Slaps that stick

From Shakespeare to Charlie Chaplin


Á la Charlie Chaplin, you get hit in the face by a cream pie and it slips and drips onto your fancy hired tuxedo. Everybody thinks it is funny and they laugh their butts off. Is this where the term, slapstick comes from? No, it is not. There is, quite an ironic twist to this term that describes one of the best known comedy genres in the world of entertainment.

The modern generic sense of the term slapstick, as an over the top, boisterous, farcical or absurd action to create comical situations, derives from the time of mute or silent movies towards the end of the 19th century.

Probably the most famous and iconic exponent of slapstick from that time is the London-born actor, screen writer, film director and producer Charlie Chaplin. But having made his debut in 1914 with the film Making a Living, he was actually a late comer to the world of movies and slapstick.

The man credited for the first pie-in-the-face scene on the movie screens was Ben Turpin, in a fight scene in the 1909 film Mr. Flip.

The first movie makers, of the late 19th century, never had colour or sound. They had to be very creative and innovative to grab the attention of their audiences and soon mastered the art of what was then called 'sight gags' for comedic effect.

It is not cleat exactly when these sight gags came to be called 'slapstick' but slipping on a banana skin or getting a pie in the face became a regular occurrence in this entertainment genre. The first use of the term itself in English dates back to 1896 to describe a school of comedy.

While the silent movies made the genre popular, it is ironic that the term originally derived from a theatre prop designed to produce exaggerated noise. It comes from a device originally called a batacchio or bataccio consisting of two pieces of wood or spades joined together at one end and dates back to the Renaissance theatres.

One actor could hit another actor with the bataccio without really harming him or her while creating an loud noise producing the illusion of one heck of a beating.

Slapstick, as a genre or school of comedy on its own, has largely died out but elements of it can often still be found in modern movies and stage productions.

Mostly however, it is now used as a looked-down-upon description of what is considered a lesser form of wit.

But some theatre historians ascribe loftier roots to slapstick comedy, claiming that as a genre, it dates back even before the Renaissance and was often part of church liturgical dramas during the Middle Ages. Beating the devil off stage was a stock comedy device in some otherwise serious religious plays.

Even the great Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, including The Comedy of Errors.

Being funny can be hard work and those who look down on slapstick should maybe consider the words of the famous Irish-born American actress -- and contemporary of the likes of Johan Wayne -- Maureen O’Hara,“Comedy is difficult, especially slapstick. The trick is to have fun while you are performing it.”

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