Slapstick's Greatest Hits

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A slapstick, in 16th-century commedia dell’arte, was comprised of two wooden slats that made a loud noise when struck against a player’s rear end,? sounding much more painful than it actually was. Thus, a formula for the ages: A shot to the buttocks + startling noise = comic genius. From Shakespeare through Itchy and Scratchy, slapstick has delighted audiences. Why is it funny? ?Mel Brooks put it best: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” In other words, as long as it’s happening to someone else, bring on the cruelty.

Here, we’ve assembled a range of slapstick and have asked Dr. Clifford Kuhn—a physician, med-school professor and author who calls himself “The Laugh Doctor” on his website—to offer a reality check: If the calamities in these scenes actually befell you in real life, what would happen to your bruised, bloodstained, pie-smeared body?

Road Runner: “Fast and Furry-ous”
Some prefer their cartoon mayhem served up by Tom and Jerry, but the fleet-footed Road Runner is even more relentless. This cartoon has all the basics: Wile E. Coyote blows up the detonator instead of the dynamite. He paints a fake tunnel on a mountain, and the Road Runner dashes in, then a bewildered Coyote attempts to follow and smashes into the rock. He hears a “meep-meep,” gets excited, then gets plowed over by an oncoming bus. Slapstick supposedly revolves around surprises, but Road Runner cartoons mock the element of surprise. You see exactly what’s coming, and the joke is that poor Wile E. never does.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Coyote dies at least three times—multiple blunt-force trauma from ?giant boulder, falling into ravine and being hit by bus.

The Three Stooges’ pie fight
Ali vs. Frazier. Dylan with the Band. The Three Stooges and custard pies. Some pairings offer the pure, Platonic?ideal of their genre. The moment you see tuxedoed Moe Howard trying to talk posh in a drawing room, while across the room a butler carries a creamy dessert, you should be gleeful with anticipation. Not every Stooges bit has to have pliers inserted into Curly’s nostrils and twisted 180 degrees. Of course, that’s pretty neat too. Nyuck nyuck.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Corneal abrasions from pie crust in eyes.

Safety Last!
Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a department-store clock over a city street is an iconic image of modernity (even if it came out in 1923), and the movie will make you gobble Xanax like popcorn. Trapped outside a building several stories up, Lloyd keeps getting into increasingly worse jams. We sometimes root for bad things to happen in slapstick, but in Safety Last we’re ?pulling for Lloyd in every frame.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Hero suffers blunt head trauma, causing loss of coordination and balance, then plunges to his death.

Monty Python ?and the Holy Grail:? The Black Knight scene
Some slapstick can work without dialogue. But the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python’s classic 1975 comedy depends on the absurdity of the knight’s response to having his limbs hacked off—one by one— by King Arthur and his sword Excalibur. In the worst case of denial in history, he sees his missing arms as merely “a flesh wound,” and insists on continuing the duel. “What are you going to do,” Arthur asks the knight, “bleed on me?”

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Black Knight hemorrhages to death. Quickly.

Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory
In the silent film era, there was a widespread belief in Hollywood that audiences didn’t want to see pretty actresses getting smacked around. Even with changes in gender attitudes, women in comedy still generally stick to the verbal, or the less violent forms of physical comedy. But we’re still laughing at someone’s discomfort—psychic pain rather than physical—when those chocolates keep shooting down the conveyor belt.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Lucy becomes ill with Type II Diabetes from overindulging in chocolate.

There’s Something About Mary: The zipper scene
There’s probably a master’s thesis to be written about how modern slapstick has moved the primary target from the buttocks to the crotch. You’ll be delighted to know this article is not that thesis. We’re more interested in celebrating the immortal inquiry: “Is it the frank or the beans?” For some guys, this scene is almost unwatchable.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Young man faints from intense pain; scrotum surgically extricated from zipper under anesthesia; plastic surgery likely required.

Blue Collar TV: “Ouch, That’s Gotta Hurt.”
Week after week, America’s Funniest Home Videos shows us the money shot: some poor schlub getting nailed in the nads. Yet it’s considered a family show. In this sketch, Jeff Foxworthy and pals make a groin-aggressive video for AFV, taking it to extremes that somehow make the Black Knight’s fate seem preferable.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: Victim rendered unconscious and perhaps incontinent from repeated blunt trauma to the genitals.

Jackie Chan’s First Strike
Let’s end on a more graceful note. In this movie, Jackie Chan—the Fred Astaire of martial arts—uses a broom, a folding table, a ladder and other objects on hand to choreograph a fight. It’s like Astaire’s elegant hat-rack dance in Royal Wedding, only with the added fun of bad guys trying to beat the protagonist to a pulp.

Dr. Kuhn’s diagnosis: In real life, the attackers don’t wait their turn to attack one at a time, instead descending on victim en masse and rendering him unconscious in less than two minutes.

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