What Is Slapstick Comedy? History, Examples, and Advice

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Photo Source: “Only Murders in the Building” Courtesy Hulu

Intellectually witty comedies tickle our funny bones, sure. But sometimes actors are asked to play straight to the gut—and sometimes that involves getting hit in the gut.

It’s time to feel the pain with some slapstick comedy.


What is slapstick comedy?

Slapstick comedy is a purposefully exaggerated form of performance that can portray a cartoonish reality. In the world of slapstick, characters are constantly getting hurt, mugging their faces, gesticulating their limbs—all with a snappy flexibility that can reset at a moment’s notice. Both the beauty and hilarity of slapstick comes from its visual nature; ideally, all an audience member needs to do is watch a performer to understand the gag.

Start with the idea of “physical comedy,” which is humor derived from the motion and manipulation of bodies in space. Then, crank that understanding past 100. Welcome to slapstick!

The history of slapstick comedy

Evil Dead 2

Bruce Campbell in “Evil Dead II” Courtesy Rosebud Releasing Corporation

The etymology of “slapstick” also clues us into one of the subgenre’s primary functions: People getting hurt!

Origins in theater

In the 16th-century Italian theatrical form known as “commedia dell’arte” (which translates to something like “comedy of the profession”), performers crafted broad tapestries using masks, character archetypes, and devices such as the “batacchio”—which translates to, you guessed it, “slapstick.” 

This instrument consisted of two wooden slats affixed together with a handle. The smaller of the slats would freely pivot on a fastened screw. When a performer would thwack another performer with the larger of the slats, this smaller slat would “slap” against the backside of the bigger one, creating a huge “thwacking” sound (and importantly, the transference of force caused little pain to the actor on the receiving end).

From that point on, slapstick comedy permeated the most influential theater movements. William Shakespeare (ever heard of him?) utilized the tool in many of his comedies and farces, from “The Comedy of Errors” to “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“Punch and Judy,” a popular British puppet show derived from “commedia dell’arte,” featured high-energy bouts of comedic chaos as early as the 17th century. In the 19th century, English performers kept tilling the seeds of clown and pantomime work, with architects such as Joseph Grimaldi crafting performances in which actors would, among other things, fight themselves for entertainment.

First days in film 

As movies became a dominant art form in the early 20th century, time-tested theater, music hall, and vaudeville performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello translated their skills to the screen. Filmmakers and audiences alike realized these physical feats of comedy played like gangbusters in silent movies. But even as sound became the norm, slapstick evolved with it thanks to live-action groups such as the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, as well as cartoons including “Mickey Mouse” and “Looney Tunes.”

The 20th century moved on, and film artists such as Peter Sellers, Mel Brooks, and the Zucker Brothers ensured slapstick comedy had a place at the multiplex, with influential works like the “Pink Panther” franchise, “Blazing Saddles,” and “Airplane!,” respectively. Slapstick started to merge into other genres, with Jackie Chan becoming a bonafide slapstick action-comedy star, while 1980s horror filmmakers Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi pushed their gore-soaked visions “Dead Alive” and “Evil Dead 2,” respectively, into what some call “splatstick.”

On the small screen, performers such as Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, and John Ritter gave us time-tested routines and punishing pratfalls, while sketch shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “In Living Color” closed the evolutionary loop by giving actors like Chevy Chase and Jim Carrey room to perform a more explicitly theatrical version of the form.

Modern-day slapstick 

Since the turn of the century, slapstick comedy has fallen somewhat out of favor as a main course, instead showing up as seasoning in film and TV comedy structured more around dialogue, chemistry, and improvisation. However, 21st-century film directors such as Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, and Ruben Östlund have crafted a more holistic approach to what slapstick cinema can look like, using their camera moves, edits, and production design to create tightly constructed machines of energy beyond their performances. On television, Tim Robinson recently found cultural cachet contorting his face, body, and voice into all kinds of exaggerated messes on Netflix’s “I Think You Should Leave.”

How to perform slapstick comedy

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin and John Candy in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

  • Commit hard: From Chaplin to Chan, slapstick performers never indicate how much fun their bits are. Instead, they commit to the difficulty and elevated stakes, communicating a life-or-death urgency even as their audiences guffaw. While your body and voice may be positioned in a kind of physical surreality, don’t sell out the emotional reality of your work.
  • Take physically focused classes: Classes focused on comedy performance are great for precision, active listening, and analysis of comedic scenes. But to feel confident as a slapstick performer, try taking classes centered around what your body can do. Dance, stage combat, yoga, clowning—this kind of study can give you understanding of one of the most important parts of your instrument. 
  • Trust your collaborators: While the best slapstick sequences can look completely accidental, in reality they are choreographed with intentionality and a focus on safety. Don’t kill yourself doing all of the work. Approach your choreography like a dance number. Practice playing “out of control” while staying in control. And most importantly, if you’re doing a bit that involves “hurting” a scene partner, more often than not they will do the hard work of selling the “pain,” and your job is to be a fulcrum of stability.

Examples of slapstick comedy

Charlie Chaplin: “Modern Times”

In “Modern Times,” Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character tries to keep up with society’s industrialization, yet he can’t help becoming another cog in the machine—literally.

Buster Keaton: “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

Throughout his career, Keaton put his body in what certainly looked like a ton of peril, all with that famous “stone face.” Here, he proves the housing market is all about location, location, location.

Lucille Ball: “I Love Lucy”

In one of the most celebrated TV comedies of all time, Ball runs the gamut of incredible slapstick set pieces. Here, a grape-stomping escapade turns into an all-out brawl.

Gene Wilder: “Young Frankenstein”

Working with comedy master Brooks, the great Wilder smushes his face, body, and voice into whatever it needs to be to physically convey the interior emotions and desires of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. 

Rowan Atkinson: “Rowan Atkinson Live!”

Best known for his misadventures as the silent fool Mr. Bean, comedy icon Atkinson’s physical work is inspirational, especially in this perfectly calibrated bit from a television special.

Jim Carrey: “Liar Liar”

Is this a take on Grimaldi’s classic self-torture routine or the simple pleasures of watching Carrey “kicking his own ass” in a bathroom? Either way, it’s slapstick to be studied. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman: “Along Came Polly”

In “Along Came Polly,” the late, great Hoffman gifted us with scene-stealing work of slapstick genius. It’s testament to one of the great dual gifts an actor can possess: self-awareness with no ego.

Melissa McCarthy: “Saturday Night Live”

Whenever celebrated physical comedian McCarthy appears on “SNL,” she puts her sketch comedy experience to use, pulling off fearless work in front of a live audience.

Leonardo DiCaprio: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

This clip is proof positive that you don’t need to be a comedy vet to pull off a great slapstick bit—all you need to do is commit. DiCaprio plays his descent into quaalude-driven madness with fervor and purpose, resulting in feverish hilarity.

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