When was the last time you saw a great slapstick comedy? While the heyday of the slapstick film may be long past, it's still a comedic subgenre with something fun to offer.
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In this blog, learn where slapstick comedy is still used today, how it is defined, and how to use it in your own writing.
What is slapstick comedy?
Sometimes the terms "slapstick" and "physical comedy" are used interchangeably. Other times slapstick is meant to refer to a highly exaggerated method of physical comedy. Imagine a character slapping another character in the face with a fish in an over-the-top manner. That's slapstick comedy.
Why is it called slapstick?
Slapstick comedy got its name from the "slapstick," a wooden device comprised of two pieces of wood slapping together that had been used in theater performances since the 1500s. The device was often used to take the place of the noise of a performer being hit or struck.
Breakdown of slapstick comedy
The practice of slapstick comedy can be broken down into a couple of main categories, including:
Slapstick violence, where characters engage in acts of violence with one another (often a technique utilized by the Three Stooges)
Visual gags, which often involve a performer hitting, falling over, or struggling with an object or a person
The key to slapstick lies in exaggeration. Slapstick actions should be played to seem much bigger than they are. Sounds and scores can further exaggerate the comedic effect of slapstick action.
Just like with any other form of comedy, timing is essential. The slapstick joke must land at the right moment to be truly funny.
The Golden era of slapstick
The golden era of slapstick overlaps with the golden era of black and white film. Slapstick was a popular form of comedy in vaudeville shows and quickly found its way into silent pictures. The exaggerated nature of slapstick translated well to silent movies. Some notable slapstick film stars include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and Mabel Normand.
The introduction of sound to motion pictures didn't immediately erase slapstick comedy. However, slapstick did see a decline. Over the years, films have strived more and more towards realism, meaning the exaggerated nature of slapstick has waned in popularity.
Where do we find slapstick today?
In the 1960s, we continued to see slapstick in comedy shows like "The Flying Nun," and "Gilligan's Island." And everyone can recognize the use of slapstick in classic "Looney Tunes" cartoons!
Slapstick can be harder to pinpoint in the modern era. The 1990s featured slapstick films like "Home Alone," "Dumb and Dumber," and "Tommy Boy." Today you can find slapstick in animation like "The Simpsons" or "Family Guy." The difference between the slapstick of today versus the past is that today's slapstick is used very sparingly. You won't find entire movies where slapstick is the only form of comedy. You're more likely to find key moments of slapstick in modern comedies.
Writing a slapstick comedy means that you should be aware of the most successful comedies occurring today and have a keen understanding of slapstick comedies from the past. You want to blend your modern sensibilities with classic slapstick comedy.
How to Write Slapstick
The best way to learn how to write for a specific genre is to immerse yourself in that genre. Watch all the greats from the golden age of slapstick: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, etc. Also, watch and read screenplays of modern slapstick films.
Jim Carrey has utilized slapstick throughout his career, and his film "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" is a prime example. Check out the screenplay here.
The 1980 disaster movie parody "Airplane!" features a lot of great comedy and some pretty iconic slapstick moments. Check out the script here.
Well, that's slapstick for you! I hope this blog taught you something new about a subgenre of comedy that doesn't get too much attention today. Learning about and using slapstick can be fun to bring something new to your comedy writing. Happy writing!