A banana skin

What is slapstick comedy?

By BBC Maestro

What is slapstick humour? Take a look at the picture above of the banana skin. If you see a pratfall waiting to happen, you’re already familiar with the funny and painful world of slapstick comedy. And if you don’t, you soon will.

Slapstick is a type of physical comedy that uses exaggeration for comedic effect. There are no words, just the comedian’s body and maybe the occasional prop: custard pies, water buckets and of course, banana skins are great stalwarts of the slapstick tradition.

However, never dismiss slapstick as the zany little cousin of clever word-play and stand-up jokes. This is a very clever, very meticulous branch of comedy, where let’s face it, the stakes are often far higher than a few boos. Let’s take a closer look at the weird and wild world of slapstick comedy.

What are slapstick comedy techniques?

Slapstick is typically a combination of exaggerated action and absurd situations. Expect devices such as eye pokes, pratfalls, chases, pretend fights and of course, plenty of pies in faces. These choreographed routines use meticulous techniques – this is comedy timing at a whole different level.

Slapstick uses the following structural elements:

  • Repetition. Why be pied once when you can be pied ten times? Repetition is used in slapstick in the same way as it is in verbal comedy, as a callback to an earlier joke or story. A famous slapstick example of repetition is Kevin in the movie Home Alone, who re-enacts scenes he’s seen on TV.
  •  Inversion. Subversion and topsy-turviness have great parts to play in slapstick, where robbers chase cops and kids best adults. ‘The mighty fallen’ is another great theme: a fully mitred bishop landing in a pond is more amusing than an ordinary person falling in, for example.
  • Anticipation. There’s suspense leading up to the action, which the audience predicts is coming, followed by the release of laughter afterwards. The joy of ‘when?’ and ‘how? rather than ‘if’ is one of the comfortingly predictable things about slapstick.
  • Escalation. Because of course, every action has a knock-on action, which continues to build, taking the audience along on a wave of hilarity and suspense. Nothing is ever allowed to fizzle out in a slapstick routine, but instead, always comes to a crazy conclusion.
  • Timing. This is even more important with slapstick than in any other type of comedy, and was crafted into a fine art in the days of silent movies. You wouldn’t want that house landing on you or for the train to actually arrive…

How is slapstick comedy different from physical comedy?

Physical comedy refers to any type of comedy where the humour comes from physicality rather than language. This could also include mime, clowning and facial expressions (take a bow, Rowan Atkinson). Slapstick is a sub-genre of physical comedy with usually more than a hint of violence. It can have a cartoonish feel in its comedic exaggeration.

Great slapstick comedy examples

There are lots of great slapstick examples from the early days of cinema. Pre-talkies, action was everything, so great physical comedians like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin found their home on the silver screen. Slapstick developed to include great acts such as Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the Keystone Cops movies. With very little in the way of trickery open to them, these stars did everything the hard way.

Physical comedy on screen was an extension of variety (vaudeville in the US) theatre, where a lot of the comedy was based on 19th-century-era clowning. Meanwhile, as Sir Billy Connolly explains, stand-up comedy was developing separately via the ‘front of cloth’ comedians, who entertained the audience while the next act was being prepared behind the curtains.

Even when filmmaking continued to develop, we never lost our delight in seeing fellow humans in mild peril. Comic actors Jackie Chan, Norman Wisdom, Lucille Ball, Lily Tomlin, Benny Hill all made their names as physical comedians across a variety of media. In the cinema, the Airplane films kept the physical gags coming thick and fast, as did Blazing SaddlesNaked Gun and the early Police Academy films.

What is modern slapstick comedy?

Modern slapstick is the natural evolution of the classic tradition. It’s still all pratfalls, violence and mess, but with the sensibilities of a more politically aware audience in mind. There’s also been the influence of the internet and DIY slapstick challenges: 2014’s Ice Bucket Challenge is an early example of this: slapstick by amateurs, following a time-honoured comedy motif.

Today, there are plenty of heirs to Keaton and Lloyd among the comedy community, from Jim Carrey to Tina Fey. In British comedy, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson brought the chaos and winces with The Young Ones and Bottom. Another duo, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, added a surreal edge to their physical humour. This clip from their comedy panel game show, Shooting Stars features a meticulously planned routine from their co-star, Angelos Epithemiou (Dan Renton Skinner).

Does slapstick still feature in live action movies? It does: try the Dumb & DumberJohnny English and Night at the Museum franchises, as well as the Scary Movie films and the three My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies. These are all popular films that use classic slapstick elements.

A new genre of physical comedy developed during the early noughties: reality comedy. Shows such as Jackass use stunts and dares to create behind-a-cushion viewing. Most definitely not for younger viewers, the action is frequently rude, crude and definitely comes with a ‘Don’t try this at home’ label. With a very real element of live danger, slapstick has come full circle.

Learn more about comedy writing and performance from the Maestro, Sir Billy Connolly. In his BBC Maestro comedy course, he covers topics as diverse as the history of stand-up, busting taboos and how to deal with hecklers.

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