What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Friday, February 11, 2011

S is for Slapstick

“To me, comedy is if you fall into an open sewer and die. To me, tragedy is if I cut my finger.”

--Mel Brooks (as the 2000 Year Old Man)


Slapstick, many people believe, is the oldest form of comedy, and the closest to being universal. Slapstick is fast, violent humor. You know, everything from a pie in the face to (as Mr. Brooks says) falling in an open manhole.

I’m not going to fall into the trap of using a dictionary definition—it makes one sound like the valedictorian at a bad high school graduation. (“According to Websters, ‘puberty’ is that time when…”). You know what slapstick is: fast, physical comedy that borders on violence. Pratfalls, kicks in the pants. Pies in the face. That sort of thing.

Charlie Chaplin was a master of this sort of comedy, so were Laurel and Hardy and Harpo Marx. I’m not sure who would be the champion of slapstick today—perhaps Jim Carey? Good slapstick involves timing and physical control, not something today’s comics are known for.

Slapstick is, to some degree, a matter of taste. Those with sensitive natures wince at the violence of slapstick, even if it’s clear that no real damage has been done. As a gross generalization, men seem to have a greater appreciation of slapstick than do women (“The Great Three Stooges Debate”). I suppose women would say it’s because men have no imagination…


Monty Python’s Flying Circus, comics more known for wordplay and bizarre flights of fancy than for slapstick, nevertheless created one of my favorite examinations of the slapstick comedy in a skit that I’ve always thought of as “The Comedy Lecture.”

The piece never appeared on their TV show (in fact, I suspect it was written by one or more of the cast during their college days) but it was performed during their live shows, and was filmed during their appearances at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s on Youtube here and is definitely worth five minutes of your time.


Hey, did you know where the phrase “slapstick” comes from? It was a tool of early comedians: Two pieces of wood (such as barrel staves) tied together at one end. When slapped against a piece of furniture—or an actor—the slapstick made a “crack!” that punctuated a joke. Think of it as an ancient rimshot (with a little violence added).

Some folks say the slapstick was created by the comedia del arte. But those are the folks who think that the comedia del arte invented everything…


It’s not easy to come across slapstick in written form. The closest I can come is probably “The Sick Note”—a song that I’ve often heard referred to as “Dear Boss.”

I first heard it performed by the Clancy Brothers (link here), but the authorship is claimed by a fellow by the name of Pat Cooksey.

Anyway, you might want to listen to the song first, or even read along.

Dear Boss I write this note to you to tell you of my plight
For at the time of writing I am not a pretty sight
My body is all black and blue, my face a deathly grey
And I write this note to say why Paddy's not at work today.

Whilst working on the fourteenth floor, some bricks I had to clear
To throw them down from such a height was not a good idea
The foreman wasn't very pleased, the bloody awkward sod
He said I had to cart them down the ladders in my hod.

Now clearing all these bricks by hand, it was so very slow
So I hoisted up a barrel and secured the rope below
But in my haste to do the job, I was too blind to see
That a barrel full of building bricks was heavier than me.

And so when I untied the rope, the barrel fell like lead
And clinging tightly to the rope I started up instead
I shot up like a rocket till to my dismay I found
That half way up I met the bloody barrel coming down.

Well the barrel broke my shoulder, as to the ground it sped
And when I reached the top I banged the pulley with my head
I clung on tightly, numb with shock, from this almighty blow
And the barrel spilled out half the bricks, fourteen floors below.

Now when these bricks had fallen from the barrel to the floor
I then outweighed the barrel and so started down once more
Still clinging tightly to the rope, my body racked with pain
When half way down, I met the bloody barrel once again.

The force of this collision, half way up the office block
Caused multiple abrasions and a nasty state of shock
Still clinging tightly to the rope I fell towards the ground
And I landed on the broken bricks the barrel scattered round.

I lay there groaning on the ground I thought I'd passed the worst
But the barrel hit the pulley wheel, and then the bottom burst
A shower of bricks rained down on me, I hadn't got a hope
As I lay there bleeding on the ground, I let go the bloody rope.

The barrel then being heavier then started down once more
And landed right across me as I lay upon the floor
It broke three ribs, and my left arm, and I can only say
That I hope you'll understand why Paddy's not at work today.

(The Mythbusters tested this song on one episode. It took some monkeying—it’s harder to break the bottom of a barrel than one might think—but the physics basically works!)

Friday, February 4, 2011

R is for a Rabbi, a Priest, and a Minister

“A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says: “What is this, some kind of a joke?”



Ah, yes. The rabbi, the priest and the minister. A triumvirate in any number of jokes. The set-up’s got all sorts of humor tropes implicit in it.

First of all, there’s the Rule of Three. I’ve written about this before: The first instance sets up the situation, the second establishes the pattern, and the third breaks that pattern. The disparity between expectation and reality is what creates the laugh.


A rabbi a priest and a minister were fishing together in a rowboat on Sunday afternoon. They started talking about the Bible, and about the miracles. They all agreed that while God could pass miracles, it was unlikely that they occurred as often as the Bible said they did.

“On the other hand,” said the minister, “I have no trouble believing that Jesus walked on water.”

“Absolutely,” said the priest, “no doubt about that one.”

The rabbi expressed his skepticism politely, but his two friends insisted. “It’s true,” said the minister. “I’ll prove it!” With that, the minister hopped out of the rowboat and walked to shore barely getting his feet wet.

The rabbi sat in slack-jawed amazement, even as the priest followed his colleague, jumped over the side, and likewise walked to shore.

“Amazing!” exclaimed the rabbi. He gathered himself, leaped out of the rowboat, and disappeared as the water closed over his head.

On shore, the priest turned to the minister and said: “You think we should have showed him where the rocks are?”


In addition to the Rule of Three, these jokes tend to have the whole religious/mysticism thing going for them—they often involve death or the rituals surrounding death. That means we’ve got the whole ‘Whistling in the Dark’ grim humor going, too. Not to mention the contrast between the clergy’s holy functions and their wholly human personae…


A local atheist, a wealthy man, has remained on friendly terms with all the local clergy. When the atheist dies, the rabbi, priest and minister learn to their surprise, that his entire fortune has been divided equally among the three of them—with the understanding that EACH must put $10,000 in the atheist’s open coffin before it lowered in the ground.

At the memorial service, the minister approaches the coffin, mutters a prayer, and puts $10,000 in the coffin.

As the body is being moved to the hearse, the priest approaches the coffin, crosses himself and places $10,000 in the coffin.

Right before the body is being placed in its grave, the rabbi approaches the coffin, grabs the $20,000 and places a check for $30,000 in the coffin.


Another joke is similar in spirit…


A rabbi, a priest and a minister are sitting about (NOT in a rowboat) talking about donations. It quickly becomes evident that not all of the contributions from their respective congregations make their way to charity. The trio begin to discuss how the money is distributed.

“Well,” says the minister, “Once a week I take all the donations we receive into the back room. I draw a circle on the floor. I stand in the middle of the circle and throw the donations up in the air. Whatever lands outside the circle, goes for God’s work. Whatever lands inside the circle I keep for myself.”

“That’s remarkable,” says the priest. “I, too, take all the donations we receive into the back room once a week. Like you, I draw a circle on the floor and throw all the donations up in the air. However, whatever lands inside the circle, goes for God’s work, and whatever lands outside the circle I keep for myself.”

“Now, this is an amazing coincidence,” says the rabbi. “Like the two of you, I take all the donations we receive into the back room once a week. I too, draw a circle on the floor, stand in the center, and throw all the donations up in the air. And whatever God wants, he keeps!”


Anyone ELSE find it a little off-putting that the rabbi is the butt of all three of those jokes? Or that two of them involve Jews and money? Oh, well. I don’t particularly want to delve too deeply into those issues.

Here’s one more with the rabbi bringing up the rear as it were.


A rabbi, a priest and a minister are walking along a deserted road on a hot day. They come to a stream. Since there’s no one around, the trio decides to go skinny dipping. They stash their clothing in a stand of trees, and make their way to the stream. No sooner do the three of them start splashing about than the minister spies a whole crowd of people from the town making its way down the road.

Trapped, the trio stare helplessly at one another. At last, the minister takes a deep breath, covers his privates with his hands, and dashes from the stream, through the crowd, and down the road to where the clothes are stashed.

The priest looks at the rabbi, takes a deep breath, covers his privates with his hands, and dashes from the stream, through the crowd and down the road to where the clothes are stashed.

Alone, the rabbi takes a deep breath, covers his head with his hands, dashes from the stream, through the crowd and down the road where the clothes are stashed.

His friends, already dressed, are waiting for the rabbi when he arrives among the trees, and help him into his clothes. While the rabbi is adjusting his yarmulke, the minister says, “We saw you make your run—you’re pretty fast!! But tell us, why didn’t you cover your privates?”

“I don’t know how it is where YOU work,” replied the rabbi, “but my congregation would recognize my face.”


Hey, at least this time the rabbi isn’t the – ahem – butt of the joke.

There are also a whole bunch of jokes which drop the minister entirely. The rabbi and priest jokes mostly compare and contrast celibacy and the laws of kosher. Those jokes are pretty funny, too. Perhaps we’ll delve into them on another occasion….unless you’d like to post some of them yourselves.