Why Was Slapstick Once Considered Funny?

Meaning, Three Stooges type of pie-in-the-face bop-over-the-head humor.

This is not to say that no one finds it funny now, but you don’t see big time comic acts based on this type of humor these days the way you did when the Three Stooges were in their heyday, so it seems pretty clear that it’s declined a lot. I have three possibilities.

[li]It’s one of these random indeterminate zetigeist things. Stuff goes in and out of style, and you never know if perhaps it will come back.[/li][li]It’s about the evolution of humor in a more complex direction. With the invention of mass media, any popular style of humor (or entertainment generally) gets tremendous exposure, and thus wears on the audience as lot sooner than would have been the case if humor was more localized. So what happened is that these simpler forms of humor wore off, and humor had to add additional complexity, such that there’s no going back.[/li][li]It has to do with society as a whole. Humor draws on a backdrop societal norms against which it’s set. Decades back, society was much more straight-laced and conformist than it is today. Against that backdrop, slapstick had an added entertainment value in being the antithesis of societal ideals, which it doesn’t have today when individualism is more encouraged.[/li][/ol]

With few exceptions, comedy doesn’t age well. I look at some of the comedy acts of the 70s and just cringe.

And, where it does age well, it becomes the de facto standard and generates tons of tropes cliches which can make it look a bit tired. How many comedy shows today can trace their roots back to I Love Lucy? A ton. And some don’t even do as well. Not just comedy either. If you’ve never Die Hard, which is a frikken awesome movie, you may not be that impressed because TONS of movies have worked off that template.

It’s kind of like, why is “random” humor funny now? I definitely don’t think that’s going to hold up, especially when you can only “get it” by understanding pop culture references that are going to become more obscure as time goes on.

A part of that may be that TV/talkies (movies) was a new media and slapstick is humor based on motion and action, playing into the strengths of this new technology. It was the ‘new’, seeing and hearing the action which may have accounted for some of it’s success.

But slapstick comes and goes in and out of style, the Jackass movies and show is slapstick.

Slapstick was a staple of old Vaudeville acts and was later carried forward into film. As the sophistication of film making has increased over time, audiences have come to expect more sophisticated humor. That’s my WAG.

The visual nature of it and the relative unimportance of the dialogue translated well to silent movies and raucous live venues.

Most comedy is humiliation happening to other people. These days, there may be a lot more of that psychologically than physically, but there’s nothing essentially different about the humor theory.

Good physical comedy is timeless. Bad physical comedy is easy to dismiss as stupid.

Slapstick is funny. It requires precision timing and physical ability to pull off, and far more creativity to keep fresh than simply telling jokes. Unlike verbal comedy it’s easy to imitate and still get a chuckle, and it’s been done to death that way ruining it’s general appeal, any number of unfunny people have taken a pie and stood there looking stupid, it’s like watching Ted Koppel saying “Take my wife, please”. Finding new ways to entertain with slapstick is difficult, it works best with teamwork, and it’s difficult to present the edgiest areas of comedy like sexuality and cruelty in a visual manner. We will see quality slapstick again from time to time but as a primary genre it’s limited to displays of silliness, Super Dave, Dorf on Golf, Jackass (as mentioned), but it’s not something that’s going to fit well in the comedy pipeline of clubs and TV specials.

Right, we’ve just evolved from Laurel and Hardy to Curb Your Enthusiasm (where we revel in Larry David’s humiliation).

Frankly, watching Larry try to backtrack on a racist comment is much more cringe-inducing (and, well, funny) than any seltzer-in-the-face.

When people were doing new things with slapstick, and you were able to see something you’d never seen before, it was funny. Now it’s repetitive. This is why children often still find The Three Stooges funny. It’s new for them.

Take slipping on a banana peel. The very first team to do this was brilliant, and probably got one of the biggest laughs in Vaudeville.

Here’s how it went. A guy eating a banana can be pretty funny, and it was often used as filler-- that is, something someone did during the changeover between acts.

So people are giggling at a funny banana eating filler, but they’ve seen it before. Then the banana eater tosses the peel over his shoulder, walks off, and one of the set workers comes out carefully carrying a handful of props-- and slips on the peel, taking a huge pratfall, and the handful of props go everywhere. Then everyone gets that this was the real gag, and it’s hilarious. The first time. It’s freaking brilliant. But that was literally 100 years ago, or so, probably. Now, it’s not that funny anymore. anyone older than 3 has seen the banana peel gag in some form. Anyone over 13 has filed it away, along with the drunk guy wearing a lampshade.

And there’s nothing fresh about The Three Stooges.

Slapstick comedy is not gone. As I mentioned, the Jack Ass franchise were huge hits in the early 2000s, youtube is filled with idiots injuring themselves for yuks and lots of comedies like Adam Sandler’s movies have slapstick in them.

A great deal of humor in Golden Age animation (the glory days of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones) is slapstick, and it holds up far better than most of its contemporary live-action counterparts.

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

– Mel Brooks

It’s also the premise of shows like Wipeout and many of the other “obstacle course” type shows (particularly ones where “successful” navigation is more luck than skill).

Slapstick’s still around. Only now it usually involves getting hit in the groin.

The 3 stooges and similar acts did short films that were shown before the main features. In a short time period slapstick works very well because there is no time for an elaborate set up and it does not get repetitive.
Today comedy is consumed in longer blocks and thus there is more emphasis on character and plot driven humor.

The Three Stooges are one form of slapstick, but there are many others. Silent comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd are still funny today, even though they use slapstick all the time.

Most comedies these days include at least some slapstick. It’s different in tone – you don’t have Stooges-like jokes – but physical comedy is a mainstay of nearly every film comedy these days.

Slapstick is primarily non-verbal. It goes way back in history and shows itself repeatedly in forms like commedia dell’arte and Punch and Judy shows. Traveling artists relied heavily on it because they often went where people spoke a different language or dialect than they did, so universal physical action was the best way to reach audiences.

American entertainment faced the same problem. Verbal comedy had to be simple and basic to reach all the different audiences, and it was heavily censored from the time it coalesced into vaudeville in the late 19th century. Most vaudeville acts were physical in some ways: dancers, jugglers, animals. W. C. Fields started as a silent comic juggler.

The Three Stooges were at the far end of this trend. They were burlesque, the form that survived when vaudeville started dying in the 1920s. Burlesque used comics in-between strip acta and they were easy to tune out unless they were loud, brassy, and physical. Most of what we remember as slapstick comes from this period, although movies used it heavily in the talkies’ days. Silent movie mayhem didn’t need words. Doesn’t today either, but we call them action movies.

Radio and the talkies brought words. That’s why the Marx Brothers were A-list stars and the Stooges were minor fodder in movie shorts, made famous after the fact solely because the shorts filled lots of time on early television. Anybody could say words that someone else wrote. Gifted physical comics are rare. And they get hurt. Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Chevy Chase all developed addictions to try to control the pain of their broken bodies. Steve-O of Jackass used every chemical known to science and attempted suicide in rehab. Who needs that?

I would LOVE to see Ted Koppel say “Take my wife, please,” and then get hit in the face with a pie!

Well-done slapstick is still funny. It’s a large part of Ty Burrell’s appeal on Modern Family. Do it really, really well and you can win an Emmy Award without a single word of dialog.