Let’s start this article by being honest with each other:
Both you and I have at least once been on a marathon of Youtube videos of people falling, tripping over things, smashing their heads on traffic signs, and overall — failing at moving around like a normal human being.
It’s obviously funny to millions of other twisted souls; otherwise, these videos wouldn’t be getting so many views.
Today, we will be discussing a type of broad comedy – slapstick humor, which relies on a similar premise:
Physical violence and injury = laughs from an audience.
You might be wondering how this can be funny, but slapstick comedians have been doing it for centuries!
In this article, we will talk about the origins of slapstick humor, why it’s so funny, and give you some examples of the most famous slapstick comedians.
What is Slapstick Humor?
Slapstick humor is a type of physical comedy that involves ridiculous physical activity, including even violence or injury. Slapstick comedy is all about actions, not words.
Although watching people get hurt may not sound all that funny, the unique approach of slapstick makes it very much so.
For example, have you ever noticed that while a cartoon character getting hurt is funny, seeing a human being get injured most often isn’t?
This difference is in the frame of mind. Slapstick humor focuses on the mishap itself (such as slipping and falling over objects) instead of the actual injury, making it funny instead of gruesome.
In other words: if it looks ridiculous rather than painful — it will be hilarious!
Related: What Are the Different Types of Humor? (+ Hilarious Examples)
How Did Slapstick Get Its Name?
The term “slapstick” (Italian: battacchio) comes from an early type of prop in Italian theatre consisting of two flat boards joined by a hinge. This prop was folded up and snapped against another actor’s body to create a sound effect similar to a slap.
How fitting that slapstick humor got its name from a ridiculous weapon?
And don’t worry, the club-like prop didn’t actually hurt the actors as it transferred very little force. Remember: only in slapstick, violence is funny and harmless!
Also, the sword’s handles were covered with leather and filled with lead at one end to make their blows sound more impactful. This led to the creation of loud noise when striking another actor or object on the stage.
These noises became known as slaps, which is where slapstick gets its name!
When Was Slapstick Comedy Invented?
Slapstick humor is considered one of the oldest forms of comedy. It goes as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome, where actors would slap each other with various objects (including fish!) to make audiences laugh.
These can only be considered very primitive beginnings of slapstick as a promising type of humor for years to come.
Slapstick comedy became popular in the 16th century, during the Italian Renaissance. It was a part of the Italian theatre know as “commedia dell’arte,” a popular theatrical show with masked actors, stock characters, and improvisation.
This type of humor became an integral part of the Italian theatre due to its massive popularity among audiences during that period.
Popularization in Modern Society
If we jump a few centuries, we can see that slapstick humor was popularized in English and American society during the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily through vaudeville and music-hall entertainment.
Soon, motion pictures came to life, providing even more opportunities for entertainment.
During this era, famous comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (among many others) started using this comedy style and became legendary for their performances.
Slapstick Humor Nowadays
Although diverse in both content and form, slapstick comedy is now mostly associated with cartoons, animated movies, and various types of live performances. It is also frequently used as comedic relief in video games.
As you can see, even though it is not as popular as it once was, slapstick humor continues to be popular among audiences around the world!
Why Is Slapstick Comedy Funny?
We can’t guarantee what makes slapstick humor funny for each individual person, but here are the most common reasons you may find it hilarious:
#1 – Contextual Anomaly
Slapstick humor depends on an unusual situation or event to make us laugh. For example, a clown falling into a mud puddle is funny because the context of walking as a basic activity makes it unexpected.
Some anthropologists actually suggest that it is not the fall itself that makes us laugh — it’s the things people do as they try not to fall.
After all, standing and walking are easy tasks. Someone struggling with them is unexpected and apparently hilarious.
Contextual anomaly is one reason why this type of comedy has stood the test of time for centuries. Well, that, and the fact that seeing someone fall over never gets old!
#2 – It’s All in Good Fun
The fact that this type of humor does not actually involve anyone getting hurt makes it even funnier. It’s all in good fun!
In slapstick, characters fall down, hit each other with objects and sounds, or get wet. But none of this is actually dangerous to the actors, so we are free to laugh and not worry about our empathy kicking in.
Additionally, executing a funny fall can often take a lot of skill, making the entire act even more impressive!
#3 – All is Fair in Slapstick
Whether you are a president or a random passenger on a train, weird and embarrassing things will happen to you in a slapstick act.
For more complicated reasons, humans naturally tend to enjoy watching people lose their dignity. The more powerful the person was before the incident, the funnier it is.
For example, who would you rather see get hit with a water balloon: an arrogant businessman or an unfortunate orphan?
The contrast between their former state of power and their current embarrassment is hilarious to most of us.
Additionally, let’s say that the victim is a bad person in your eyes. You will see the mishap as a sort of punishment for their actions and get a sense that justice was served. This instantly makes you feel better and ready to laugh your heart out!
Related: Can Humor Be a Defense Mechanism? (What Science Has to Say)
#4 – It’s Convincing
Let’s imagine a typical slapstick humor situation:
One character would pretend he was blind while another pretended to fix his glasses. However, in this case, the first character would actually poke the eye of his friend instead.
The audience loved these types of jokes because they were unpredictable (you never knew when something terrible was going to happen). People thought the actors were so committed to their roles that they would actually get hurt.
It’s like watching a movie where you know what will happen, but at least it looks convincing enough (and always seems to end with someone getting shot or falling out of an airplane).
Famous Slapstick Comedians
#1 – Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin was an English slapstick comedian and actor who got his start on the Vaudeville stage in America during the early 1900s. With a career that spanned over 75 years, he is one of the most well-known slapsticks to date with fans worldwide!
His most iconic appearance as The Tramp came about by accident when a fellow co-star failed to show up for their comedic sketch. To fill time, Charlie got some old clothes from the wardrobe and improvised being a hobo, which became so popular with audiences that it made him famous overnight.
In addition to slapstick comedy, Chaplin also composed dozens of beautiful pieces throughout his lifetime, including Smile, used in the 1940 Disney film called Modern Times.
- The Gold Rush;
- Modern Times;
- The Kid;
- City Lights;
- The Circus.
#2 – Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey is a slapstick comedian and actor who began performing slapstick in the early 1980s when he was just 18 years old. He got his slapstick comedy acting start in various low-budget films and television shows before making it big in Hollywood.
Although he is known for his work as both a slapstick comedian and dramatic actor, Carrey has shown an exceptional gift for slapstick comedy.
He has appeared in many slapstick movies, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb & Dumber. Both characters exhibit slapsticks personas as chaotic morons who often find themselves getting into sticky situations from their misunderstandings.
- Dumb & Dumber;
- The Mask;
- Ace Ventura: Pet Detective;
- Me, Myself & Irene;
- Fun with Dick and Jane.
#3 – Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton was an American slapstick comedian and actor who began his slapstick career very early. He starred in various slapstick films, including The General, considered one of the best slapsticks ever made.
In addition to performing, Buster also had a very successful film production company called Buster Keaton Studios, where he produced over 35 short and full-length slapsticks throughout his lifetime.
Unfortunately, many of these movies were lost or destroyed during later years, but thankfully, some still remain today.
His nickname was The Great Stone Face, as he was a specialist in deadpan comedy. We have written an in-depth guide covering this type of humor, so make sure to check it out!
Related: What is Dry Humor? – The Ultimate Guide to Deadpan Comedy
- Sherlock Jr;
- The General;
- The Cameraman;
- Our Hospitality;
- Seven Chances.
#4 – Rowan Atkinson
Rowan Atkinson is a British comedian who is often regarded as one of the funniest people alive. His slapstick comedy skills enjoyed unprecedented success, as he went on to create his most famous slapstick character Mr. Bean, which is now an important part of British culture!
Of course, it has to be noted that Rowan Atkinson is not exclusively a slapstick comedian but rather an actor who enjoys performing in many different comedic roles.
However, his role as Mr. Bean propelled him into becoming one of the better-known comedians worldwide.
Notable Movies & Series
- Mr. Bean;
- Johnny English;
- Four Weddings and a Funeral;
- Rat Race.
#5 – The Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers were slapstick comedians and actors who got their start together as a slapstick group throughout vaudeville.
Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo first appeared on Broadway with the play I’ll Say She Is, which only had four performances before closing. The show was successful enough to get them hired by various slapstick producers such as Al Christie.
- Duck Soup;
- Animal Crackers;
- A Day at the Races;
- A Night at the Opera;
- Horse Feathers.
Now, let’s hear it from you:
Are you a fan of slapstick humor? If so, who is your favorite slapstick comedian?
Let us know in the comments below!