Pies in the face

For as long as I can remember, I have had a weird fascination with the popular slapstick comedy device of a pie in the face: the inherently peculiar act of placing a creamy pastry product in someone’s face, and the resulting humiliation experienced by the victim when the pie plate falls away (or the pie crust crumbles, whichever the case may be), and they are revealed to laughing onlookers as looking like… well, something that just stepped out of a horror movie in many cases! So, what I want to know is, does anyone know who the comedic genius/utter weirdo/seriously disturbed individual who came up with this oft-used comic device was? Also, when did it first appear (I’m guessing towards the end of the 19th Century, but that’s just wild speculation)?

I’ve heard that the “cream” in the cream pies used in many comedy routines is actually shaving cream; is this true? Also, would there be any danger of suffocation in taking a pie in the face, and having its contents remain there for several minutes thereafter?

Finally, to ask a very peculiar question relating to this topic, and at the risk of sounding like I have far too much free time on my hands (which I do), one particularly memorable pie-in-the-face act that I recall witnessing was on the TV show “The Monkees”, which had the title band members receiving pies in the face on a children’s TV show called “Captain Crocodile” (which was also the name of the episode in which this incident appeared). Just before being pied, The Monkees had protective gear put on which included funky-looking green bathing caps that looked as though they had been made out of large leaves. Does anyone know if there was any bizarre symbolism behind this (it just seemed weird to me)? I know it was only a kid’s show, but like most TV shows apparently do, it was supposedly replete with in-jokes, references to other shows and whatnot. Was this an example of one of those things? :confused:

I don’t know the answer to most of your questions. This site credits the pie-in-the-face gag to silent comedy genius Mack Sennett, but I think you’re right to think it probably originated on a vaudeville stage somewhere.

The only other thing I can tell you is that the “pies” are often made of shaving cream or whipped cream sprayed onto a pie tin. This, to my mind, is an unforgivable instance of laziness; there’s no substitute for watching a complete, well-baked pastry slowly dissolve off a poor sap’s face.

Moe Howard, of The Three Stooges, wrote about pie-throwing in his autobiography. I’m sure he never claimed to have invented it, but he did note that:

1.) They used shaving-cream pies, or whipped cream. Cream only in a pie tin. It’s not just that it’s easy – it’s light. This is important

2.) In his seventies, Moe was a guest on (I think) the Mike Douglas Show. A fan came in with a real fruit pie and asked Moe to throw it at him. Moe did, reluctantly. The pie, he noted, was heavy. The guy who was hit went down, and Moe thought he’d hurt him. But he got up. Cream pies were used to avoid this kinda thing.

3.) Even the old cream pies weren’t completely safe. They did a lot of takes for those shorts, after all. Instead of making new pies, they’d scrape up the old cream and refill the tins. The floors of working studios weren’t exactly pristime, so there was a good chance you’d get hit with floor sweepings. Not nice if they included, say, nails.

No one takes a pie like SOUPY SALES! :smiley:

Most film historians say that the first pie was ad libbed by Mabel Normand in a Mack Sennett comedy. Trying to come up with something funny to do, Mabel threw a pie at Ben Turpin. The effect of Turpin’s face emerging from the pie – he was extremely crosseyed – added to the humor.

Sennett immediately knew he had a hit on his hands and pie throwing became a standard part of his comedy. Pies in silent films were blueberry – it showed up best on screen – and were baked specially, so they had a uniform size and weight. This allowed for more accurate throws. If you look, they were also smaller and thicker than regular pies; I suspect that made them weigh less and reduced the chance of damage.

Later on, people started using shaving cream.

BTW, Buster Keaton never threw a pie in his silent days, and Charlie Chaplin was never hit by one.

Can anyone explain why the pie in the face is funny? or is it not intended to be funny, just humiliating. I have never understood the ‘humour’ behind it, to me it’s on a par with clowns whom I just don’t find funny at all (accept two really different ones at the Moscow circus).

Sorry, I see that Reality has mentioned the face appearing from the pie cross eyed as funny - any other explanations?

It’s the same thing as when someone falls in a puddle of mud. It’s funny because it’s nothing that really harms the person, but it’s still humiliating to them, as it makes a mess. The surprise factor is part of the humor too… sneaking up on an unsuspecting person and slamming a pie into their face is hilarious.

I understand that the Entartistes (political pie throwers) use whipped cream in a pie tin, too.

Real pies are expensive enough that no sane director is going to want enough around to cover more than one take.

As to weight – pick a pie up. Assuming an aluminum disposeable pie pan, you’re still talking a minimum of a pound or so, and that’s if it’s a cream pie. Use a fruit pie, and we’re looking at a minimum of two or three pounds.

I guarantee if I hit you hard enough to guarantee any degree of accuracy with ANY three pound object, you are going to find it a bit of a shock, particularly since you know it’s coming and have closed your eyes. Disorienting at best, and injurious at worst; I’ve seen several people suffer nosebleeds, and stunning effects weren’t unheard of. Even had one guy accidentally inhale part of a pie, and wasn’t THAT fun…

My theatre group experimented with this in high school. Whipped cream sprayed into pie tins was about the only way we could make it work, and even then, we had to be careful slamming them into each other’s faces; when you’re onstage and pumped full of adrenaline, you can coldcock someone without ever meaning to, or realizing you’re doing it.

We didn’t long use shaving cream pies. They’re cheaper, but the risk of irritating the target’s eyes is a big one, and the last thing you want is to be onstage in front of a live audience, totally blind, with soap in your eyes. We used whipped cream, and held an extra fundraiser that year to deal with it.

THROWING the pie compounds the problem; hurling a real pie with any degree of accuracy is going to run a risk of injuring the target. Unfortunately, whipped-cream combat pies (yes, that’s what we called them) are too light to throw with any degree of accuracy beyond a few feet. After some experimentation, we settled on choco-whip pies for ranged effects; they delivered nicely, were about as aerodynamic as you could expect of a pie, and had enough heft to hurl, without being as heavy as real pies.

A variant on this theme allowed for a graham cracker crust, if the situation calls for the target to stand there, stunned,while the thing drips off him (whipped cream pies don’t drip quickly at all, and may well simply stick there on the target’s head, pan and all; choco-whip pies, due to their semicolloidal nature, tend to fall off fairly quickly, leaving the victim besplattered, but quickly recognizable. You want the classic effect of chunks of pie falling off your stunned victim gradually, you want choco-whip with graham cracker crust. Works in color, or black and white.)

The WHIPPED CREAM PIE was simple; simply obtain a can of spray whip, or a tub of Cool Whip, or any suitable substitute, and dish it into a disposeable aluminum pie pan. Be careful about hot lights and suchlike; it’ll melt!

The CHOCO-WHIP PIE is somewhat more complex, but actually cheaper; obtain one package of Instant Pudding mix, and some milk, and prepare according to the directions, but make a point of whipping it more or less continuously with an electric mixer; a large amount of air gets into the pudding, and eventually, you wind up with a kind of thick, heavy pudding/cream stuff; dish into disposeable pie pans. One box will make three pies, easy, if you’ve done it right. Somewhat more resistant to melting under the lights than whipped cream, too. We used chocolate pudding, but any flavor or color would work, theoretically.

The VARIANT CHOCO-PIE was prepared the same way, but dished into an ordinary graham cracker pie crust before use.

Another trick: money can be saved by using paper plates instead of aluminum pie pans, and the plates are actually slightly safer. Get a can of silver spray paint, and spray the BACKS ONLY of the plates several hours before use; do NOT get any paint in the part where the pie will go! Use only on stage and in long shots, where the audience won’t notice the difference. Also useful when the performers intend to attack confederates in the audience; if a pie gets out of control, the damage it can do is minimal (although whipped cream, rather than choco-whip, is strongly recommended under the circumstances!)

Family Troubles (1900) may have the first pie throwing in the movies. Here’s the plot description from the Biograph catalog:

And then there’s the Tramp on a Farm (1904) in the Kleine Optical Co. catalog:

On this subject, I recently remembered once hearing of what I presume was an old term of insult: “Pieface”. Would this term of endearment have had anything to do with the old pie-in-the-face gag (as a reference to the victim of such a gag maybe), or did it have its origins somewhere else entirely? And while we’re on the subject of fun, messy things to do with pies, does anyone know when (and, more importantly, why) pie eating contests originated?

The specifics about slapstick pies are being answered by the other posters. so, as a person who watched a hell of a lot of Monkees re-runs during my childhood, I thought I’d address this. I don’t recall the specific episode you mention, but I do recall that in at least one episode, the show introduced a rival band called the Jolly Green Giants. They wore green paint all over their bodies, and wore headgear exactly like that whcih you describe. I would suspect then, that IF this “Captain Crocodile” espisode were filmed after that one, (and given that “The Monkees” doesn’t look like they had the highest of budgets going) they simply re-used the JGGs headwear for the CC ep. Hopefully, some Monkees-addicted thrown pie afficionado who reads this thread will be able to provide a link to lend creedence this conjecture or not.

OK, I guess that person is me.


According to this site, Episode 19 (“Find the Monkees”, aka “The Audition”) of Season One is the one where the Jolly Green Giants make their appearance (along with the Four Martians and the Foreign Agents, two other rival bands). It aired on 1/23/1967. The “Captain Crocodile” episode was #23, and aired on 2/20/1967.

Barring any contrary claims by the screenwriters, directors or costumers of the show, I’ll stand by my low-budget assessment.

Thanks for providing a possible answer to this part of my post; I was beginning to despair that anyone would (though I suppose, as I admitted, it was a bit of a weird question)! Yes, I’ve seen the other episode that you mention (I believe the Jolly Green Giants were based on the advertising icon of the same name), and your “doubling up on props” explanation does seem fairly logical. I was a little dismayed to see the aforementioned caps being used for the somewhat degrading purpose that they were in “Captain Crocodile” (ie to get creamy gunk all over them) since they were quite cool, and without wanting to sound like a queer or nothin’ (to paraphrase Dave the Lighting Guy from the movie “Orgazmo”), Davy Jones looked quite cute in his; it really suited him! His pieing seemed to produce the most interesting results too: he emerged from it resembling either a hobgoblin (perhaps thanks to the fairytale-inspired cap he happened to be wearing at the time) or one of those baby-faced extraterrestrials that believers in UFOs nowadays seem to think all aliens look like.

It’s funny in both the Henri Bergsonian definition of humor and the Michael O’Donoghue example.

Bergsonian: Something is funny because it reveals the humanity behind a mechanical motion. A person standing still is behaving in a mechanical way, and when the pie hits the face, you realize it. Seeing the victim with pie all over his face reminds you that he is human and fallable.

O’Donoghue (probably not the originator, but the most extreme advocate): All humor (except puns) is based on pain and humiliation. We laugh when we see someone get hurt, as long as the pain is minor. Thus, a pie in the face, which humiliates the person getting hit, is funny. It stops being funny if the victim starts screaming, “My eyes! Oh, my God, I can’t see! The pain!” (Well, usually.)

It’s rather hard to come up with a joke or any type of humor that doesn’t hurt or humilate anyone (other than puns).

Is anyone else as turned on as I am?

Are you trying to say that puns aren’t painful?

Of course puns are based on pain! But it’s not the pain of a performer - it’s the pain of the audience. :smiley:

Yes, that’s what people joke when I point that out. But the difference is that, with a pun, no one actually is hurt or humiliated. It’s just a juxtoposition of one word where another could be.

However, maybe the fact people groan at puns is a way to put some pain into them and thus make them funny. :stuck_out_tongue: