Site Map
Section › 10   Set    Search  Previous Next



Slapstick (Italian: brutta farsa, freddura, grossolano) is a type of comedy involving exaggerated extreme physical violence or activities which exceed the boundaries of common sense. It is at times comedy marked by chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes, or by broad humour, absurd situations, and vigorous, often violent action. The activity involved may be foolish, and depictions may be very exaggerated.

The word slapstick derives from the battacchio - 'slap stick' in English. It consists of double paddles used by circus clowns to beat one another. Two wooden slats - one with a handle - were connected with a spring hinge, and the loud, smacking crack of the two slats could easily make an audience laugh. And the devise caused little physical damage.

Theatre historians tell that slapstick comedy has been at least somewhat present in almost all comedic genres since the theatre was rejuvenated in church liturgical dramas in the Middle Ages. Some think slapstick also was used in Greek and Roman theatre.

In America the style was explored extensively in silent movies starring such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. Slapstick is also common in animated cartoons, for example about Daffy Duck.

Charlie Chaplin came out of the tradition of the British music hall, and developed his tramp character and costumed that character with baggy pants and oversized shoes not unlike the circus clown costume. Chaplin also "was consciously modeling himself on the American tramp".

In recent times, slapstick continues, and has been used by for example Jerry Lewis who said, "The premise of all comedy is a man in trouble", and also Mel Brooks, Jim Carrey, John Cleese and others of Monty Python, and Rowan Atkinson, to name some more.

The comic

According to Lisa Trahair (2007), Comedy, the comic, the ludic, the joke, play, and laughter are terms that have pervaded both poststructuralist and postmodernist discourse. The works of Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-Fran�ois Lyotard are only the better known examples of a more general contemporary phenomenon that incorporates the tenets of the comic into philosophical thinking. . . . At best, it attempts to theorize the specificity of the comic's formations. �1)

I consider comedy as a distinctive mode of drama and as a form of representation opposed to tragedy, and the comic as the broadest category of things that are laughable. �13)

To comprehend the comic . . . is to risk overlooking the structure of incomprehensibility that is crucial to its operation. �15)

To understand comic is not to understand it well, she is into. How to follow up on that one?

Comic Performances Are of Many Sorts

In his Taking Humour Seriously, Jerry Palmer, a Professor of Communication at London Guildhall University, Jerry Palmer says we ought to take humour seriously too, or else we fail to understand a fundamental element of culture. He considers that humour is integral to literary and visual narrative and also a rhetorical instrument. He explores the role humour and comedy play and considers what may at times prevent humour and comedy from delivering their usual pleasures. He writes:


By 'humour' I mean everything that is actually or potentially funny, and the processes by which this 'funniness' occurs. - Jerry Palmer, (2004, 3)

The majority of psychological experiments into humour are done in the USA, and the professional comedians I have in mind are British . . .

Over the last ten years a large body of studies has emerged which is at least in part interdisciplinary. Anthropologists and film critics use Freud, psychologists refer to historical studies, literary critics take account of social frameworks, etc. - Jerry Palmer, (2004, 4)

Humour is a very fragile thing. (Ib. 5)

A fundamental problem: how do we know that something is a joke? (Ib. 7). He answers:

A comic performance is endowed with cue properties by its social nature; it is because it is defined (in advance of any particular performance) as being an occasion appropriate for humour that it is capable of acting as a cue for participants to define the activities they witness as being humorous and not of some other nature (offensive, childish, brutal, etc.). (Ib. 25)

And by that he says humour has its cues.

The relationship between narrative and gag . . . has preoccupied so many theorists of cinematic comedy. Neale and Krutnik['s] interpretation of the gag includes what is commonly known as slapstick. (Ib. 44)

Gags are able to build or prolong disgressive action. and are not "restricted" to opposing the narrative. (Mod (Ib. 45)

We are lead to the view that although the transgression of narrativity is certainly a common operation amongst gags, it is not an essential one. . . . Is the difference between narrative and comedy a mere divergence of interests . . . or is it rather a structured opposition? (Ib. 45)

Neale and Krutnik's historical analysis note how slapstick comes less to the fore in the 1920s, this particular kind of violent, bawdy, and base comedy, devoid of illuminating capacity. (Ib. 46, 47)

Donald Crafton presents another view of slapstick than Neale and Krutnik. Crafton distinguishes between slapstick proper . . . and what Neale and Krutnik would call the articulated gag . . . Neale and Krutnik make a similar point in distinguishing between first and second wave comedian comedy. They identify the first wave as dominated by French performers such as André Deed and Max Linder, and the second as composed mainly of the progeny of Sennett's Keystone studios, exemplified not only in the films of those who actually learned their craft from him such as Chaplin, but also [Harold] Lloyd and [Buster] Keaton. (Ib. 45, 46)

The term slapstick originally referred to a stage prop constructed of two wooden paddles, joined at one end, used by circus clowns to hit each other, thereby producing a slapping sound. Don B. Wilmeth notes "the literal slapstick was translated into a term to describe physical or broad comedy." (Ib. 47)

Larry Langman contends that a prompter used a slapstick device to cue the audience to laugh and argues that although slapstick is a kind of physical comedy, not all physical comedy is slapstick. Taking his cue from what he considers to be the original purpose of the object, he distinguishes slapstick by its requirement of expert timing. Slapstick, he also claims, "implies both the use of physical gags aimed against someone for laughs and a sense of unreality as a result of the broad gags and the improbability of the stunts." Crafton concurs with this definition of the word and argues that "[t]he violent aural effect, 'the slap,' may be thought of as having the same kind of disruptive impact on the audience as its visual equivalent in the silent cinema, the pie in the face". (Ib. 47)

The devise and skilled use of it may also serve to wake up those who are dozing off during a performance or film.

Neale and Krutnik define slapstick as a mode of comedy just like parody or satire. Slapstick, in other words, would be one mode of articulating comic narrative; parody and satire would be others. . . . Slapstick thus understood can . . . contribute to the acceptability of comic narrative. Slapstick makes comic narrative tolerable. (Ib. 47)

By that measure we get a "means of escape", and are allowed not to take abuse seriously, and can "obtain pleasure from distressing circumstances," as Sigmund Freud observes in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. (Ib. 47)

[A] comedian's . . . stylization of performance is not strictly limited to the physical body and its perpetration of violent deeds . . . Slapstick, we might thus hypothesize here, always entails a comic stylization of performance. (Ib. 49)

Clowning history

From the earliest records of history until the late Renaissance in Europe the domestic fool – or court jester, as (s)he is also known – was a standard figure. It is recorded that the Fifth Dynasty Pharaoh Dadkeri-Assi kept a court fool, and that ancient Chinese emperors kept them, as did Haroun-al-Rashid and Tamburlaine; in Imperial Rome there was a fool market, akin to the slave market . . . They were well known throughout medieval Europe, and continued . . . Charles II instated a court fool in 1668 and the last recorded domestic fool in Britain was at Hilton Castle in County Durham in 1746. (Palmer 2004, 25)

A jester tale

Edward IV had a court fool called Scogan. On one occasion Scogan so annoyed Edward with one of his pranks that he was banished and forbidden upon pain of death ever to set foot on English soil again. He duly set out for France, but was soon back in England and at court. When charged with disobeying the king's express prohibition he took off his shoes – they were full of French soil. He was pardoned and reinstated. (Ib. 25)

Another jester tale

One of the French kings kept a fool called Marot; one day when they were walking together, the king told Marot to walk on his left, as he could not abide having a fool on his right; 'Is that so?' replied Marot, moving across to the king's left. 'I can bear it very well'. (Ib. 25)

Because the witty riposte comes from the fool, it is defined as funny and not as offensive. (Ib. 25-26)

The last jester tale retold

One day as the French king and his fool Marot were walking together, the king told him to walk on his left, for "I cannot stand having a fool on my right. Would you mind?"

"I don't mind," said Marot, moving across to the king's left.

Granted that good clowning generally is hardly enough, you may do better if you refrain from clowning and go for the best on your own behalf.

The Wise Physician

A king set to sea on a ship with some of his courtiers. A courtier who had never been to sea before, sat in the empty belly of the ship and screamed and wailed as the waves carried them up and down, up and down - Many tried to calm his fears, but did not come through a bit.

The king could hardly bear to hear the courtier's cries any more when his physician came up to him and said, "Sir, with your permission I can calm him down."

The king gladly gave his permission, and the physician ordered the seamen to throw the screaming courtier overboard. They did it. The courtier thrashed about in the water, gasped for air and for dear life cried to be taken on board. Then the seamen pulled him out of the water, and from then on he sat quietly in a corner. The surprised king asked the physician, "What wisdom is contained in this action?"

The physician said, "He had never experienced the salt sea before, and didn't know how dangerous it can be. So he did not know how good it is to have a ship between oneself and the water.

It is good to refrain from this kind of anxiety therapy.


"The Analects describes Confucius as a man of wit and of humor. It is hard to recognize this man from the Analects in the traditional commentaries or the modern histories of Chinese philosophy," writes Christoph Harbsmeier (1989, 291). The Sinologist has been a professor at the University in Oslo for several decades.

When Confucius asks a string of disciples about their ambitions, they all come up with reasonably respectable and proper ambitions. Only a certain Dian falls out of line:

"In late spring, after the spring clothes have been newly made, I should like, together with five or six adults and six or seven boys, to go bathing in the River Yi and enjoy the breeze on the Rain Altar, and then to go home chanting poetry."

The Master sighed and said: "I'm (all) in favour of Dian!" (11.26) (Harbsmeier 1989, 292)

Ji Wen Zi always thought three times before taking action.

When the Master was told of this he commented: "Twice is enough!" (5.20)

The Sinologist Harbsmeier: "I admit that the old commentary takes a different line . . . [D]oes Confucius literally believe that it matters whether you think twice instead of thrice? I can hardly imagine this. . . . I conclude that the Analects are pervasively characterized by a fine sense of subtle informality, friendship, and humor." (Harbsmeier 1989, 292)

Slapstick and anecdotes, humour, entertaining reading, Literature  

Dale, Alan S. 2001. Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies. Ill reprint ed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1995. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Tr., ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

Harbsmeier, Christoph. 1989. Humour in Ancient Chinese Philosophy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. Philosophy East and West, Vol 39, No. 3, pp. 289-310.

Palmer, Jerry. Taking Humour Seriously. London: Taylor and Francis, 2004.

Slingerland, Edward, tr. Confucius. Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003.

Trahair, Lisa. The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Slapstick and anecdotes, humour, entertaining reading, To top    Section     Set    Next

Slapstick and anecdotes, humour, entertaining reading. User's Guide   ᴥ    Disclaimer 
© 1998–2019, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [Email]