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American Film Comedy. Slapstick Genre

The slapstick genre of comedy’s roots can be traced from the double paddle which when struck the other performer produced an amazingly big sound but only a small amount of actual discomfort. The male performers traditionally wielded this instrument and it is said to have evolved from a symbolic phallus (chamberlain). The basic definition of this form of comedy is that it involves exaggerated physical violence or activities which are said to be beyond the confines of common sense, such as that of a character running into a brick wall. (Dale 2008).

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This form of comedy can also trace back to the comic routines of Italian commedia dell’arte (mid-fifteenth to mid-seventeenth century) touring players. These players were renowned for developing simple plot scenarios and broad, swiftly drawn characters. Consequently, the audience was not entertained merely in watching innovative narratives or well-developed characters but in fact in watching how a slick troupe of professionals could maneuver the standard components of charade—zany servants, pompous masters, young lovers—with rapidity and efficiency. Each performer performed and achieved to create a single stereotyped character, even bringing an element of his personality to bear in the particulars of his comic business.

The early slapstick cinema boasts performances of both genres, including the likes of the famous slapstick queen Mabel Normand (1892–1930) (Tillie’s Punctured Romance, 1914), early flapper Colleen Moore (1900–1988) (Ella Cinders, 1926), and heroines of the 1930s screwball comedy genre, such as Carole Lombard (1908–1942) (Twentieth Century, [1934] and Nothing Sacred, [1937]). These actors were such that they were not afraid to take pratfalls amidst the glossy art deco sets of the genre. However, as of recent this genre of comedy has been mostly dominated by men.. Several reasons can be said to be the cause behind this; a fear of aligning themselves with humor that relies so much on mess, violence, and pain. A reference can be drawn from the movie Doris Day. (Pedini 2007).

One of the classic moves of Slapstick’s comedy; the pie in the face, is funny only if the person about to receive the pie blow is clean before. Another famous movie of all slapstick comedians of slipping on a banana skin provides humor only when the before—the dignified march—is contrasted with the after—the flat-out splayed pratfall on the sidewalk. These slapstick comedians had learned early on that humor could be prolonged if resistance, whether to gravity or inevitability, could also be prolonged—in other words, as long as there was a chance that the other shoe might fall. When the enthralled audience watches the slapstick comedian trying to retain balance: paradoxically, when we watch him performing lack of control, at least part of our pleasure derives from his skill at controlling this lack.

Theatre historians have argued over the fact that slapstick comedy’s presence is required in all comedies due to the rejuvenation of theater in church liturgical drams in the middle ages. A common element in such plays was the part in which the devil was beaten off the stage. Even Shakespeare is said to have used this form of comedy in his beating and chasing scenes. This form of comedy gained so much recognition because it didn’t rely on words but physicality and the interaction of performers with the world surrounding them. The slapstick comedian was renowned to take his cue from the circus clown rather than the comic stage actor of that time. One of the most famous slapstick artists of all time; Charlie Chaplin developed his Trump character and costumed the character with baggy pants and oversized shoes-quite similar to an outfit of a circus clown. To further add personality, Charlie is said to have modeled himself along the lines of an American tramp. (Musser 43).

Charlie Chaplin interacted with the world in a way that depicted him to be the outsider looking at the rest of the world as an observer. One aspect of slapstick comedy is that the comedian due to his interplays with the rest of the world causes subsequent destruction and chaos and Charlie Chaplin’s actions pretty much resulted in such a disorder. One of his famous movies; Modern Times, portrays him as a Tramp struggling to survive in the modern industrial world with the aid of a young woman. This movie was one amongst many which solidified Charlie Chaplin in the memory of people for generations to come.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this method of comic presentation was explored hugely during the “golden period” of black and white movies. Defined as the silent movies era, it had the likes of famous directors such as Mack Sennet, Hal Roach and featuring the likes of the aforementioned Mabel Normand, Rosco “Fatty”, Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Keystone Kops, and the three stooges. Even in the animation world, this form of comedy has left its impact through cartoons such Tom and Jerry and Looney tunes. (Dirks 2008).

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The famous brothers; the Marx brothers might be anarchic today but dared to create films in their era that went against the rules. A source of inspiration for many to follow, their movies provided them a massive audience. These films allowed them a platform through which a Jewish style of humor came into prominence. Their influence was widespread and amongst their body of work, Duck Soup is amongst the best. It represents a turning point in their comic careers as it was the last film done for Paramount by them. Despite being dated as “Duck Soup”, the modern moments stand apart especially when Groucho calls for help during the closing battle sequences, and the response is footage of fire engines, motorcycles, etc. the brothers managed to go beyond the classical structure of the movie. (Green 2006).

The title is explained by the noteworthy critic Tim Dirks;” It is claimed that Groucho provided the following recipe: Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.”

In recent times, the famous comic king; Jim Carrey has to beat himself mercilessly in Me, Myself, And Irene (2000), but even when the audience watches this apparent lack of control while Jim punches himself, we are at the same time quite aware of the physical control needed to perform this routine. Hence, it can be concluded that a portion of the humor in this tension stems from the comic hero’s insistence on maintaining control when others around him have abandoned it. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp does try to maintain dignity even though he is poor, starving, drenched, and an outcast. The humor lies in this extremely meticulous adherence to social niceties (he holds his silverware nicely) even when society is in chaos (an example of when he eats his boot from starvation in The Gold Rush, 1925).

In recent times, this genre has become a cause for much criticism as some believe that the representations of violence could instigate violence in the audience members. Slapstick comedy was unable to avoid such negative publicity, even though historically and even fictitiously the lack of actual “violence” allows it protection from subsequent censorship. Amongst some of the relatively modern slapstick comedies include; the Hoe Alone saga, Mousehunt, The three stooges, Scary Movie saga, Problem Child series, and Garfield: the Move. All of these movies have established themselves as popular movies; thus highlighting the fact that slapstick continues to be a highly popular form of comedy amongst the audience.

A popular book by Geoff King; “Film Comedy” has the distinction of being esteemed highly amongst the comic world. It doesn’t attempt to in any way copy any other Hollywood work but uses different ideologies. The starting is from film comedy itself and then eventually moves on to explain in simplistic terms his argument regarding film comedy. In the beginning, it is claimed that “comedy is a mode — a manner of presentation…”

In the second chapter, a lot of confusion regarding film comedy is clarified as he tries to explain the distinction of comic transgressions and regressions and satire and parody to readers. For the distinction between satire and parody King chooses to create a general dichotomy to help readers understand more easily: “Satire is comedy with an edge and target, usually social and political in some way”.

In the final chapter of his book. Many films are reviewed and the suggestion comes across that comedy not only can “penetrate” different genres, but also can be experimental, unintentional, and potential.

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Work Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics. “Media Violence.” Pediatrics, Volume 108, 2001 (1222-1226).

Dirks, Tim. “Comedy Films.”, 1996-2008. Web.

Pedini, Kevin. “Mook Productions.” 2007. Mook Productions. Web.

Lamont Charles, director. Abbot and Castello met the invisble man. 1951.

Carr Steve, director. Are we there yet. 2007.

Jonhson Read Patrick, Director. Baby’s Day out. 1994.

Columbus, Chris Director. Home Alone 2. 1992.

Kramer, Stalney, director. Mad Mad Mad Mad world.1963.

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Dale, Alan. Comedy is a man in trouble. USA: University of Minnesota Press. 2002.

Verbinski, Gole. Mousehunt. 1997.

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StudyCorgi. "American Film Comedy. Slapstick Genre." October 16, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'American Film Comedy. Slapstick Genre'. 16 October.

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