Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity. The term arises from a device developed during the broad, physical comedy style known as commedia dell’arte in 16th-century Italy.

The ‘batacchio’ or ‘bataccio’ (lit. ‘slap stick’) consists of two thin slats of wood, which make a ‘slap’ when striking another actor, with little force needed to make a loud—and comical—sound. The physical slap stick remains a key component of the plot in the traditional and popular ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet show. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest special effects.

Slapstick comedy’s history is measured in centuries. Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, such as in his play ‘The Comedy of Errors.’ In early 19th-century England, pantomime acquired its present form which includes slapstick comedy, while comedy routines also featured heavily in British music hall theater which became popular in the 1850s. In ‘Punch and Judy’ shows, which first appeared in England in 1662, a large slapstick is wielded by Punch against the other characters.

British comedians who honed their skills at pantomime and music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby, and Dan Leno. The influential English music hall comedian and theater impresario Fred Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue in the 1890s, and Chaplin and Laurel were among the young comedians who worked for him as part of ‘Fred Karno’s Army.’ Chaplin’s fifteen year music hall career inspired the comedy in all his later film work, especially as pantomimicry. In his biography Laurel stated, ‘Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie [Chaplin] and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it.’ American film producer Hal Roach described Fred Karno as ‘not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him.’

A slapstick scene from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film ‘His New Job.’ Chaplin started his film career as a physical comedian, and his later work continued to contain elements of slapstick.
Building on its later popularity in the 19th and early 20th-century ethnic routines of the American vaudeville house, the style was explored extensively during the ‘golden era’ of black and white, silent movies directed by figures Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and featuring such notables as Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Keystone Cops, The Three Stooges, and Chespirito. Silent slapstick comedy was also popular in early French films and included films by Max Linder, Charles Prince, and Sarah Duhamel.

Slapstick also became a common element in animated features starting in the 1930; examples include Disney’s ‘Goofy’ shorts, Walter Lantz’s ‘Woody Woodpecker,’ MGM’s ‘Tom and Jerry,’ the unrelated Tom and Jerry cartoons of Van Beuren Studios, Warner Bros. ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Merrie Melodies,’ MGM’s ‘Barney Bear,’ and Tex Avery’s ‘Screwy Squirrel.’ In some cases, such as MGM’s ‘Tom and Jerry,’ the slapstick elements mostly came from violence by the characters, while in others it was mostly due to mishaps.

Slapstick continues to maintain a presence in modern comedy that draws upon its lineage, running in film from Buster Keaton and Louis de Funès to Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks to the television and film series ‘Jackass’ and comedy movies by the Farrelly Brothers, and in live performance from Weber and Fields to Jackie Gleason to Rowan Atkinson. In England, slapstick was a main element of the Monty Python comedy troupe and in television series such as ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘The Benny Hill Show.’


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