Slapstick is both a genre in its own right, belonging mostly to the years of silent cinema, and an element in other comedies that has persisted from the early years of film till now, when it seems to be as an indispensable element of the teen or "gross-out" comedy typified by such films as the American Pie trilogy (1999, 2001, 2003) and movies directed by the Farrelly Brothers, such as There's Something About Mary (1998) and Stuck on You (2003).
Slapstick is a descendent of the comic routines of Italian commedia dell'arte (mid-fifteenth to mid-seventeenth century) touring players, who developed basic plot scenarios and broad, swiftly drawn characters. The fun for their audiences was not in watching innovative narratives or well-developed characters but in seeing how a slick troupe of professionals could manipulate the standard components of farce—zany servants, pompous masters, young lovers—with speed and efficiency. Each commedia player performed and perfected a single stereotyped character, bringing his own personality to bear in the particulars of his comic business—the lazzi —or, as we might call it, the shtick.
Comedy in slapstick lies in the basic tension between control and its loss. Both the verbal outbursts of the wordier comics (the Marx Brothers [Chico (1887–1961), Harpo (1888–1964), Groucho (1890–1977), and Zeppo (1901–1979)], W. C. Fields [1880-1946]) and the physical eruptions of those who use extreme body comedy (Charlie Chaplin [1889-1977], Jerry Lewis [b. 1926]) are predicated on the delicate balance between resistance and inevitable surrender—indeed, the resistance serves to make the surrender even funnier. Slapstick's classic moment, the pie in the face, is funny only if the recipient is not already covered in pie but is first clean and neat; 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. Slapstick comedians learned early on that humor could be prolonged if resistance, whether to gravity or another inevitability, could also be prolonged—in other words, as long as there were a chance that the other shoe might fall. This balancing act is the slapstick comic's main job: paradoxically, when we watch him—and it is usually a him—performing lack of control, at least part of our pleasure derives from his skill at controlling this lack.
Jim Carrey might beat himself up mercilessly in Me, Myself, And Irene (2000), but even as he seems to abandon restraint while punching himself, we are aware of the physical control needed to perform this routine. Part of the humor in this tension is also derived from the comic hero's insistence on maintaining control when others around him have abandoned it. Chaplin's Tramp tries to maintain dignity even though poor, starving, drenched, and an outcast: the humor lies in his scrupulous adherence to social niceties (he holds his silverware nicely) even when society is in chaos (he is having to eat his own boot from starvation in The Gold Rush , 1925).