Slapstick segues abstract play into narrative. Though plot is often the weakest part of slapstick films, that is their virtue. Too much plot would distract us from the more concise snap of the synapse that makes us laugh when Harold Lloyd, for example, dangles from a clock above a busy Los Angeles street in 1923’s Safety Last! or as Charlie Chaplin turns a passed-out drunk into a puppet (A Dog’s Life, 1918). Groucho and Harpo Marx do sidesplitting imitations as each other’s mirror, a routine famously reprised by Lucille Ball with Harpo himself. The genesis of physical humor in film is even embodied in Buster Keaton’s first name, synonymous in vaudeville with a “fall.”
Consider original play, the play of animals and infant humans—the giggly, noncompetitive frolic on offer to all life forms. If you make the leap of faith to a cerebral version of original play, then phenomena as disparate as dada, Anonymous, the Yes Men, Yippies, Andy Kaufman, and Burning Man become exemplars of disruptive play. These historic sparks take childlike playfulness—abstract, nonverbal, and physical—and introduce it into the grownup world of conflict and contest, oft mediated by language.
I should like to suggest that slapstick functions as a missing link, a bridge from the abstract fun an infant has in nonverbal playfulness, frolic, and laughter, to the grown-up playfulness that projects that fun into the narrative idiom. It’s not an easy concept, its paradox a bit like moving a piano across a narrow suspension bridge and running into a gorilla.
Read more in Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love: How Tricksters through History have Changed the World.
 Alan Dale, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 219.
 Mack Sennett was one of the first great studio heads. Known as the King of Comedy, his productions originated much of slapstick. He claimed that the only gag he really invented was pie throwing.
 James Agee, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” in James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism (New York: The Library of America, 2005), 16. The essay first appeared in the September 3, 1949, issue of LIFE magazine.