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Slapstick Comedy

When motion pictures originated, there was no sound to them, only visual aspects for the viewers to enjoy. The first subgenre of comedy that came with the development of cinema was the slapstick comedy. In 1915, Earle W. Hammons developed the Educational Films Corporation. Later, in 1918 this corporation began showing comedic short cartoon films on their weekly program. Then, to gain more profit he hired a director and a comedian to release slapstick films which instantly made money. Many comedians during the silent slapstick era felt that the fact that there was no sound gave them more freedom to elaborate against the norms of the normal world. Slapstick comedies generally have over the top elaborate acts of violence and pranks that don’t generally make sense in the normal world.  However, when sound was developed in the film making industry the slapstick industry rapidly declined. Many critics believe sound killed the silent slapstick comedy because sound started to become the art of film, with music and dialogue, while silence used to be the art of film. Furthermore, the average American was starting to have different views on what is entertaining and what is not. People were becoming more sensible and mature and started getting bored of all of the same pranks being repeated over and over (King, 2011).

When looking back at the slapstick comedy today, we now view it as an art form. “Comedy is seldom taken seriously in our culture, as if that were almost a contradiction in terms. Comedies rarely attract much attention at Academy Awards time, and those that do get nominated almost always have significant themes (e.g. relationship in the 80’s) or believable characters in highly recognizable situations” (Lehman & Luhr, 1988). In essence, comedic films that are created and produced today are all highly relatable to our American culture.  Although many situations in comedy films are unlikely to happen to the average American, they are still generally believable. “But the American slapstick tradition offers another, perhaps richer comic tradition. Physical gags allow for sophistication cinematic structures of space and time. The significance of what happens is often much less important than precisely when and how it happens” (Lehman & Luhr, 1988). What the author is trying to say is that slapstick used special and temporal elements in their films that helped contribute to the humor in the films, while modern day comedies focus more on the humor in what happens.

Some examples of old slapstick comedy stars are The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, and The Marx Brothers. All stars did elaborate pranks to produce humor; especially pranks that do not make sense in the normal world. For example, in The Three Stooges they are always throwing pies in their faces, slapping each other, and other elaborate violent pranks. Themes in the slapstick comedy include unrealistic impossible situations, pranks that hurt with no real consequences of injury or death, and a feeling of suspense for the audience.

Slapstick comedies are still created today, although they include sound. One example is the Jackass trilogy. Jackass started out as a show where a group of guys would do crazy things to each other to entertain an audience. After much success, the show was cancelled but then turned into three very successful movies. In the movies they do extremely violent acts to one another. Some examples of the acts of humorous violence are sticking someone in a port-a-potty and using a bungee to spring the port-a-potty in the air while the person is in it. The only difference is the Jackass movies are filmed in a reality sense while the original slapstick comedies were an actual film.

King, R. (2011). ”The Spice of the Program”: Educational Pictures, Early Sound Slapstick, and the Small-Town Audience. Film History, 23(3), 313-330

Lehman, P., & Luhr, W. (1988). Blake Edwards’ Engagement of the Slapstick Tradition in Blind Date. Film Criticism, 13(1), 20-32.


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