“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!)