SOUND AND AFTER
For James Agee, slapstick was dealt its death blow as a viable comic form by the talkies. The coming of sound required, at least initially, a more static camera, which slowed the comic antics on screen to a less frenzied pace. Other film theorists, such as Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, however, disagree, and suggest that slapstick was already a marginal subgenre by the time of what is considered its heyday, from about 1912 through 1930. As a "low" form of humor, slapstick fell out of step with dominant tastes, which were moving toward a more genteel comedy of manners in order to find favor with middle-class audiences, which filmmakers were beginning to court. By itself, sound could not kill slapstick, which relied on a combination of physical and verbal comedy; rapid-fire patter was a major part of the Marx Brothers' art, along with pratfalls and consequence-free violence. The Three Stooges, too, while not known for word twisting and puns, did employ pig Latin, verbal insults, and nicknames along with eye poking and hair pulling.
Like commedia performers, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges remind us that slapstick is ensemble comedy, each performer bringing a particular character to life, repeating and refining this persona's idiosyncratic lazzi in every performance. Slapstick comics, especially after the arrival of sound, have tended to work in pairs
While slapstick can be seen to have lost its dominance as a solo comic mode (except in cartoons where it continues to be honored—see, for example, The Simpsons (beginning 1989)—it can still be found as a component of many other forms of comedy, including genteel strands of humor, such as romantic comedy, and the subgenre that most resembles its earlier incarnation, the new teen 'gross-out' comedy. Whenever a romantic heroine finds herself so dizzy with love or the need for revenge that she walks into an office plant (Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks' Notice , 2000) or pours coffee over her white business suit (Meg Ryan in Kate and Leopold , 2001), the film is invoking the conventions of slapstick comedy to remind us of the basic (and loveable) idiocy of people in love. Jim Carrey has built entire film vehicles around the body torsions and physical violence of this genre, making him Jerry Lewis's purest heir.
While slapstick interludes in contemporary comedies are now less likely to end with a chase, which seemed inevitable in the era of silent slapstick, they continued to be used through the 1960s to create a modern "swinging" feel that married contemporary comedy to slapstick traditions—for example, in the finales of Sex and the Single Girl (1964), Modesty Blaise (1966), and almost the whole of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Silent slapstick persists in modern films, including its emphasis on consequence-free violence, humiliation, and physical pain. Archetypal characters similarly endure: the good-natured but physically and/or romantically inadequate hero; the physically superior but morally inferior jock, who is the hero's rival for the good girl; the demanding, ill-tempered boss, who is either revealed to have a heart of gold and a sense of humor after all or who is symbolically castrated. Alongside this basic romance plot may stand another thread, either subordinate or dominant, involving fast-talking, wise-guy con men linked to the tradition of slapstick ensembles. For example, the con men conspiring to win Cameron Diaz's Mary in the Farrelly Brothers comedy are the heirs to the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and perhaps Bugs Bunny. Although slapstick iconography may have left behind the custard pie per se, similar use is now made of more taboo matter: the bodily fluids and wastes of the gross-out movie, whether the semen hair gel in There's Something About Mary or the excremental smoothie in The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).
Agee, James. "Comedy's Greatest Era." The Film Comedy Reader , edited by Gregg Rickmann, 14–28. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001.
Bonila, Paul. "Is There More to Hollywood Lowbrow than Meets the Eye?" Quarterly Review of Film and Video (2005) 22: 17–24.
Chamberlain, Kathleen. "The Three Stooges and the Commedia dell' Arte." The Film Comedy Reader , edited by Gregg Rickmann, 53–59. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001.
Dale, Alan. Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Gehring, Wes. Personality Comedians as Genre. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Krutnik, Frank. Inventing Jerry Lewis . Washington, DC, and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Neale, Steve, and Frank Krutnik. "The Case of Silent Slapstick." In Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader, edited by Frank Krutnik, 57–71. London: Routledge, 2003.
Tamar Jeffers McDonald