What is slapstick comedy? Is it the same thing as physical comedy? And where does the name come from? We will be answering all of these questions, plus taking a trip through the history and evolution of slapstick, and looking at a number of great slapstick comedy examples from classic and modern movies. First, let’s get started with a slapstick definition.

Slapstick comedy techniques

Slapstick comedy meaning

There is a bit of debate over whether or not the terms ‘slapstick comedy’ and ‘physical comedy’ are synonymous. Some use the terms interchangeably. Others suggest that slapstick is the most exaggerated form of physical comedy.

Others still refer to physical comedy as a broader umbrella term that slapstick falls underneath. Regardless of how you align the terms, if you know what physical comedy is, you are most of the way to understanding slapstick humour as well.

SLAPSTICK COMEDY DEFINITION

What is slapstick comedy?

Slapstick comedy is derived from intentional or accidental physical feats performed with props or the human body alone. Slapstick comedy techniques can result in violence, awe, pain, confusion, or general trouble, usually in a lighthearted context. The spectrum of slapstick comedy can be quite wide. Slapstick comedy is NOT humor derived from dialogue, sound effects, or non-physical visuals.

Slapstick Icons:

  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Buster Keaton
  • Harold Lloyd
  • The Three Stooges
  • Jacques Tati
  • Jerry Lewis
  • Woody Allen
  • Mel Brooks
  • Jackie Chan
  • Jim Carrey

Let’s take a quick look back to the beginning of the history of slapstick comedy. The term ‘slapstick’ comes from a simple wooden device used in theatrical performances since the 1500s known as a ‘slap stick.’

A literal slap stick

The history of slapstick comedy  •  A literal slap stick

This device was used primarily in comedy plays and puppet shows. The two slats of wood on a slap stick produce a loud noise when slapped together. This proved effective at projecting sound with minimal effort and in punctuating comedic beats.

Classic slapstick comedy

The golden age of slapstick

The first accounts of slapstick date all the way back to the 16th century, long before the advent of the movie camera. Slapstick humor was a mainstay in theater productions and in vaudeville, so it was only natural that slapstick comedy would prove popular in motion pictures as well. Many of early cinema’s big stars came from vaudeville backgrounds.

The silent film era was dominated by slapstick comedy movies. Many of the silent eras most popular performers were comedians in this vein. Perhaps the most well-known still to this day is Charlie Chaplin who starred in and directed more than 70 films throughout his career, often playing his most famous character, the Tramp. The following video essay explores his life and career in great detail.

Oldschool slapstick comedy movies  •  The work of Charlie Chaplin

Another massively influential figure of the silent film era was Buster Keaton. The slapstick comedy examples in Keaton’s films frequently pushed the boundaries of what was physically possible. An element of danger played an important role in Keaton’s slapstick movies. Much of the humor and excitement of Keaton’s performances stems from how dangerous and death-defying his stunts were.

Fandor analyzes Buster Keaton’s work

Though Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the two biggest slapstick stars of the silent film era, they were far from being the only ones. Countless performers explored the slapstick arena in the early days of film such as Harold Lloyd, Larry Semon, Laurel & Hardy, and Harry Langdon, alongside plenty of others. Many of the best slapstick comedies emerged from the silent era.

The advent of sound didn’t erase slapstick comedy movies altogether but it did lead to a decline in the prominence of slapstick in the following decades. Luckily, slapstick proved resilient.

Slapstick Today

Modern slapstick comedy is alive

While no longer the dominant genre it once was, slapstick humour still finds plenty of love in the hands of the right filmmakers. These days, many films incorporate elements of slapstick without making it the primary genre.

Filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright have created some of the best slapstick comedies of the modern era while still leaving room to explore other facets of comedy in their well-rounded films.

Modern slapstick comedy in The Grand Budapest Hotel

They may not focus on slapstick comedy examples solely, but slapstick does play an important role in their films. Here's an example breakdown of Edgar Wright's masterful visual comedy.

Every Frame a Painting analyzes the visual comedy of Edgar Wright

The films of the Zucker Brothers and of Mel Brooks also make excellent use of slapstick techniques in addition to non-physical sight gags and dialogue-delivered laughs.

Slapstick finds excellent usage in animated films as well as live-action. Animation might lack the human tangibility of dangerous live-action stunts, but the exaggeration possible in animated films leads to plenty of creative slapstick that would not be possible outside of animation.

What is slapstick comedy in animation?

While films and television shows built entirely around slapstick may have become far less common than in the early days of cinema, these projects do still exist. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character is an example of pure slapstick finding lasting success with modern audiences.

French auteur Jacques Tati built his entire career around a series of near-silent slapstick comedies. These are mostly centered around a recurring character named Monsieur Hulot, much in the same vein of Charlie Chaplin’s recurring Tramp character. Here's a closer look at the work Tati and his superb comedy.

Jacques Tati video essay from the Royal Ocean Film Society

One of the most successful and consistent practitioners of slapstick over the years has been none other than Jackie Chan. The martial arts of Jackie Chan provide a perfect fusion of seriously impressive fight scenes with silly humor. Slapstick is perfectly integrated with action through the majority of Chan’s incredible filmography.

Every Frame a Painting breaks down Jackie Chan’s action-comedy blend

Slapstick is alive and well in the world of modern filmmaking, even if it isn’t the dominant force that it once was. A case can certainly be made that slapstick often goes underutilized in many mainstream comedy films. More filmmakers tapping into the joys of physical humor could lead to a slapstick renaissance.

UP NEXT

What is Black Comedy?

Now that we have a solid understanding of slapstick, let’s keep the laughs and learning coming with an exploration of another comedy subgenre. We will break down what black comedy is and take a look at some of the best examples in cinema, coming up next.

Up Next: Black Comedy Explained →
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