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Slapstick Comedy - A second-by-second breakdown
If you've heard of slapstick, raise your hand.
For those of you that raised their hand because they have great musical taste and have heard of the band Slapstick, awesome. Sit back down, dudes, we'll talk after the show.
If the rest of you raised your hands because you know it as a form of comedy, shout out the first name that comes to mind.
Okay. Alright. I heard Jim Carrey, I heard The Three Stooges, I heard Looney Tunes. Great. Those are all great examples. Now, I want you all to answer honestly to this next question -
Have you ever acted like you'd grown out of that style of comedy, or thought of it as low-brow?
Ok, a lot of hands went back up. Now let me enlighten you.
The conventional definition of slapstick comedy is one that is overtly physical. Much of the humor relies on a reaction to a physical stimulus, like a smack in the head. Many disregard it because of its physicality, as if comedy is something that should be a purely mental thing. Now, I can agree with the mentality of comedy to a point, but there comes a time when you just have to admire the timing and set up that takes, for example, a slug in the gut from violent outburst to comedy gold. How is this possible?
Well, how about I break it down for everybody?
In a lot of slapstick, the set-up is just as important as the act itself meant to deliver the yuks. In my example above, I talked about a punch in the gut. Let's use Moe and Curly from The Three Stooges for this example. Curly is a funny character from the start - he's dopey, boisterous, and always has the exact wrong thing to say. Moe is a classic foil - he's just the opposite to Curly with his abrasive attitude, his no-nonsense way of doing things, his desire for money, and over-willingness to knock some sense into those who cross him, namely Larry and Curly.
Now, if we stripped those traits from Moe and Curly before Moe punches him, it's just a random act of violence. A middle-aged man with an ugly haircut just slugged a middle-aged bald guy. He grunted in pain, falling to his knees and gasping for breath. Ugly haircut stands over baldy, yelling at him for screwing something up. Before we know it, the scene has gone from Howard, Howard & Fine to Lenny and George. Yikes.
Now, we'll step it up a notch. Let's mix in the physicality and the many years of training, learning how to fake taking a hit for maximum comic effect. As the hit comes, Curly intentionally over-corrects, arching his back to its most extreme, shooting his arms forward, hands splayed, and making a sound that no normal person would make - say his trademark yowl. On the rebound, he rights himself, gets in Moe's face, and wipes his hands across his own face while shouting “Woob woob woob woob woob!”
Okay, some people might still find this a tad unsettling. But let's amp the situation a bit - we don't know why Moe is hitting Curly, we just know that he hits him out of nowhere. With just a minute of set-up, we can reveal that Curly just cost Moe a bunch of money for flubbing a construction job for the fifth time in a row, or more importantly, lost his chances with a cute lady. This also gives Moe a chance to add in a snappy one-liner as a response to whatever Curly had to say in his defense to the set-up here as well. The classic "Oh, a wise guy?" retort is a popular go-to battle cry.
Don't forget that the way Moe chooses to deliver the punch is important as well. He could just as easily toss himself into his punch and cover up the impact (and the joke) from the camera. He could shift it to a shot in the jaw, or the arm. But no, he throws it right into the comically-large gut of Curly. It's the best choice - the visual of Moe's small hand running into Curly’s big paunch is great, only matched by the over-the-top reaction of Curly, who acts like he just got hit by a wrecking ball. Everything comes together in under a minute for a classic moment of hilarity that we remember forever.
Slapstick isn't a haphazard act. It's a dance, something that takes advantage of natural human physicality and uses it to make people roll over in the aisles. Next time you check out an old Charlie Chaplin flick, or something as recent as a Jim Carrey movie, try to think about this article. If you can stop your sides from hurting, that is.
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