Read an Excerpt on Slapstick from “Tricking Power into Performing Acts of Love
Throw a stone at a pile of movies, and you’re going to hit one where slapstick has sneaked in under the tent flaps. Directors and actors with obvious influence include Wes Anderson, Jackie Chan, Bill Murray, Lucille Ball, Amy Poehler, Gilda Radner, Bea Lillie, Max Carol Burnett, Joan Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, Amy Sedaris, Peter Sellers, Chris Farley, Cary Grant, Pedro Almodóvar, Terry Gilliam, and George Roy Hill, just to name a few. Films such as M*A*S*H, Raising Arizona, Beetlejuice, Little Miss Sunshine, The Mask, Kingpin, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown all incorporate slapstick; again, this is but a small sampling. In the cases of Buster and the Tramp, you could get away with saying everyone’s been influenced; both are considered among the greatest film directors of all time.
I’ve shared examples that resonate for me and merit comment. They touch Trickster magic and inform the collective consciousness.
In the foreword to The Three Stooges Book of Scripts, comedian Whoopi Goldberg observes “I hear some people say that the Stooges’ comedy is violent, but their violence, if you can call it that, is fun and hysterically funny; sorta like an animated cartoon with real people.” And in this, she solves the seeming paradox between an acceleration of vaudeville and comedy’s flirting with the crude and a sacred reaching to the divinity of a demigod archetype. Cartoons and The Three Stooges aspire through so-called violence to reach the elasticity of fantasy, animation, and folklore, where the character suffers lethal attacks without dying, or is injured, but only for the few seconds it takes to get a laugh. Human beings cannot be archetypes, in this case Tricksters, but they can sure try and, in that trying, cast a light and take a buster. The universe sent us The Three Stooges because it was looking for volunteers to see how much screen violence real humans could endure. Thank you, Moe, Shemp, Larry, and Curly. The Three Stooges’ influence is as a resource, a mosh pit of a database: file under Physical Assault That Makes You Laugh. They did not summon the Trickster so much as provide spare parts for the trickster dance.
While our focus has been on the physical, and the Stooges rely on it the most, there is the playfulness that comes out of Marx Brothers dialogue, most notably Groucho’s. Groucho was physically agile, a fabulous and very funny dancer, but he is remembered more for his quips. Groucho’s and Mae West’s verbal slapstick had its own iconic, illogical logic and, in that, kinship to the way Buster Keaton redesigned the physical world with his own spatial illogical logic.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is just one example of how Trickster consciousness hovers over us. In William Goldman’s script and Paul Newman’s acting (as Butch), Groucho humor is channeled to both serve the narrative and refuse to serve the narrative. This comedic tragedy keeps us laughing all the way to the gallows. It recounts the saga of the end of the horseback bandit as a more modern form of law enforcement laid their tricks to waste. The law eventually nails these clever bandits, for whom the audience is rooting all the way.
Butch’s wisecracks unsettle. He jokes and philosophizes and raises the question of whether crime and love and life-and-death struggles need be taken seriously. Goldman plants the irrationality of play as acted out in slapstick into the more conventional form of the plot-based film.
Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid is trickster-like in his inability to form a durable love connection with Etta Place (actor Katharine Ross), while Butch looks on and never even finds a mate.
The deep value of Groucho’s verbal slapstick was not lost on Goldman. Newman’s lines are lifted straight out of his smart-aleck mind and deliver wisecracks that both move the plot forward and, without ever straying, nonetheless expose the boundary that would take the film into the nonsense of play and irrationality.
Just check out these Butch lines and imagine them being delivered by Groucho. When Sweetface, one of their pals, misdirects a posse looking for Butch and Sundance:
Butch Cassidy: I swear, if Sweetface told me that I rode out of town ten minutes ago, I’d believe him.
Butch: (to Sundance) Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.
When scouting out banks to rob:
Butch: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
Guard: People kept robbing it.
Butch: Small price to pay for beauty.
Sundance: No. Swimming isn’t important. What about the banks?
Butch: Very easy. Easy, ripe, and luscious.
Sundance: The banks or the women?
Butch: Well, once you get one you get the other.
During a scene where they are lost in the Bolivian desert:
Sundance: Which way?
Butch: It doesn’t matter. I don’t know where we’ve been, and I’ve just been there.
And to bring us full circle, from Duck Soup:
Chico: Hello? No, not yet. Alright, I’ll tell ‘im. Goodbye. Thank you. (Hangs up phone.) That was for you again.
Groucho: I wonder whatever became of me. I should have been back here a long time ago.
Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris, the screenplay writers of 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine, create a complex character in Lou, played by Rob Corddry. Lou animates Trickster energy as he vacillates between off-the-charts hedonism, punchline nihilism, and trickster-esque amorality. Yet through repeated humiliations—the dark slapstick of getting your ass kicked over and over again—he completes the Trickster cycle and refreshes his moral compass by choosing to stay in the time-traveled past and give life a second chance. But you’ll miss it if you blink: he exploits his knowledge of the future for financial gain, keeping the comedy comic in the stoner tradition and stopping short of any message of enlightenment.
For pure physical laughs, the sad-sack Buster Bluth character in the cable TV series Arrested Developmentcannot be beat. The pratfalls and physical gags prove that this form of playfulness done well has a timeless humor to it. After a seal bites off his left hand, slapstick ensues: first, with his prosthetic hook, he gashes his uncle when he attempts to give him a shoulder massage, then he goes on a rampage and with said hook destroys a living room. Later the gag evolves with a wide array of prosthetics, for example, a “Terminator” hand and another one that gets caught in an elevator door. His several allergies, military enlistment, need for frequent naps, unhealthy attachment to his mother, and immature jealousies add to the humor. His childish and socially awkward insecurity misses the mark of the mischievous trickster, but he performs the best slapstick the twenty-first century has yet to offer.
While slapstick can be featured in a narrative form, by itself it rarely makes a satirical or dramatic point. The Trickster demigod who inhabits slapstick will not allow it. In conversation with Gouverneur Morris, Charlie Chaplin defended “the form [The Kid] was taking, keying slapstick with sentiment.” Morris replied, “It won’t work. The form must be pure, either slapstick or drama; you cannot mix them, otherwise one element of your story will fail.”
Slapstick was eventually refined by the likes of Chaplin when it injected more sentimentality and pathos. But in its origin soup of amorality, Chaplin as Tramp is more of a cad and a prankster, his slapstick a chaotic and wild party of pranks, pratfalls, clobberings, and chases. Such cinematic moments are more to the pointless point. Expanding the two-reeler shorts to feature length and reifying the myth of the little guy against the big bad guy steered slapstick away from true trickster nature.
The transition from silent films to talkies coincided with Hollywood, in the interest of profit, glomming on to sentiment, stereotypical heroism, occasional satire, and convention. For slapstick, it was an awkward step taken at the expense of its artistic essence and playful potential. The Trickster and the slapstick artist both mock power but satirize it only in passing, which is not to say that slapstick doesn’t share some of satire’s ulterior motive in deposing power. Early Chaplin has that beauty. The Tramp is an amoral character who would just as soon prank the good guy as the bad. Witness his bad boy behavior as a frankfurter thief in A Dog’s Life, stealing from a working-class stiff, escaping from the pursuing cop, and avoiding arrest and debt. To the audience, it seems harmless enough, and we become endeared to this trickster more drawn to mischief than satire.
As great as The Great Dictator (1940) is, it’s a transition to conventional narrative where the slapstick, also great, is tacked on to the plot, not really woven into it. Its flaws do not detract from its cinematic achievement, but as far as furthering Trickster consciousness, it’s a frustrating cul-de-sac. The radio microphone that dances with Chaplin, the signature prank of pouring water into his ear and having it come out of his mouth, and even the jousting with the Mussolini-esque Jack Oakie (as Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria) comprise some of film’s most famous slapstick, but in these moments, as always, the gags are unrelated to Chaplin’s intended political satire and not really part of the narrative.
The virtue of early slapstick films was that flimsy plots were just excuses for gags. Chaplin courageously sought more substance, but the arithmetic just didn’t pencil out. Such plots cannot integrate gags, which become merely ornaments.
But there are redeeming features in the film where tricks quite shrewdly do serve the narrative. When the Barber realizes that he’s been mistaken for the Hitler character, Hynkel, he embraces the opportunity and makes a speech in favor of freedom and against fascism. Ta dum, baby! This trick serves as a blueprint for the kind of Yippie pranks the Yes Men would become known for in the late twentieth century. This is disruptive play at its finest, tricking power into performing acts of love. But Chaplin chose to stop short of “raising the political calamity of fascism to the level of nonsense” and instead dropped all humor and made a serious speech. Those were, in fact, serious times.
We admire Chaplin for making the broader point of (almost) never losing your sense of humor, especially during the dark onset of Nazism and World War II. And to return to the basics of satire, slapstick, and class struggle, Chaplin makes the cardinal point that it’s funnier to drop ice cream from a balcony onto a rich person than a poor one. Some claim that the comic trickster’s antiauthoritarianism is not political, but how can it not be?
Chaplin, and for that matter Keaton, also failed to deliver slapstick’s message into sound because their spoken voices were not as funny as Groucho’s, Chico’s, and ultimately Jerry Lewis’s. Chaplin confessed as much to Groucho Marx when he said, “I wish I could talk on screen the way you do.” So the torch was passed to new comics who safeguarded the flame of fun-ness, using Groucho’s illogical verbal slapstick as the cornerstone of the new era.
But just because slapstick’s full potential wasn’t realized in the plot-driven Great Dictator doesn’t mean it can’t be. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil does more than incorporate, it integrates slapstick with the narrative. Brazil is generally referred to as satire, but I believe that it takes satire to a whole other level; the film performs a slamming takedown of power. Brazil’s protagonist, Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, is a victim caught in an ever more menacing vortex of victimization; Chaplin as the Barber played a victim who wakes up to find himself in power.
When Lowry misses his bus as those exiting stampede him, it’s pure Chaplin. In this case, though, it’s not a piece of candy tossed in, it contributes to the portrait of Lowry as the emasculated victim of the state. He later hangs on to the front of a semitruck, slapstick as satire on the hero’s quest for love. The truck is being driven by Kim Greist as Jill Layton. Jill is the real-life version of Pryce’s fantasized dream girl, and instead of the yielding princess, she’s a hard-assed feminist resister of the state, and in no mood for Lowry’s romantic cravings. The slapstick of him clinging to the truck’s grille as it speeds away from and towards more danger fits the character and plot perfectly.
Unsurprisingly, in this dystopian world, Lowry works at a desk. Chaplin and Keaton would both applaud the scene where it moves back and forth through the wall as Lowry and the guy next door play tug-of-war—the one desk is supposed to serve two closet-sized offices. There is a nod to the scatology of the trickster when two government workers, through an act of sabotage, have the worst kind of sewage pumped into their sealed hazmat suits. And then there is a more modern act of slapstick violence performed on the face of Lowry’s mother, played by Katherine Helmond with dark comic brilliance, as she submits to multiple plastic surgeries, each bringing more bizarre results than the last, until she becomes a cartoonish version of herself.
Besides the generous helpings of classic slapstick, the film pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, as if Gilliam is signaling the strength of narrative and the weaving of slapstick into its fabric. Lowry, often from a distance, evokes in his gray suits and demeanor Jimmy Stewart. His manner of dress and his timid voice portray an everyman who is eventually aroused to heroism, as Stewart is in Vertigo or North by Northwest. And when he dreams of his romantic love, the soft focus put on Jill Layton as intoxicating lover reminds us of Hitchcock as well. Brazil actually achieves what Chaplin was reaching for in The Great Dictator: performing slapstick and making it work in service to a narrative that confronts power with physical hilarity. In this case, the politics are more radical, the script more sophisticated. Trickster writers Gilliam and Tom Stoppard mock film convention itself: the hero, in this case, is doomed.
Slapstick is a permanent fixture of storytelling. There are hundreds of examples, I’ve chosen these. An authentic expression of the human condition, slapstick ignites the playful spirit. K.J Dover offers a description of Aristophanes’s insolence, an impulse central to comedy. It correlates almost perfectly with the Trickster archetype and leads us to greater understanding of the political bent of Trickster: “Devaluation of gods, politicians, generals and intellectuals may be taken together with ready recourse to violence, uninhibited sexuality, frequent reference to excretion and restricted vulgarity of language, as different forms of the self-assertion of man against the unseen world, of the average man against superior authority, and of the individual against society.”
Though I made Brazil my strongest example of slapstick’s power to liberate, the film is a tragedy where the state wins and the hero suffers the most painful of defeats: he is punished with inflicted insanity, his utopia is only in his mind. To put together a vision of victory, of liberation, of the Play Society, Western culture makes essential contributions but, as controlled and interpreted by a white male patriarchy, just can’t do it and certainly can’t do it alone. The participation of women in the odyssey of the Trickster, the monumental achievements of African culture on the Atlantic coasts of the Americas, and the influence of the West African Trickster god Eshu, or Eshù Elégba offer some of the missing pieces that complete that vision.
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 Joan Howard Maurer and Norman Maurer, The Three Stooges Book of Scripts: Volume II (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1987), 9.
 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill (Los Angeles: Twentieth Century Fox, 1969), film.
 Hot Tub Time Machine, directed by Steve Pink (Los Angeles: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2010) film.
 Played by Tony Hale. Is the name “Buster” in homage to Keaton?
 Created by Mitchell Hurwitz, Arrested Development ran on Fox from 2003-2006, with additional seasons on Netflix, 2013, 2018, and 2019.
 Dale, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, 43.
 Siegel, Disruptive Play, 277-286.
 Dale, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, 54.
 Craig Brown, Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 314.
 Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam (Los Angeles: Embassy Pictures, 1985), film.
 The Greek playwright (c. 446-c.386 BCE) known as “The Father of Comedy.”
 K.J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1972), 41.
 “The names for Trickster god Eshu vary around the world: in Yorùbáland, Eshu is Èṣù-Elegba or Laolu-Ogiri Oko; Exu de Candomblé in Candomblé; Echú in Santería and Latin America; Legba in Haitian Vodou; Leba in Winti; Exu de Quimbanda in Quimbanda; Lubaniba in Palo Mayombe; and Exu in Latin America.” Wikipedia, s.v. “Eshu,” retrieved February 18, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eshu.