapstick is truly violent (a person or animal intending harm on a victim). The slapstick in question may be dangerous, or harrowing, but not actually violent. In fact, there's a lot of slapstick in cinema history that is performed by a lone character in a given scene (examples: Keaton - silent; Fields - talkies).  The films of The Three Stooges have a large amount of both violent and non-violent slapstick. Moe usually intended harm, but Larry, Curly, and Shemp rarely did.

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I believe that this definition of slapstick is accurate.  I love The Three Stooges.  We used to mimic the poke in the eyes and some of their other routines when we were younger.  We knew they were make believe and violent. You also knew that in every episode someone would do the poke in the eye, pie in the face or smacked in various places on the body. 

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Ritualistic will need to be explained to me further, because I don't appreciate it as much as the other definitions.

 

I'm wondering if I feel like the audience gets to see the gag coming up and thus feels like an insider and part of that gang. And pulls for the protagonist as part of his or group, tribe or party. And that makes us feel like the violence is funny and that is it is good for it to be big and exaggerated. And humiliating the bad guy makes us feel good. That seems to be essential to me. I'm not sure what that definition would be, but the repetition of a gag, fits into that, us against them, nationalism kind of thing.

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Regarding violence: I find it fascinating that we can grow up with Looney Tunes and still get queasy when we see Buster Keaton in action. The only difference is that Buster is a real person, Bugs Bunny is a drawing. Interestingly, we have different reactions to each of these characters being hit on the head with a mallet, even though all of the slapstick elements are present in both examples: violence, exaggeration, physicality most definitely repetition. Despite all of the efforts to show viewers that slapstick is indeed a carefully choreographed expression of athleticism, animation takes us a step further from reality, making us feel that all is 'ok'. It's clear that the great slapstick artists influenced these cartoons, yet cartoons appear to be more easily accepted.

 

Christina

 

For me, I feel like the addition of SOUND is also a huge difference in how we view the two circumstances. I mean, it helps that we are laughing about an anthropamorphized animal instead of a real person, but you also can hear the sounds that cue us into the entire thing being for fun.  

 

When I was younger I always had a harder time with the silent slapsticks that my parents would screen for us in the basement on weekends because I wasn't always sure if it was ok to laugh because there were no crazy sounds to cue me that it was supposed to be funny.  When I got older and TCM existed so I could see those same silent films with the music playing, I was more likely to laugh out loud because even the music gave me the social cue I was looking for.

 

 

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I really agree with the full terminology that was provided on our course.
Slapstick has to have these 5 elements. Through exaggeration, rituals, violence and physical ways of make believe one thing leads to another and there you go you have a number of actions that can turn the whole world down. Peter Sellers was doing the same on the Pink Panther series. I recall the scene where a simple interrogation meeting turned out to be a chaos of destruction and a mess of fun!

The slapstick element in those films worked as a nuclear chain reaction!
There you go, enjoy:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64yianfGvzc

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I really agree with the full terminology that was provided on our course.

Slapstick has to have these 5 elements. Through exaggeration, rituals, violence and physical ways of make believe one thing leads to another and there you go you have a number of actions that can turn the whole world down. Peter Sellers was doing the same ont he Pink Panther series. I recall the scene where a simple interrogation meeting turned out ot be a chaos of destruction and a mess of fun!

The slapstick element in those films worked as a nuclear chain reaction!

There you go, enjoy:

Excellent!

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Thank you! That's where my mind went when I read the notes!

Sometimes a clip or an image from a scene speaks so much better than the exhaustive written/essay analysis on cinema. Peter Sellers certainly cheers me up everytime! Thumbs up!

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I signed up for this course, frankly because the noir course was outstanding!! When I read the topic was to be slapstick, I immediately thought of physical comedy: Jerry Lewis, Buster Keaton, The Three stooges, Charlie Chaplin, & Laurel and Hardy.  Knowing how this would be the tip of the iceberg, I was all in to learn, learn, learn.  

 

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation defined slapstick as comedy stressing farce and horseplay.  That's pretty succinct.  It seems difficult to attach such a small definition to such a large body of work.  I'm in with the 5 elements of slapstick!

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Hi y'all.  Really enjoying this class.  First time poster, long time lurker.

Maybe it's me, but I find defining something like comedy is a bit like defining a work of art.  What makes something a masterpiece, versus being 'okay' or simply blobs of paint on a canvas?  Why do we find something funny?  Why is slapstick, in particular, able to make us laugh so much?  I have sat and thought for days......Thought about the 5 elements of what is slapstick.....Although I can agree on an intellectual level and see the elements in a gag if I dissect it, it's still at some very basic, gut-level instinct that something either makes me laugh or doesn't.

I remember a friend of mine recommending Peter Seller's oddball classic, "The Party".  He said he laughed all the way through.  So I watched it.  It has some good gems in it, but I have such a hard time laughing if somebody is embarrassed.  It's a funny flick, no doubt, but I hardly could muster up even a 'tee hee'.  Everybody has their own idea of what is funny.  He loved the movie.  I could only say "Meh, it was cute".

Yet, I remember being at the beach with my ex husband years ago, and this little kid had an ice cream cone and was squealing with glee, running and being goofy, and he tripped right in front of us and his cone splatted into the sand.  My ex and I burst out laughing like a couple of hyenas.  Yeah, it was kinda sad, but it's that classic human condition, where everything is wonderful (sun, sand, ice cream cone, on top of the world, Ma!),  and then one wrong step and you're face down in the surf and your cone is covered with sand.

I suppose, in my own analysis, it's the highs followed by the splat (and if you're a high class swell, it's even funnier)....the irony that is life.  Better to laugh than to cry, I suppose.  If I could add an element to slapstick, I think it would be irony.

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I was watching The Dick Cavett Show on Hulu last night and saw this one. It's very interesting not only about comedy, but also about the film industry in general wasn't sure if there was a way to share a link from Hulu so here it is on youtube. 

. I also thought the weird (in a good way) links between a lot of them with bugs bunny, Frank Capra kinda stutters like porky the pig and clark Gable in It Happened One Night (one of my all time favorites) was the inspiration for Bugs Bunny.  Peter Bogdanovich wrote a book called "What's Up Doc". I also love when they talk about Hollywood ending and around that conversation Frank Capra brings up Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, how they actually inspired a lot of the cartoons that unfortunately people ended up taking to more then their art form of comedy. Even though it was really the same thing.  They also, near the end,  talk about how Leo McCarty came up with the basis of the Laurel and Hardy which is hilarious and interesting,(sorry if I spelled his name wrong, when I looked it up people have spelled it two different ways for the same person). 
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I would highly agree with the elements needed for slapstick- exaggeration, ritualistic, physical, make-believe and a hint of violence (non-threatening).  On another note, timing and pacing are essential (and crucial) to the art (and perfection) of perfect slapstick comedy.  Without perfect timing (and pacing) in slapstick, the audience would possibly lose interest in the film.   Quirkiness could also apply to the perfection to slapstick.  

 

In my view, I feel that there would be no changes to the current elements of slapstick,  

 

I enjoyed tonight's presentation of "The Birth of the Tramp" (2014),  Chaplin's "A Dog's Life" (1918) and "The Circus" (1928, which I am currently watching on TCM).

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I just watched Mickey, the Mabel Normand film, which is recommended viewing for Week 1.  Can anyone explain to me why this movie is an example of slapstick comedy?  It seems like a drama to me, what with the wanting to put down her dog, the greed of her relatives and her near rape towards the end of the film.  There might be a couple of lighter moments, but there is almost none of the broad humor that Normand brought to Tillie's Punctured Romance.  Calling Mickey a comedy is like calling Silverado a comedy just because John Cleese happens to be in it.

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I agree with the five elements of slapstick.  There's nothing to disagree with.  I don't think all five need to be present, just variations & combo's.  I was a little surprised about violence, but I have a life story that relates.  

 

My best friend and I (appox 16, 17 yo) were up in the mountains & snow with his dad's Apostolic Church group.  We were allowed to go "play" in the snow as long as we faithfully attended one of the multiple daily services.  Having done that straight away we ran up the mountains with our inter tubes and jumped in.   Our first run we ran together in one big tube.  We were turning and laughing down the slope and suddenly thought OMG!  At the bottom of the run was a launch.  At the esimated point of impact was a tree trunk split in two and spiraling straight up from the snow, sure to be the point of impaling us both like "shish kabob skewers."  We both saw it the same time.., we both looked at each other like, "you first, what do we do?"   We were both very good friends, there was nothing to do but surrender our fates up.  We sped to the bottom and  launched, way up.  I saw his legs in the air above me.  I twisted and saw were we headed straight for the tip of the spiral.  The only thing a guy can do at that point, is squeeze the eyes shut and......,  woosh, woosh!  I landed and inch to the right of the whole thing.., he landed an inch to the left.  We were both stunned by God's intervention.., then we started laughing.., and laughing.., we couldn't stop laughing.  So yes, I understand the contribution violence makes.   :)

 

My definition of slapstick would be the same approached to defining film noir.  Maybe you can't define it, but you know it when you see it.  So I define Slapstick by closing my eyes and thinking of words;  silly, funny. Keystone cops, the Tramp, big clocks with people dangling from the hands in mid air.., etc..., etc.  :-) 

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I agree that the five topics pointed as necessary to define slapstick genre are true and well-commented. The argumentation and brief exemples are perfect, by the way.

 

My only point of disagreement regards on the ritualistic routines. It may be a crucial point for well-known characters like Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and so on. But let's think here about a slapastick unlinked with these figues: I'm sure there will be lots os scenes and situations with the other definitions well watchable by the audience, but not this one. Of course not all five conditions are necessary to make a movie be a slapstick, but this particular one seems to be too much more theorycal than practical. It MAY be used, but until now I don't see it as a needed rule.

 

My own definition of a slapstick on cinema would be: "A film genre based on comic exagerated situations, frequently linked with physical actions, spectacular cause/effect situations and 'make-believe' scenes that attenuate much of the violence frequently seen on the screen".

 

A pleasure to be studying it!

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I believe that this lesson was right on! Slapstick is very much those definitions/elements. I think of them more as elements rather than an "all or nothing" definition because slapstick doesn't necessarily have to include all of these elements--for example violence. Slapstick can be as simple as falling out of a chair-not necessarily violent. 

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     I must confess to having struggled with the definition of slapstick comedy we have been developing throughout the course.  The fault for this is not in the material presented; it is in me.  Part of the problem stemmed from my preconceived notion of what constituted slapstick.  If asked, I would have described it as the visual comedies of the teens and twenties that emphasized physical exaggeration and violence.   In this view, the silent era was the heyday of slapstick comedy.  With the advent of sound, slapstick largely disappeared (with the notable exception of The Three Stooges).   I come to realize that my view is another indication of the powerful impact of documentary anthologies like Robert Youngson’s “The Golden Age of Comedy.”   I saw this film many times during my youth in the 1960’s; it was my introduction to the silent comedy that was often called slapstick.  Youngson, and Agee before him, argued that this era was the golden age of comedy -- an era that was gone and would never return.  As with the era, so it was with slapstick.  This thesis was accepted by me uncritically for all these years.  So much so that I confess I did not even consider the Marx Brothers movies as slapstick.  Only the Stooges escaped this bias. When I was young, I did not try to classify them -- I just enjoyed them.  When I was older, I came to view them as something of an homage to the golden age.  This course has caused me to rethink this long held but poorly justified position.

 

     Now I can see slapstick as an ongoing continuation of an historical genre, one that has (and had to) evolve over time.   Just as there is no set era for slapstick, there is no simple definition that could cover all its possible iterations. Our five-part definition (Exaggeration, Physical, Ritualistic, Make-believe and Violent) establishes the constituent elements of slapstick comedy. I don’t contest the inclusion of any of these categories in the general definition, but I wonder about the interplay between them, in any given instance.   While as a genre or collection of movies, all the conditions are necessary, this is not always the case with individual movies.  During the course, I have looked at some of the upcoming films and wondered why they would be considered slapstick.  My mistake was to apply the definition too rigidly and completely to each film, in the mistaken belief that all five elements were necessary in each case.  This quickly became unworkable as more and more of our target films failed to fit cleanly into this kind of definition.  If all the conditions are not necessary for a given film, what number of conditions is sufficient to call it slapstick?  It can not be one, for then a film that was just violent (V) would be slapstick.  Nor could it be two, because a physical and violent (P&V) film would qualify.  Three won’t work either, for a film that was physical, violent and ritualistic/repetitive (P,V&R) would also qualify.  Four appears to be the minimum number.  This gives us five subcategories as possible slapstick iterations for individual movies:  Exaggeration (E) with P,V&R (E,P,V&R); Make-believe (M) with P,V&R (M,P,V&R); E,P,M&V; E,P,M&R and E,M,V&R.   This broadens the application of the definition to allow the inclusion of films that are less obviously “slapstick.”

 

     The next issue is the amount of slapstick necessary to call a film slapstick.  Some of the movies had slapstick interludes surrounded by conventional comedy (or even drama, in “Always Leave Them Laughing”).  I’m not sure how to quantify this.  I saw the tail end of “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) on TCM the other night and thought, “Here’s a conventional comedy of manners that is not slapstick.”  Then, on a message board post, I was reminded of the beginning scene involving exaggerated humor and violence.  I still would not characterize this movie as slapstick; this scene is more like a “slapstick cameo” in a regular comedy.  There must be more than an isolated instant, it seems, to justify calling something slapstick.  I’m not sure how much more it should be, but this does not seem enough.  

 

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