Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies

By Alan Dale | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Comedy Is a Man in Trouble

I should have been a clown; it would have afforded me the widest range
of expression.

—Henry Miller

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, “slapstick” has been our name for popular, rather than literary, low physical comedy. The word derives from an implement—“the double paddles formerly used by circus clowns to beat each other. The loud crack of the two paddle blades as they crashed together could always be depended upon to produce the laughter and applause.” The term is now often used by itself as a pejorative, meaning “merely” low physical comedy, but in part because popular comedy and literary comedy are thought of as belonging to distinct audiences, separate occasions. This was not always the case. Aristophanes, for instance, combines slapstick with literary comedy, as does Shakespeare. And if you think that the slapstick of Greek Old Comedy must have been more tasteful than what we get in the movies, read Ecclesiazusae, in which Pheidolos attempts to take a shit front and center, and you'll find that the Farrelly brothers, admirable as they are, did not invent this scene for Dumb & Dumber. The footnote may have been invisible, but it was there.

In the course of analyzing character type and story structure in Old Comedy, Kenneth McLeish, in his Theatre of Aristophanes, mentions every major male film clown I write about, and you want to keep that sense of continuity in mind when thinking about the topic. However, this book focuses on the first fifty years of slapstick in American movies, thus leaving out Aristophanes, but taking us well into the talkies. People tend to think of slapstick as something from our silent era, when it did reach a peak. Not just a heap—though men like Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and A1 Christie, who had studios specializing in short films of this genre, produced by one rough estimate forty thousand reels of comedy in the silent era—but a summit.

However, the silent era is not a lone peak. The silent comedians

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