Slapstick

Watching two people pretend to wrestle and brawl has always struck other people as a laugh riot. As Will Rogers once said, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.” In early Greek and Roman comedies by Plautus and Aristophanes, a surefire audience-pleaser was any scene where a slave got to beat up his master. To make the scene even funnier, and to ensure the paying audience members sitting in the back row got their full enjoyment (there were no microphones or closed-circuit TVs in those days), the players used slapsticks. These were long wooden bats made of two slats that “slapped” together whenever the bat struck an object, like a master's noodle or his backside.

FUN FACT

Not Quite Himself

Did you know that Charlie Chaplin once entered a “Charlie Chaplin Look-alike Contest” held in Monaco and won third place?

Slapstick: 1. two wooden slats that are slapped together to make the sound of something striking something else; 2. silly, wild goofiness

FUN FACT

World's Oldest Joke

The world's oldest written joke is written on a dried clay tablet over 3,000 years old! The tablet (along with more than 25,000 other tablets) was discovered by British archeologists in the 1850s as they unearthed the forgotten library of Ashurbanipal, king of ancient Assyria.

The tablet tells the humorous story of a boy being reprimanded by his father for not attending school. And like all good stories, it begins with a joke that reads, roughly translated:

Father: What are you doing?

Son: Nothing.

Father: Well, don't do it around here.

Although the clay tablets were collected for His Highness in the first millennium B.C., the stories that many of them tell are much older. Ashurbanipal's language (Sumerian) was spoken long before 2500 B.C., so who knows how old the joke really is!

Comedians continued to use the noisy props up through the early part of the 20th century. Nowadays, the term slapstick refers to silly, knockabout, wild-and-crazy goofiness.

The Oldest Joke?

No one knows exactly who said the world's first joke or when, though it was probably a sight gag: Uglug the caveman ran into a mastodon or stepped in some dinosaur doo-doo while pursuing dinner, then watched his friends fall out of the trees with whoops of laughter. (The one friend who didn't fall out of the tree was the world's first critic.) By repeating his goof, practicing his timing, and packing up a portable supply of dino dung, Uglug might have performed his jokes for other villages and cave communities, thus creating the world's first road show.

Sight gag: a joke that you need to see (like someone slipping on a banana peel) and usually has no words

Dilemma: a tough problem or sticky situation

According to the Jewish and Christian traditions, the first comic was actually God! In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates the first man out of the clay, or dust, of the earth. The first man is named Adam. The Hebrew word for dirt or ground is adamah. In other words, the first guy was known as Dusty.

Don't believe it? O-pun up Genesis and read it.

De-Laughs in Dilemma

A dilemma is a tough problem or a sticky situation. Physical funny man Bill Irwin, featured on the “Don't Worry, Be Happy” video, once said that “The heart of clowning is how to get yourself into a dilemma.” Once in a problem, an audience loves watching how a clown or comedian will get themselves out — whether it's Laurel and Hardy pushing a heavy piano up a long flight of stairs or Pee-Wee Herman doing his Big Shoe Dance to calm an angry motorcycle gang.

FUN FACT

Dumb Instinct

When filming the hit comedy Dumb and Dumber, actor Jim Carrey changed the ending of the story. In the last scene, a busload of beautiful bikini models stop and ask for directions. The two dumb heroes, Harry and Lloyd, were supposed to board the bus, join the girls, and live happily ever after. But Carrey said that his character Lloyd was just too dumb to get on the bus. In fact, Carrey refused to act the scene as written; he would only let it be filmed with Lloyd and Harry walking away from the bus as it drives off.

Carrey proved to be right. The scene is much funnier! Lloyd (and Harry) are too stupid to realize they can join the pretty girls. The final scene of Dumb and Dumber is now a comedy classic. Carrey's lesson to all aspiring comedians? Trust your instincts!

Rosie's Rule: “Mix It Up”

Rosie O'donnell once gave a clue to comedy on the air. She explained to her television show audience how she teaches her son Parker the funny business: “Take two things that you normally don't see together, and put them together.” Little kids begin with silly starters like, “Did you ever see a duck dancing? Did you ever see a pig drive a truck?” But Rosie's Rule applies to big kids, too. That's how comedians get ideas for gags and jokes. Notice all the successful comedies that follow the same rule:

Mix an overweight, nerdy professor and a sexy, handsome guy and you get: The Nutty Professor

A loud, bossy Las Vegas lounge singer and a convent of quiet nuns: Sister Act

A super-muscly, macho tough-guy and a classroom of 5-year olds: Kindergarten Cop

A lawyer who always has to tell the truth: Liar, Liar

Can't Do It!

The answer to each of these riddles is a compound word. Circle each answer as you find it in the letter grid, then write the word on the line next to each riddle. You get one hint!

FAN FACT

Double Definitions

Sometimes the same word means different things to different people. In an interview, Tom Stoppard, the writer of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love,was asked what his next play was about.

“It's about to make a lot of money,” Stoppard replied.

A Clue to Be Clueless

The late Steve Allen — comic, author, and television personality — said that most humor is based on confusion. “Some of the best jokes are the result of two people not understanding each other.” For example, this gag:

Grandpa: My brand new hearing aid is the most expensive you can buy. It cost me over four thousand dollars.

Alex: What kind is it?

Grandpa: A quarter to four.

Another example of comic confusion occurs when people don't tell you everything at once:

Liz: Was I ever a dummy! I threw the baby's blanket out the window.

Shirley: I hope the baby doesn't catch pneumonia.

Liz: Oh, don't worry. The baby was still in the blanket.

Allen advises young comics to practice their joke-writing skills by seeing how many funny lines they can think up that would come after this sentence:

“Do you know where I can get a sandwich?”

How You Say…

Listen to Robin Williams in any of his films, or even in a TV interview. He uses a different voice or accent every other sentence. And when he's not talking, he's buzzing, hissing, booming, or creaking. We're not laughing at his words. We're laughing at his vocal expression. In other words, what can make a joke funny is not what you say, but how you say it.

When you tell a joke next time, use a different voice for each line. If there are different people (or animals) in your joke, give them each a unique way of speaking.

Need inspiration? Listen to Martin Short as the weird Franck Eggelhoffer in Steve Martin's Father of the Bride. Listen to Bronson Pinchot as he steals the scene in Beverly Hills Cop with his crazy accent. Then there's always the growling, shrieking Bobcat Goldthwait in the Police Academy movies, or his partner Michael Winslow who can make any sound in the known universe using just his mouth. There's the squawking Gilbert Godfrey and the demented Judy Tenuta, and the tight-lipped French Stewart on Third Rock from the Sun and grown-up Adam Sandler whining like a goofy little twerp.

Actors who are talented at creating different voices sometimes end up in animated films or TV cartoons. Next time you have a cartoon on the tube, check out the names listed under the heading “Voices.” You may be surprised.

FUN FACT

Comic Relief

The first Comic Relief, a benefit to raise awareness and money for America's homeless, was televised on March 29, 1986. It was the first benefit featuring only comedians and was hosted by that great comic triple threat: Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal. In the show's four and one-half hours jokesters from A to Z (Louis Anderson to Bob Zmuda) raised $2,500,000. That averages out to more than $9,000 per minute!

Straight man/Straight woman: the member of a comedy team who sets up the jokes and lets the gag player deliver the punch line

Going Straight for the Laughs

One of the most valuable players in a comedy team or a funny movie or television sitcom is the straight man or straight woman. The straight player seldom gets to say the big jokes or do the goofy stunts. The straight player sets up the jokes and lets the gag player deliver the punch line. The straight player stands calmly by and watches the other comic get wild and crazy. For instance, in a silly exchange like the following:

“I haven't slept for three days.”

“Why not?”

“I only sleep at night.”

The straight player is the one who says “Why not?”

COMIC BIOGRAPHY

Groucho Marx, the cigar-chewing, bushy-eyebrowed, crouch-walking leader of the nutty Marx Brothers, once confided to a director his surefire method for testing whether a joke was funny or not. Groucho would tell the joke to Zeppo, the quiet brother who played the romantic roles in their films. “If Zeppo likes it,” said Groucho, “we throw it out!”

At first glance this may look like a boring, thankless chore. But an audience takes its cue from the straight player. When the straight man or woman laughs, gets angry, or reacts in just the right way to a joke, the audience will laugh twice — once at the joke and once at the straight player's reaction. The straight player makes the comic look even funnier.

Comedy teams always have one straight player. Dean Martin was the straight man to Jerry Lewis, Dan Rowan to Dick Martin, Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel, David Spade to Chris Farley, and Gracie Allen to George Burns.

It takes talent and practice to be a comedian. It takes even more skill to play it straight!

Step on It! (Running Gags)

What is a running gag? It is a joke or funny stunt that happens several times throughout a single movie, scene, or TV show. A classic example is the poor Chihuahua that keeps getting sat on during Airplane Two: The Sequel. You never know when that pitiful pooch is going to turn up next, or who's going to sit on it.

Another hilarious example comes from Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein. When we first meet the Frankenstein family's creepy housekeeper, Frau Blucher, the sound of her name alone is enough to frighten the horses. Even toward the end of the movie, when someone deep in the castle's underground lab says “Frau Blucher,” the horses' muffled braying can be heard in the courtyard far outside!

FUN FACT

Famous Straight Men and Women

Gale Gordon in The Lucy Show

Richard Deacon in The Dick Van Dyke Show

Judd Hirsch in Taxi

Isabel Sanford in The Jeffersons

Dave Foley in News Radio

Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

David Spade in Just Shoot Me

Running gag: a joke or stunt that happens several times in a movie, play, TV show, or standup routine

Comic motion: actions that are funny, like someone climbing out of a swimming pool with all her clothes on.

A running gag can be wordless, simply a physical stunt. A favorite running joke of movie fans is Inspector Clouseau's pal Kato in the Pink Panther comedies. The dimwitted Inspector has ordered Kato to attack him at any time without warning, day or night. Clouseau thinks that this will help keep him alert, on his toes, and sharpen his skills as a supersleuth. Throughout the films then, Kato will suddenly appear from nowhere, leap at the Inspector, and start a huge knockdown battle royale.

COMIC BIOGRAPHY

Getting His Feet Wet

Mack Sennett was one of old-time Hollywood's busiest comedy directors. Sennett had a big hand in creating the kooky Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character, and most of the films of Laurel and Hardy. Sennett also invented three major cliches of American comedy:

  • A wacky chase scene (with cars, trains, motorcycles, etc.)

  • A pie-throwing fight

  • A beautiful girl loved by the crazy comedian

  • After Sennett became famous, a pesky young actor asked him what it took to be a good comedian. “You have to understand comic motion,” explained Sennett.

    “That's simple,” said the fellow. “You mean like making funny faces?”

    Suddenly, Sennett pushed the actor into a nearby swimming pool. When the wet and gasping fellow climbed out, Sennett said, “That's comic motion.”

    COMIC BIOGRAPHY

    What a Ball!

    Lucille Ball was the Queen of Comedy. Known for her zany physical humor, goofball costumes, and trademark flaming red hair and “ambulance-siren” wail, she starred in the number one TV show of the 1950s. Lucy was also one of the hardest working comedians on stage,TV, and films. Look at her output (and that doesn't even include the countless hours she spent rehearsing her perfectly timed comic shtick, songs, and dance routines):

    124 radio episodes of My Favorite Husband

    179 TV episodes of I Love Lucy

    13 original Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour programs

    156 episodes of The Lucy Show

    149 episodes of Here's Lucy and 79 movies!

    The TV comedy Seinfeld was full of running gags. A gag at the beginning of the show will turn up unexpectedly in the middle of the story or right before the closing credits.

    Other running gags to watch for:

    The woman with her pet dogs in A Fish Called Wanda.

    The literal “running” gag of the jogging Buster Keaton in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.

    The rubber hand with the ring (and the word “Munson”) in Kingpin.

    The plate glass window in What's Up, Doc?

    The mysterious apartment in The Ladies' Man.

    All of Ferris's well-wishers in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

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