By now, it’s clear to see that there are a thousand different ways to be funny. But one of the most classic forms of comedy that any clean or dirty comic should be familiar with is slapstick.
Slapstick comedy has roots that can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome and Greece. Its history first began as a popular form of mime.
It then went on to influence the Italian Renaissance commedia dell’arte, or “comedy of the profession.” And it quickly spread throughout Europe shortly after.
Around this time, an actual slapstick was also employed as a sound effect. Actors would use to sound emphasize the impact of a hit onstage. When the two-piece paddle hit both boards together, they produced a slapping sound.
And thus, became the namesake for this unique form of comedy and entertainment. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s first define what slapstick comedy actually is.
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What Is Slapstick Comedy?
Slapstick comedy is an incredibly physical type of comedy. It operates on intentional clumsiness and creates ginormous spectacles out of one’s embarrassment.
It is often thought of as a more low-brow form of comedy. But its roots are far more invested in the likes of farce and animation.
In other words, slapstick comedy is a much more sophisticated physical comedy. But not many people tend to think about it this way.
The physical blows used in slapstick are not damaging to the actors themselves. But audiences are able to take immense enjoyment from the vaudevillian tactics of the genre.
Thus, the keystone of slapstick quickly became recognized as great timing and astute comedic illusion. As a genre, slapstick is a type of comedy that strikes the audience’s funny bone.
Or, it can make them cringe from second-hand embarrassment. But early slapstick has translated into the successful modern form of comedy that we see so often today.
So who were the greats who introduced slapstick comedy to the big screen? And how have these slapstick examples evolved over time into more modern versions of the comedic form?
Keep reading below to find out.
#1. Charlie Chaplin
If you’re not familiar with the name, the iconic bowler hat, or oversized shoes, then you seriously need to acquaint yourself! And the best place to start would be to watch his most well-known film “The Tramp.”
In “The Tramp,” Chaplin displays his prowess in slapstick comedy. His larger-than-life antics and innovative stylings produce incredible moments on film.
And Chaplin was a prominent figure of the silent movie era. During this time, slapstick comedy was a way for stories to be told on stage and onscreen without the use of dialogue.
And Chaplin was a genius at the sport. His unique slapstick antics allowed him to form the very basis of his character that became such an iconic starring role. And he has forever solidified that role in many of our hearts.
As a performer, Charlie could elicit either a laugh or sigh of compassion from audiences. Through simple gags, intense chase scenes, or getting a pie thrown in his face, he was always in control.
But most importantly, the physicality he had to develop through slapstick is what made his career so successful. He was able to translate the hardships at hand through comedy. And this is what gave his movies humor and heart.
Aside from his performances, he was also an incredible talent as a filmmaker, director, and composer. Thus, his humor and movies were deeply informed by all aspects of movie-making.
As a true genius of the genre, Charlie Chaplin is surely one of the most notable comedy icons. And many contemporary comedians continue to look up to him today.
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#2. Buster Keaton
Another giant of the slapstick comedy genre is none other than Buster Keaton. Known for his deadpan humor, Keaton was an innovative and visual storyteller also during the era of silent films.
But he preferred to use gestures and actions as the focal point of the story rather than overuse cue cards. Interestingly enough, Buster Keaton was also known as the comedian who never smiled.
Since he relied so much on his physical presence, he almost had no need to exercise his facial expressions. After all, his body did most of the talking anyway.
One of his most famous films that you can watch is “The Great Stone Face.” This is a perfect example of Keaton’s unique slapstick style of comedy.
In this movie, Buster Keaton demonstrates his consistently stoic nature. He endures the violence of intense stunts and gags throughout. But he never shows a grimace of pain.
As a dedicated film director, producer, screenwriter, and stunt actor as well, Keaton has also been known for a unique belief. He believed that all gags and stunts should be real.
They should not be accomplished through any type of illusion or movie magic. This often meant that a scene or stunt had to be filmed in a single take.
Since the action was rooted in violence, Keaton acquired a resiliency that allowed him to accomplish this feat. And he continues to be praised for it to this day.
Keaton always managed to deliver such performances without a single bead of sweat dripping down his face. And such dedication to the art has solidified him as a classic example of physical comedy and comedy slapstick.
#3. The Marx Brothers
As a family comedy act, the Marx Brothers had success in vaudeville, Broadway, and motion pictures alike. But they truly made a name for themselves with movies like “Duck Soup,” and “A Night at the Opera.”
The three eldest brothers of the family – Chico, Harpo, and Groucho – were the core of the act. Each of them developed unique personas that easily fed off of one another.
Chico and Groucho utilized language as yet another way to poke fun within the genre of comedy slapstick. But Harpo reflected a silent and bubbly attitude similar to that of their predecessors Keaton and Chaplin.
He relied more on physical comedy without language. And thus, became a perfect balancing act between Groucho and Chico.
There were two younger Marx brothers as well named Gummo and Zeppo. But they never quite developed their stage personas to the extent that their older brothers did.
Zeppo did make small appearances as straight or non-comedic roles in their films. But Gummo did not appear in any.
Several critics have considered the Marx Brothers to be the most influential comedic group of the 20th century. Even contemporary comedians such as Judd Apatow and Mel Brooks continue to cite them as inspirations.
If you’re looking for the true masters of physical comedy and comedy slapstick, the Marx Brothers will have you laughing in no time.
#4. Laurel and Hardy
Continuing along in the trend of non-solo slapstick troupes was Laurel and Hardy. They proved themselves as dynamic slapstick comedians who could argue incessantly. And they consistently engaged in ridiculous banter.
Between the two performers, Laurel and Hardy could enact an argument that would descend into violence. Or, they could milk an idea with wordplay while landing a joke when the audience least expected it.
Some of their most famous lines included, “You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be led” or “A lot of weather we’ve been having lately.” These examples alone show you just how well they mastered the English language.
In comedy films such as “Brats,” “Oliver the Eighth,” and “Way Out West,” the comedy duo always managed to tell a unique story. All from that story, audience members of all ages could enjoy.
Laurel and Hardy are known for their bumbling characters who constantly search to right the wrongs of an embarrassing situation. And they utilized slapstick humor to make an example out of common metaphors.
This dynamic duo proved that slapstick could also translate to wordplay. They could make people laugh equally at gags and jokes alike.
#5. The Three Stooges
Yet another team of entertainers, the Three Stooges were masters of farce. They solidified their humor and reputation in Hollywood as the characters of Larry, Curly, and Moe.
During the years 1934 to 1946, the Three Stooges were signed with Columbia Pictures and managed to cast an extreme pull at the box office, something they have historically been said to be rather ignorant of.
Following their contemporaries such as the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges played around with guest appearances in movies. But, they ultimately decided that shorts were their ideal comedy form.
Some of their most famous comedy movies include “Soup to Nuts,” “Woman Haters,” and “Sappy Bull Fighters.” But a handful of the team’s shorts and routines were aired on television.
This once again marked a shift in slapstick comedy.
What began as a vaudeville act onstage then turned into movies or a feature film. Then, the Three Stooges transformed slapstick comedy into television shorts.
This brought back the quick-witted art of slapstick. And that style of comedy could be easily broadcast into the family homes of America.
Additionally, the trio utilized their slapstick comedy to address certain social commentaries. They engaged in satire and made humor out of the greater social themes of life.
Thus, they proved that Hollywood slapstick was not merely for entertainment. It could also be a thought-provoking form of entertainment as well.
The Three Stooges expanded the genre of slapstick comedy. They focused their work on contemporary issues. And they certainly paved the way for many comedians to come.
#6. Jim Carrey
Having gone through the history of slapstick, it might be easier for you to understand Jim Carrey now. He is known for being a comic with an elastic face. And he always plays a character with an unrelenting amount of energy.
Jim Carrey is perhaps the greatest example of modern slapstick within the 21st century.
Carrey has mastered all ridiculous antics and delivers a hilarious sense of humor. He stars in several movies and comedies such as “Ace Ventura,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “The Mask.”
He has also been involved in other sketch comedy television series such as “In Living Color” and “Saturday Night Live.” Carey’s unrivaled physicality and exaggerated facial expressions pull upon the early history of slapstick.
He possesses great timing and introduces characters that we are supposed to hate. But in the end, we end up loving them.
Very few actors are able to accomplish such a feat. But Carrey is certainly one of the pivotal slapstick comedians that can.
#7. Rohan Atkinson
Rohan Atkinson is yet another contemporary slapstick comedian. He is best known for his iconic role of Mr. Bean. Some might call him a bumbling idiot.
But Atkinson himself has previously stated that Mr. Bean is just a child operating within a grown man’s body.
Mr. Bean and his film comedies truly showcase Atkinson’s unique style of comedy. And one of the most unique aspects of Mr. Bean is his use of little intelligible language.
That is to say that Atkinson utilizes physical comedy and funny sounds to his advantage. As a contemporary slapstick comedian, he is not restricted to unspoken dialogue as in the silent era of film.
But Mr. Bean still prefers sounds over words, making for an even sillier portrayal of a grown man. As a comedic art, Atkinson managed to create a character that both children and adults could relate to.
In this way, the notion of slapstick as a comedic genre has remained entirely the same. Early and modern audiences require accessible storytelling.
And slapstick comedy allows stars to make an example out of humor that is hilarious to the masses. Not just to the select few.
How Can Slapstick Help You?
Slapstick comedy is a unique physical form. And it is certainly not for every comedian or audience member. But the value of heightening one’s physicality for the sake of telling a story is something all performers can learn from.
The search for truth through physical comedy is at the heart of slapstick. A comic might be in the midst of a chase and it may end in violence, but the humor in it remains true.
Slapstick comedy has long suffered from a bad reputation. But slapstick is one of the most profound forms of storytelling out there. As a comedy form to unite audiences, slapstick is the perfect way to expand your repertoire.
By using the stars as an example above, hopefully, slapstick can help you find your comedic style. But if not, at least it will make you laugh a little.
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC for hire, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speaker extraordinaire.