Last updated
A slap stick Bic (instrument).jpg
A slap stick

Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy. [1] [2] Slapstick may involve both intentional violence and violence by mishap, often resulting from inept use of props such as saws and ladders. [3] [4]


The term arises from a device developed for use in the broad, physical comedy style known as commedia dell'arte in 16th-century Italy. The "slap stick" consists of two thin slats of wood, which make a "slap" when striking another actor, with little force needed to make a loud—and comical—sound. The physical slap stick remains a key component of the plot in the traditional and popular Punch and Judy puppet show. Other examples of slapstick humor include The Naked Gun and Mr. Bean.


The name "slapstick" originates from the Italian Batacchio or Bataccio – called the "slap stick" in English – a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in commedia dell'arte . When struck, the Batacchio produces a loud smacking noise, though it is only a little force that is transferred from the object to the person being struck. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing no damage and only very minor, if any, pain. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest special effects.

Early uses

Advertisement for Punch and Judy showing Punch with his slapstick (1910) Skamtbilden och dess historia i konsten (1910) (14578297507).jpg
Advertisement for Punch and Judy showing Punch with his slapstick (1910)

Slapstick comedy's history is measured in centuries. Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, such as in his play The Comedy of Errors .

In early 19th-century England, pantomime acquired its present form which includes slapstick comedy: its most famous performer, Joseph Grimaldi—the father of modern clowning—would partake in slapstick, with the Smithsonian stating he "fought himself in hilarious fisticuffs that had audiences rolling in the aisles". [5] Comedy routines also featured heavily in British music hall theatre which became popular in the 1850s. [6] [7]

In Punch and Judy shows, which first appeared in England on 9 May 1662, a large slapstick is wielded by Punch against the other characters. [8]

20th century fad

Use of the slapstick in public places was a fad in the early 20th century.

During the 1911 Veiled Prophet Parade in St. Louis, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, [9]

The slapstick, so long indispensable to low comedy, found a new use among the crowds . . . they used the slapstick to the extreme embarrassment of many women. The carnival spirit, for the most part tempered by high good humor, at times verged on rowdyism. Girls used a stick ripped with feathers to tickle the faces of young men, and they retaliated vigorously with the slapstick.

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press, New Jersey, said in 1914: [10]

Slapsticks are the latest "fun-making" fad for masque fetes. . . . Orders to stop the slapstick nuisance should be issued by the police and the Asbury Park carnival commissioners. Any device that cannot be operated or used without inflicting unmerited pain and injury should be excluded . . . .

Fred Karno

Fred Karno, music hall impresario and pioneer of slapstick comedy Fredkarno.jpg
Fred Karno, music hall impresario and pioneer of slapstick comedy

British comedians who honed their skills at pantomime and music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby, and Dan Leno. [11] [12] The influential English music hall comedian and theatre impresario Fred Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue in the 1890s, and Chaplin and Laurel were among the young comedians who worked for him as part of "Fred Karno's Army". [11] Chaplin's fifteen-year music hall career inspired the comedy in all his later film work, especially as pantomimicry. [13] In a biography of Karno, Laurel stated: "Fred Karno didn't teach Charlie [Chaplin] and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it". [14] American film producer Hal Roach described Karno as "not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him." [15]

In film and television

A slapstick scene from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film His New Job. Chaplin started his film career as a physical comedian, and his later work continued to contain elements of slapstick. Chaplin, Charlie (His New Job) 03.jpg
A slapstick scene from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film His New Job . Chaplin started his film career as a physical comedian, and his later work continued to contain elements of slapstick.

Building on its later popularity in the 19th and early 20th-century ethnic routines of the American Mack Twain house, the style was explored extensively during the "golden era" of black and white movies directed by Hal Roach and Mack Sennett that featured such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Three Stooges. Silent slapstick comedy was also popular in early French films and included films by Max Linder, Charles Prince, and Sarah Duhamel. [16]

Slapstick also became a common element in animated cartoons starting in the 1930; examples include Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts, Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker and The Beary Family, MGM's Tom and Jerry , the unrelated Tom and Jerry cartoons of Van Beuren Studios, Warner Bros. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies , MGM's Barney Bear , and Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel . Slapstick was later used in Japanese Tokusatsu TV Kamen Rider Drive , by Benny Hill in The Benny Hill Show in the UK, and in the US used in the three 1960s TV series, Gilligan's Island , Batman and The Flying Nun .

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Laurel and Hardy</span> British-American comedy duo

Laurel and Hardy were a British-American comedy duo act during the early Classical Hollywood era of American cinema, consisting of Englishman Stan Laurel (1890–1965) and American Oliver Hardy (1892–1957). Starting their career as a duo in the silent film era, they later successfully transitioned to "talkies". From the late 1920s to the mid-1950s, they were internationally famous for their slapstick comedy, with Laurel playing the clumsy, childlike friend to Hardy's pompous bully. Their signature theme song, known as "The Cuckoo Song", "Ku-Ku", or "The Dance of the Cuckoos" was heard over their films' opening credits, and became as emblematic of them as their bowler hats.

Throughout film, television, and radio, British comedy has become known for its consistently peculiar characters, plots, and settings, and has produced some of the most renowned comedians and characters in the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comedian</span> Person who seeks to entertain an audience, primarily by making them laugh

A comedian or comic is a person who seeks to entertain an audience by making them laugh. This might be through jokes or amusing situations, or acting foolish, or employing prop comedy. A comedian who addresses an audience directly is called a stand-up comedian.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fred Karno</span> 19th and 20th-century British comedian, impresario and theatre manager

Frederick John Westcott, best known by his stage name Fred Karno, was an English theatre impresario of the British music hall. As a comedian of slapstick he is credited with popularising the custard-pie-in-the-face gag. During the 1890s, in order to circumvent stage censorship, Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue.

Physical comedy Comedy genre

Physical comedy is a form of comedy focused on manipulation of the body for a humorous effect. It can include slapstick, clowning, mime, physical stunts, or making funny faces.

A double act is a form of comedy originating in the British music hall tradition, and American vaudeville, in which two comedians perform together as a single act. Pairings are typically long-term, in some cases for the artists' entire careers. Double acts perform on the stage, television and film.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stan Laurel</span> English actor (1890–1965)

Stan Laurel was an English comic actor, writer, and film director who was part of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. He appeared with his comedy partner Oliver Hardy in 107 short films, feature films, and cameo roles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Silent comedy</span> Genre of silent flim

Silent comedy is a style of film, related to but distinct from mime, invented to bring comedy into the medium of film in the silent film era (1900s–1920s) before a synchronized soundtrack which could include talking was technologically available for the majority of films. Silent comedy is still practiced, albeit much less frequently, and it has influenced comedy in modern media as well.

Mime artist Someone who uses mime as a theatrical medium or performance art

A mime artist, or simply mime, is a person who uses mime as a theatrical medium or as a performance art. Miming involves acting out a story through body motions, without the use of speech. In earlier times, in English, such a performer would typically be referred to as a mummer. Miming is distinguished from silent comedy, in which the artist is a character in a film or skit without sound.

American humor refers collectively to the conventions and common threads that tie together humor in the United States. It is often defined in comparison to the humor of another country – for example, how it is different from British humor and Canadian humor. It is, however, difficult to say what makes a particular type or subject of humor particularly American. Humor usually concerns aspects of American culture, and depends on the historical and current development of the country's culture. The extent to which an individual will personally find something humorous obviously depends on a host of absolute and relative variables, including, but not limited to geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, and context. People of different countries will therefore find different situations funny. Just as American culture has many aspects which differ from other nations, these cultural differences may be a barrier to how humor translates to other countries.

Comedic device refers to a kind of device used to make a statement more humorous. In layman's terms, it is what makes things funny.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comedy</span> Genre of dramatic works intended to be humorous

Comedy is a genre of fiction that consists of discourses or works intended to be humorous or amusing by inducing laughter, especially in theatre, film, stand-up comedy, television, radio, books, or any other entertainment medium. The term originated in ancient Greece: in Athenian democracy, the public opinion of voters was influenced by political satire performed by comic poets in theaters. The theatrical genre of Greek comedy can be described as a dramatic performance pitting two groups, ages, genders, or societies against each other in an amusing agon or conflict. Northrop Frye depicted these two opposing sides as a "Society of Youth" and a "Society of the Old". A revised view characterizes the essential agon of comedy as a struggle between a relatively powerless youth and the societal conventions posing obstacles to his hopes. In this struggle, the youth then becomes constrained by his lack of social authority, and is left with little choice but to resort to ruses which engender dramatic irony, which provokes laughter.

Frederick William Evans was a British music hall and silent film comedian, who became famous around the time of the First World War for portraying his character Pimple in more than 200 short movies. He was described as "second only in popularity to Chaplin in Britain at the height of his career," and as displaying "a proto-Pythonesque humour of the absurd." Critic Barry Anthony wrote that "in many ways the topical skits of Pimple have more in common with The Crazy Gang, Benny Hill, the Goons, Monty Python or topical sketch shows like French and Saunders and The Fast Show than with the classic Hollywood silent comedies."

Bert Tracey was a British silent film and talkie actor. He also directed one film, Boots! Boots!, in 1934 which marked the film debut of George Formby as an adult. Tracy was born on June 16, 1889, in Manchester, England. He acted in 47 silent films including The Kentucky Derby (1922) and Law or Loyalty (1926).

Fred Kitchen (entertainer)

Fred Kitchen was an English music hall star, comic and entertainer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Billie Ritchie</span> Scottish comedian

William Hill, known professionally as Billie Ritchie, was a Scottish comedian who first gained transatlantic fame as a performer for British music hall producer Fred Karno — thus, a full decade before Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin took a similar career path. Ritchie is best recalled today for the silent comedy shorts he made between 1914 and 1920 for director/producer Henry Lehrman's L-KO Kompany and Fox Film Sunshine Comedy unit.

American comedy films are comedy films produced in the United States. The genre is one of the oldest in American cinema; some of the first silent movies were comedies, as slapstick comedy often relies on visual depictions, without requiring sound. With the advent of sound in the late 1920s and 1930s, comedic dialogue rose in prominence in the work of film comedians such as W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. By the 1950s, the television industry had become serious competition for the movie industry. The 1960s saw an increasing number of broad, star-packed comedies. In the 1970s, black comedies were popular. Leading figures in the 1970s were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. One of the major developments of the 1990s was the re-emergence of the romantic comedy film. Another development was the increasing use of "gross-out humour".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Walter Groves</span> Comedian Walter Groves

Walter Groves (1856—1906) was a British actor, comedian, music hall artist, and writer of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Groves family</span>

The Groves family is a British theatre family which traces its roots to the Regency era. Its descendants include actors of the Victorian stage, the British Music Hall, Broadway theatre and motion pictures.


  1. "slapstick - definition of slapstick by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  2. "Slapstick Comedy - film, cinema". Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  3. King, Rob (2017). Hokum!: The Early Sound Slapstick Short and Depression-Era Mass Culture. Oakland, California: University of California Press. p. 197.
  4. "Slapstick comedy definition of Slapstick comedy in the Free Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  5. "The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2 March 2022.
  6. David Christopher (2002). British Culture: An Introduction. p. 74. Routledge,
  7. Jeffrey Richards (2014). The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England. I.B.Tauris,
  8. Miller, Judith (2017). Miller's Antiques Handbook & Price Guide 2018-2019. Hachette UK. p. 351.
  9. Marguerite Martyn , Great Crowds Lined Streets to See Pageant and Make Merry," October 4, 1911, image 11
  10. No headline, July 20, 1914, column 2
  11. 1 2 McCabe, John. "Comedy World of Stan Laurel". p. 143. London: Robson Books, 2005, First edition 1975
  12. "Enjoy Cumbria - Stan Laurel". BBC. Retrieved 2 January 2015
  13. St. Pierre, Paul (2009). Music Hall Mimesis in British Film, 1895-1960: On the Halls on the Screen. Associated University Press. p. 38.
  14. Burton, Alan (2000). Pimple, pranks & pratfalls: British film comedy before 1930. Flicks Books. p. 51.
  15. J. P. Gallagher (1971). "Fred Karno: master of mirth and tears". p. 165. Hale.
  16. Maggie Hennefeld "Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes", Columbia UP, 2018.