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 available on YouTube,
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
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.
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!, ?starring Harold Lloyd
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.
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
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
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.
diagnosis: Young man faints from intense pain; scrotum surgically
extricated from zipper under anesthesia; plastic surgery likely
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.