Slapstick Comedy

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Slapstick comedy derives its name from the flat double paddle (like a flattened, oversized castanet) that, when struck against another performer, produced a satisfyingly big noise but only a small amount of actual discomfort. This battacio , or slapstick, traditionally wielded by male performers, is said to have evolved from a symbolic phallus (Chamberlain); certainly the habitual association of slapstick comedy with male comics might be seen to bear out this symbolism. While early cinema slapstick boasted performers of both genders, including 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]), who was not afraid to take pratfalls amidst the glossy art deco sets of the genre, almost all major slapstick comedians since then have been male. Perhaps there is a reluctance on the part of female comedians to align themselves with a form of humor that relies so much on mess, violence, and pain; when female comics become involved in slapstick's routine business of physical humiliation this seems to be more as a punishment than a chosen route. For example, in Doris Day's

b. Richmond, Quebec, Canada, 17 January 1880,
d. Woodland Hills, California, 5 November 1960

It seems appropriate that Mack Sennett, the father of slapstick comedy, made his first stage appearance as the rear end of a pantomime horse at the Bowery Burlesque in New York City. Responsible for inaugurating the conventions of both custard pie-throwing and the comic chase, Sennett's grasp of comedy was always physical rather than verbal.

Born Michael Sinnott in Quebec, Sennett left Canada for New England in his youth. Although opera was his initial career goal, he pragmatically settled for a position in burlesque, making his horse's-end debut in 1902. Sennett enjoyed the rapid-fire dialogue and punishing physical comedy of vaudeville and absorbed from this milieu many lessons about gag-driven narratives, which inspired his later films. In 1908, D. W. Griffith gave Sennett a job acting in, and later writing and directing, Biograph comedies. Eventually, Sennett decided to form a company of his own, and after securing the financial backing of two bookie friends, he lured away other Biograph players, including his off-again, on-again fiancée and eventual star, Mabel Normand, to form Keystone Pictures in 1912.

In his Keystone silent pictures, Sennett perfected slapstick, physical comedy. It is to his credit that Sennett could make his short films so successful at a time when cinema was otherwise veering toward feature-length films and more refined narrative- and character-based comedies. The typical Sennett short featured stereotyped characters drawn in broad strokes, who engaged in knockabout routines resulting in pratfalls, custard pie fights, and pursuits. These roles were played by such actors as Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, and Gloria Swanson, all of whom began at Keystone. Those flat-footed, uniformed incompetents, the Keystone Kops, tried to catch stripe-suited convicts, the escalating pace of their madcap antics inevitably culminating in a chase that brought both law breakers and law keepers into contact with the Keystone Bathing Beauties, a troupe of swimsuited lovelies.

Sennett pioneered comedy features with Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), starring Normand, but mostly he kept to shorts, which showcased his mastery of physical comedy at the expense of narrative and character. Sennett's type of comedy which was motion, not dialogue, -driven, was heavily affected by the introduction of talkies: physical comedy proved to be ill-served by the static cameras used in the early sound years. Sennett did, however, continue to make films into the mid-1930s, including the famous W. C. Fields shorts The Dentist (1932), The Pharmacist , and The Barber Shop (both 1933).


Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1913), Mabel's New Hero (1913), Mabel at the Wheel (1914), Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), Dough and Dynamite (1914)


Louvish, Simon. Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2004.

Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. American Film Comedy from Abbott and Costello to Jerry Zucker. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Tamar Jeffers McDonald

Mack Sennett.
1950s and 1960s films, the comedienne is often the butt of elaborate slapstick jokes that revolve around besmirching her habitual cleanliness and purity: she is dunked in mud ( Calamity Jane , 1953), ketchup ( The Thrill Of It All , 1963), and sudsy water ( Move Over, Darling , 1963). Lucille Ball was one of the few genuine slapstick comediennes of that era, less in her films than in her television series, I Love Lucy (1951–1957).

The very physical style of comedy engendered by commedia dell'arte influenced later theatrical styles, including pantomime and circus, and persisted in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century vaudeville, with its emphasis on swift, gag-based knockabout comedy. For American audiences in the large new industrial centers that supported vaudeville theatres, comedy could succeed only when it was able to reach and please the widest possible audience; thus physical comedy prevailed over verbal humor, which depended on the audience's shared language skills. Early cinema, too, relied on immediately appreciable setups, clearly drawn characters, and physical humor that did not rely on language (intertitles) to reach the widest demographic. Many early films further tapped into situations with which new city dwellers could readily identify. Their humor derived from the perils of modern life, including vehicles, machinery, and inanimate objects that seemed to possess wills of their own, as in Chaplin's One A.M. (1916), in which the comedian encounters a malicious wall bed.

Many of the early slapstick film performers learned their comic timing, troupe playing, swift setups, and knockabout delivery of gags in this vaudeville milieu. Mack Sennett (1880–1960), the Marx Brothers, and W. C. Fields began their careers "treading the boards" and carried the lessons learned in this noisy and volatile arena into their film comedy. Sennett himself moved from performing to producing and directing; he gave many slapstick comedians their start in film at his Keystone Studio, established in 1912, the first and most successful specialist film-production unit. There, Sennett employed comedians such as Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd (1893–1971), Buster Keaton (1895–1966), Harry Langdon (1884–1944), and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933). Later, after the coming of sound, W. C. Fields and Bing Crosby (1903–1977) were part of his stable of slapstick comedians. Sennett is credited with inventing the custard pie fight and with realizing the comic potential of the chase; the typical Sennett film ends with one, in which Kops, Bathing Beauties, stripeclad convicts, passers-by, and dogs careen across the screen, fall over, collide, and generally create mayhem.

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